21 August 2017

'Calder: Hypermobility' at the Whitney

Among my favorite artists, largely because his work is just so entertaining and . . . well, fun, is Alexander Calder, principally a sculptor—though that title too limiting to do him justice—who also worked many other forms.  He’s probably best known for his mobiles, an art form he invented and of which he surely created hundreds over his lifetime, and perhaps the huge public sculptures he dubbed “stabiles,” seen in many public plazas in cities all over the United States—including New York.  (There’s a stabile in front of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, appropriately entitled Le Guichet (The Box Office), 1963, that I love.  I often deliberately walk under this 1965 gift to New York City when going to or from the library, just for the fun of it.) 

I own a Calder lithograph that’s of the same iconography as the sculptor’s mobiles—the same color palette and the same blobby shapes.  It could, in fact, be seen as a study for a possible mobile (though I’m pretty sure that’s not what it was intended for).  The title, Magie Eolin (1972)—the nearest translation for which I can come up with is “magic of the wind”—might suggest that it was inspired by the wind-driven sculptures so beloved by both the artist himself and his fans.  I also have a faux-Calder mobile in my study.  My mother bought it as a gift for my father at one of the Washington museum shops, the National Gallery of Art or one of the Smithsonians, and they passed it on to me sometime after I moved into my present apartment—which has an extra room for my study/guest room.  It’s not an actual Calder, but it was clearly modeled after his work (and could almost pass for one of Calder’s mobiles . . . if you don’t look too closely).

Thus, when I read that the Whitney Museum of American Art, which two years ago opened a new building in the West Village in my cruising range, was planning an Alexander Calder exhibit, I knew I had to go over and see it.  I asked my friend Diana (who’s a Whitney member) if the artist was one in which she’s interested, and when she said he is, I suggested we meet sometime during the exhibit’s run to view it.  It took us a while to coordinate a date and time, but we finally met on Saturday evening, 12 August, and went to the Whitney to see Calder: Hypermobility, an exhibit of the sculptor’s mobiles, including both the ones run by little motors, which the artist created first and are rarely seen (and even more rarely set in motion) today, and the more familiar wind-activated mobiles.  

The show’s very small—I didn’t realize that from the write-ups: there are only 36 sculptures, all in one gallery.  Nonetheless, it was wonderful.  We actually spent about two hours in the Whitney’s eighth-floor Hurst Family Galleries and twice saw an art handler “activate” some of the mobiles.  (There’s a schedule for the museum staff to come up and make selected pieces move, either by turning on the motors Calder’s mechanized mobiles—the motors have all been restored and even up-dated so that the handlers can operate them with a remote—or spinning others by gloved hands or with long, padded sticks so visitors who are there at the time can see them move.)   Jay Sanders, Hypermobility’s curator, insisted that “movements and changes are integral to the work,” but the handlers only activate four pieces at a time, but each time they do different mobiles.  On Saturdays, they come once an hour on the hour, so we caught two activations.

Hypermobility, organized by Jay Sanders, Engell Speyer Family Curator and Curator of Performance, with Greta Hartenstein, senior curatorial assistant, and Melinda Lang, curatorial assistant, opened at the Whitney Museum on 9 June 2017 and will continue until 23 October.  The exhibited works cover three decades of Calder’s career, from the 1930s to the 1960s, though the pieces aren’t arranged in any kind of chronological sequence.  The older, motorized mobiles are mixed in among the later, free-floating sculptures.  While there’s a contiguity among many of the sculptures, displaying Calder’s now-famous blobby-shaped elements, painted in his signature colors of black, yellow, red, blue, and white, quite a few stand out as atypical, such as Fish (1944), which not only is representative—it looks like a (stylized) fish—but it’s made of shards of glass rather than Calder’s more common wood, fabric, or metal.  This is an demonstration of what Calder called “disparity,” which the museum defines as “a term the artist used to describe the complex variation and disjuncture of forms, colors, densities, and movements within a single work and across multiple objects.”  

Many of the three dozen works—which include one large (though not monumental) stabile (The Arches, 1959) and at least one non-moving carved wooden figure (Double Cat, 1930)—come from the Calder Foundation and some are part of the permanent collection of the Whitney, which has a long and extensive relationship with Calder and his work.

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was practically born to be a sculptor.  His father, Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945), was a sculptor who created public installations, many of them in Philadelphia (which is 100 miles west of Calder’s birthplace of Lawnton, Pennsylvania, ten miles east of Harrisburg), and his grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder (1846-1923), was also a sculptor, responsible for the statue of William Penn atop Philadelphia City Hall.  (The former Nanette Lederer, 1866-1960, the youngest Calder’s mother, was a portrait painter.)  The Calders moved around the country frequently for Stirling’s health (he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1905) and his work, and in each home, as young Alexander grew up, his parents established a studio for their artistically precocious son, who began making art, in the form of jewelry for his sister’s dolls, when he was about 8. 

Despite his obvious talent, however, they didn’t want Alexander to live the precarious life of an artist and upon graduating from high school in 1915, Calder enrolled in  Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey—almost directly across the Hudson River from the Whitney Museum, which has clear views of the New Jersey shore from the large windows and terraces on the upper floors—to study mechanical engineering.  Graduating from Stevens Tech in 1919, Calder worked in engineering-related jobs for several years.  His artistic proclivities caught up with him, however, and he enrolled in New York City’s  Art Students League and in 1926, moved to Paris, the mecca for all incipient artists.  Living in the bohemian Montparnasse quarter, Calder became friends with a number of avant-garde artists, including surrealist and Dadaist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), surrealist  Joan Miró (1893-1983), Dada founder and sculptor Hans (Jean) Arp (1887-1966), and abstract painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). 

Now married, he returned to the New York area in 1933, settling in Connecticut, and, with respect to this career, he never looked back.  Most famous for the mobiles that are the subject of Hypermobility, Calder worked in many media and forms, some of them quite surprising.  He made mechanical toys, sculpted in wire, created monumental stabiles, made abstract paintings and lithographs (some of which, like my Magie Eolin, bear a striking resemblance to the mobiles), and fashioned jewelry.  In 1972, he contracted with Braniff International Airways to paint a Douglas DC-8-62 jet airliner and in 1975, he painted painted a BMW 3.0 CSL for the car manufacturer’s Art Car Project. 

Calder’s initial adult art works, starting in the 1920s, were his wire sculptures.  Following his juvenile experiments with doll jewelry, they came before (but overlapped with) the mobiles and the massive stabiles.  Just as Calder’s background in mechanical engineering must have guided his work with the motorized mobiles (which, counterintuitively, predate his floating mobiles by a few years), the wire sculptures led to the wind-activated mobiles.  I saw Focus: Alexander Calder, an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art many years ago (2007-08) of mostly those wire pieces (plus some of the early mobiles) from the ’20s through the ’40s.  The whimsical figures, both generic and famous, are delightfully rendered, almost childlike, except they’re too sophisticated in execution to be by a child.  In MoMA’s view, the wire sculptures show how Calder approached creating works of art with a combination of whimsy, ingenuity, and a sophisticated visual sense.  The mobiles display those qualities, too.  The stabiles are too massive to give that impression.  

It was reportedly a visit in 1930 to the studio of his friend Piet Mondrian, whose starkly geometric paintings were characterized by intersecting vertical and horizontal black lines and planes of bright, primary colors, that inspired the sculptor to commit wholly to abstract art.  In 1932, Calder invented a new form of sculpture that was kinetic, balancing its components to evince an idiosyncratic series of movements.  “Just as one can compose colors, or forms,” contended the artist, “so one can compose motions.”  He gave the innovation the name “mobile,” suggested by his friend Marcel Duchamp as a sort of pun because the French word means not only ‘moving,’ ‘capable of motion,’ or ‘in motion’ but ‘motive’ (as of a crime) or ‘the force behind movement.’  (New York Times art reviewer Jason Farago quipped, “Sly as ever, Duchamp cast Calder’s kinetic art as a kind of sneak attack.”  Calder’s friend Hans Arp coined the name ‘stabile’ off of ‘mobile’ as those sculptures don’t move—but give the impression of motion, as if depicting movement frozen in time.  “You have to walk around a stabile or through it,” said Calder, “—a mobile dances in front of you.”)  The mobiles work in intricate ways, some simply revolving and some making what the museum described as “uncanny gestures.”  From this perspective, Calder: Hypermobility is a display of, as Whitney curator Sanders puts it, “the diverse taxonomy of movements within Calder’s work.”

Some of the moving sculptures are designed so that the little pieces that comprise them collide or bump, so those works not only move, but also make unpredictable percussive sounds as well.  (One mobile hanging from the gallery’s ceiling, Red Disc and Gong, 1940, is an anomaly; one reviewer labeled it “a visceral study in toying with viewers’ anticipation.”  Calder’s intent was for a sort of drum stick, a long pole with a spherical fabric head, to strike a metal disc to make a gong-like clang . . . but as the kinetic sculpture spins slowly above our heads, the striker doesn’t touch the gong—at least not enough to make a sound!)

As I pointed out earlier, the Whitney Museum has had a long association with the work of Alexander Calder.  As a nascent artist, Calder became a member of the Whitney Studio Club and soon after, he participated in the Studio’s Eleventh Annual Exhibition in 1926 (five years before the Whitney Museum of American Art was even founded).  After figuring in a number of Whitney Annuals (the precursors to the Whitney Biennials) in the 1940s, the museum started acquiring large holdings of the artist’s work.  Today, the Whitney’s collection of Calder’s work is the largest of any museum in the world.  In the 1970s, Calder lent the Whitney Cirque Calder (1926-31), a miniature circus sculpted from wire, cloth, string, rubber, cork, and other found objects that’s one of his most popular pieces; it became the subject of Calder’s Circus at the museum in 1972; the Whitney purchased Cirque Calder in 1983 and committed further resources to restoring in the 2000s.  In addition to Calder’s Circus and Calder: Hypermobility, the sculptor’s been the subject of many other exhibitions at the Whitney, including Alexander Calder: Tapestries (1971), Three Sculptors: Calder, Nevelson and Smith (1974), Alexander Calder: Sculpture of the Nineteen Thirties (1987–88), Celebrating Calder (1991), I Think Best In Wire: Alexander Calder (2006), Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926–33 (2008–09), and Collecting Calder (2014).  In 1976, the Whitney mounted Calder’s Universe, a major retrospective of the sculptor’s work, which opened just before the artist’s unexpected death on 11 November at 78.  (For a brief history of the Whitney Museum of American Art, see my report on the Whitney Biennial, posted on ROT on 22 June.)

One of my favorite Calder pieces, by far his largest mobile and the last major art work he created, hangs from the ceiling of the center court of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building in Washington, D.C.  The red-and-black Untitled (1976) is 76 feet long, weighs 920 pounds, and is composed of 12 arms bearing 13 aluminum panels which resemble a stegosaurus’s dorsal plates.  (Calder had planned the non-motorized mobile in steel, but that turned out to be too heavy to function the way the sculptor intended, so his close friend, Paul Matisse, the grandson of artist Henry Matisse, translated the design into aluminum.)  Calder approved the final construction plans a week before his death, while the I. M. Pei-designed East Building was still under construction, and was installed on 18 November 1977, just past the first anniversary of Calder’s death.  I have visited the NGA’s East Building, which opened in 1978, hundreds of times over the years, and Calder’s Untitled and the Joan Miró tapestry Woman (1977) in the same vast, open gallery just beyond the museum’s entry were always my first pleasures, no matter what show I was there to see.  It was like being greeted by old and dear friends; both were removed some years ago for cleaning and maintenance, and I missed them dearly.  (The mobile was returned to its  proper place, but the tapestry was replaced.)

It’s fun to see the pieces in motion.  It’s all very whimsical and delightful!  For some reason I no longer recall, Diana pronounced on the grimness of the world through history.  That prompted me to observe that I didn’t really know anything about Calder’s life outside his art (I’ve now read a little since seeing Hypermobility), but that if that’s any evidence, he wasn’t a melancholy or dour man.  Aside from his mobiles, which are certainly sophisticated playthings that are meant to do little more than provide pleasure to the viewer, his lithos and wire sculptures are also all up-beat and whimsical.  I’ve never seen a Calder piece that’s dark or brooding.  Calder apparently had his serious side—he was so opposed to the war in Vietnam that President Nixon put the artist on the White House “Enemies List”—but his art was for pleasure.  (Could anyone overlook the fact that Calder’s circus is just an art-inspired “set-up,” as my brother and I called such play assemblages when we were little?)  “My fan mail is enormous,” joked the sculptor. “Everyone is under 6.”  And Alexander S. C. Rower, Calder’s grandson, proclaimed that his grandfather’s art isn’t “about anything.  The subject is you—and your experience.”

Though the mobiles are fascinating even when they’re still (which the free-hanging ones really never are since the merest shift in the ambient airflow, even indoors—heating and air-conditioning move the air around in the gallery just as they do in your home—makes them spin a  little) because Calder’s work is often lacy and delicate (like Hanging Spider, c. 1940, and Big Red, 1959) or funny or evocative (such as Sea Scape, 1947, which seems to show some influence of Joan Miró, another artist-friend of Calder’s, in the marine objects the sculptor sets afloat in the air) on its own, seeing them in motion is to see them the way the creator meant them to be.  Calder was intrigued by performing arts, specially dance, and he designed several stage sets that incorporated his mobile techniques.  

Indeed, the mobiles themselves contain a strong element of performativity both in the movements they make, which are seldom simple or straightforward, and their appeal to the . . . well, audience.  The components of many of the mobiles bounce or dip, rise and fall, or rotate as they spin.  A wonderful example of this effect is Blizzard (Roxbury Flurry) (1946), a large hanging mobile of small, white metal discs that, when immobile, evokes a snowstorm in suspended animation—and when activated, is an impressionist’s vision of snow flakes blown about by eccentric atmospheric effects.  The “flakes” seem to dance in the air to Calder’s long-ago choreography, rising and dipping as they circle around the mobile’s axis.

Now, I knew this from having seen some of the mobiles before—not activated, which is a rare experience because of the ages of the pieces and, in some instances, their precarious condition (the art handlers at the Whitney charged with putting the sculptures into motion have been carefully trained by Calder’s grandson Rower, president of the Calder Foundation, for this gig)—but what was new to me were the sound effects some of the pieces are designed to make and the shadow plays.  At least two of the mobiles in Hypermobility, one motorized (Square, c. 1934) and one wind-driven (Red  Panel, c. 1936), are constructed on a background of a large, flat, painted square of wood onto which the moving forms cast shadows that themselves move in patterns and shapes that reflect, but don’t exactly match, the objects.  It depends on the perspective of the viewer and the location of the light source, so while the “live” objects might seem unchanging and fixed, the shadow show is unpredictable.  When I studied Asian theater, I learned about wayang kulit, Indonesian shadow puppetry.  Spectators have a choice to sit in front of the screen and watch the shadow play, or behind the screen and watch the puppeteers manipulate the puppets.  With these Calder mobiles, you get both perspectives at once.  It’s two, two, two shows in one! 

I’ve said many times (regular ROTters will have read it in any of my reports on an art show) that when my mother and I used to go to an exhibit, we’d always assess the overall pleasure level by deciding what we’d come back for on a “midnight shopping trip.”  I’ve seen a few shows where I wouldn’t want any of the art on exhibit (the recent Whitney Biennial was in that category) but most have one or two pieces—three if it’s a big show—I’d love to put in my apartment.  Every once in a while, I go to a show after which I’d have to say I’d need to back a big truck up to the gallery and load in the whole exhibit.  The Whitney’s Calder: Hypermobility was like that!  I’d especially love to have some of his hanging mobiles (there are some that stand on the floor, such as my favorite piece, Aluminum Leaves, Red Post, 1941, or on a surface, like Myrtle Burl, 1941) because I have so many things on my walls, floors, and table tops that hanging from the ceiling is the only space I have where I could accommodate more art!  Besides, they’re such fun!!

The reviews for the Whitney’s Calder: Hypermobility were almost universally laudatory.  David D’Arcy in the New York Observer called Calder “a revolutionary with mass appeal.”  Of the sculptor’s art, D’Arcy said:

He played the materiality of sculpture in three dimensions against the immateriality of weightless objects suspended in the air.  A favorite gambit of his was to take inanimate objects and place them in motion.  The sculptures on view remind us that he kept trying, and kept coming up with new ways of doing this.

Though small, the Whitney exhibit shows “how [Calder] departed from those shared elements [with his peers] toward a greater simplicity or mobility or just a greater leap of the imagination.”  D’Arcy pointed out the persistent reflections of Miró (mentioning specifically Sea Scape) and other contemporaries like Matisse (in his cut-outs) “when the oversized snowflakes in Blizzard (Roxbury Flurry)  spin in two directions on two axes.”  The Observer art reviewer also observed:

When the works in “Hypermobility” are motionless, we get a silent harmony that seems to defy engineering logic.  When the works move, it seems proper to steal the description ballets mecaniques, a title coined for an earlier work by Fernand Leger.

And when the sculptures are “motorized” . . . movement brings enchantment to constructions that seem awkward when they just stand there.

D’Arcy summed up the Hypermobility experience by asserting:

“Calder: Hypermobility” will be a popular show, if not for the sheer imagination on view, then for the activator who moves in a chimney-sweep’s coat to keep the motion going when there’s no motor to do it.

That’s a fun kid-friendly novelty, yet what’s enduring about these inanimate sculptures is the life that Calder placed inside them.  But don’t worry, they won’t follow you down the stairs.

The Economist review affirmed that “no sculptor has incorporated the fourth dimension with Calder’s intelligence, dedication and sly humour.”  Hypermobility “chronicles the artist’s long investigation of form in motion.”   The earlier, motorized pieces, observed the unnamed reviewer, are the “surprises” of the show: they’re “clunky, quirky, infused with a Dadaist irreverence and sense of play.”  The Economist writer explained that “there is a revolution and a revelation lurking in these childlike elements—a demonstration that the immaterial stuff of time can be evoked through the most material of forms.”  Perceiving a link between Calder’s mobiles “and today’s performance and video art,” the Economist review-writer deemed, “Even at their most static, his works are theatrical, transforming the act of seeing into an open-ended choreographed experience.”  In the end, the Economist art reviewer warned:

Over the decades, Calder’s reputation has suffered from over-familiarity.  His works can feel too ingratiating, too crowd-pleasing, too user-friendly—the ubiquitous décor of the corporate lobby and the child’s nursery.  “Calder: Hypermobility” reveals an artist no less delightful than the one of the popular imagination, but also a pioneering sculptor who engineered a profound shift in this ancient practice.

In the Brooklyn Rail, Jason Rosenfeld called Calder: Hypermobility “an exquisite display” of Calder’s mobiles.  He even added that the presentation itself, in a large, open room, “is terrific,” explaining, “The atmosphere is generous, and the sculptures can breathe.”  The Rail art reviewer affirmed, “With his mobiles, he was able to draw or paint in air through the use of lines and colored forms moving in space,” stressing, “In Hypermobility, motion became paramount.”  He warned, however, that “Calder’s is durational, subtle, experiential art, demanding sustained looking” and not to expect “an active, immersive spectacle.”  Rosenfeld began his review by noting that in 20th-century modern art, “Whimsy was not part of the equation.  Neither was pathos, sentiment, affection, nor figuration.  Attractiveness, also, was a kind of neutral zone for many modern artists, not required, nor necessarily encouraged.”  He observed that in contrast, however, “[t]he art of Alexander Calder . . . was so radical because it was all of these and more.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Susan Delson posited, “Thoughts of a Calder work in motion might conjure up a mobile rotating lazily in the breeze.  But the artist intended a far wider range of movements—from furious vibration to random, sometimes violent collisions—that emerge only when the works are activated.”  She added, “An appreciation of randomness and chance underpins much of Calder's sculpture,” as exemplified by many of the mobiles on display which, even when not activated by a handler, can start to move or produce sounds.  (Earlier I observed that the elements of Red Disc and Gong didn’t come together properly to strike the gong as intended, but several journalists, including Delson, reported that “air currents would occasionally stir it to break the silence with a clang that made visitors ‘jump out of [their] boots.’”)  Delson wondered, “Standing before a Calder mobile, who hasn't been tempted to nudge it into motion?”  Calder: Hypermobility provides an opportunity to indulge that impulse.  The WSJ writer declared “that, after all, is why he designed them as mobiles.”

Jason Farago labeled the Whitney’s Hypermobility “a high-spirited showcase” in the New York Times.  The show “goes a long way to recapturing the guile and peculiarity of [Calder’s] spinning wires and discs.”  Describing the show as “bewitching and somewhat unexpected,” Farago found Hypermobility “wittier and wilier” than other Whitney exhibits of Calder works.  The Times reviewer reported that “where the suspended mobiles undulate with preternatural elegance, the motorized works can look winningly wobbly.”  He explained that “by treating dynamics itself as a means of expression . . ., Calder negated the possibility of perceiving these sculptures in a single fashion.  Where sculpture had once aspired to monumentality, Calder proposed an art in three dimensions that took infinite forms.”  Farago summed up the exhibit as “a display in perpetual flux.” 

Barbara Hoffman of the New York Post declared, “After years of staying still, Alexander Calder’s mobiles are fluttering back to life.”  She had a caveat, though: “But be warned: They move verrry slowwwly: It takes five minutes for one tiny rotation.”  Furthermore, “Listen closely, and you might even hear some works emit a faint ping.”  And despite Calder’s personal gravitas, the mobiles are “playful,” in Hoffman’s estimation.  Her conclusion?  “Happily, this summer, you’ll have more time to experience it.”

On the Theatre Times, John Tilley proclaimed that the “essence” of the Calder works on exhibit at the Whitney is “the tantalizing sense of anticipation.”  Faced with the “temptation to reach out and touch the sculptures, or perhaps simply blow on them to get them going,” Tilley watched as the spectators awaited the activation of the mobiles “with anticipation, even impatience.”  “In a skeptical, secular world,” the Theatre Times reviewer pronounced, “art objects celebrating temptation are our religious icons.”  He was disappointed that the handlers only activate four pieces each time, but decided that “was a part of the experience.”  The kinetic sculptures “dangle in a purgatorial space between endless anticipation and disappointment, of satisfaction and dissatisfaction—much like life, really.”  Then Tilley concluded: “It’s a testament to Calder’s craft that one cannot help but picture the entire room in motion as an immersive, joyful ballet of bobbing and twirling sculpture—but I suppose for that there’s always the theatre.” 

Artnet’s Julia Halperin called the results of the Whitney’s “ambitious, yearlong effort” to bring together Calder’s mobiles a “surprise,” principally for the display of the motorized pieces.  There are only 44 in existence and when they’re shown, “they are usually shown static.”  Halperin pointed out that “these pioneering works have historically taken a backseat to Calder’s more recognizable mobiles and wire sculptures” and quoted curator Sanders as saying, “You can’t anticipate the movement until” they’re reanimated.  Halperin reported that Rower, Calder’s grandson, observed that kinetic pieces he “thought would twirl at a zippy pace, ‘Josephine Baker-style,’ instead rotate so slowly as to be almost imperceptible.” 

On WNYC radio, a New York City outlet for National Public Radio, Deborah Solomon proclaimed in her very first sentence, “Alexander Calder is, to my mind, America’s greatest-ever sculptor”; but she had a caveat: “he suffers from overfamiliarity.”  “Everyone knows his light-as-air mobile, and his red-painted behemoths in public plazas across the country,” she asserted.  But, Calder: Hypermobility “manages to make the artist new again,” Solomon affirms.  “It is a show about motion that stops you in your tracks.”  The WNYC art reviewer, dubbing the exhibit “a dazzling installation,” observed that it “resembles theater” and that the sculptor is “a legitimate forefather of our current generation of performance artists.”  In the works on display, Solomon found, “Curving lines dominate, and the overall feeling of dreaminess can put you in mind of” Miró.  “You can say that Calder combined Surrealist poetry with American ingenuity.”  But the radio reviewer had a complaint: “My only qualm with the Whitney show is that it spills over into the adjacent café.”

A giant hole has been cut in the wall of the Calder gallery to allow viewers to see into the restaurant and beyond it, to the cityscape rising in the distance.  It’s scenic, yes, but brings unwanted noise and light.  We don’t need the view.  Calder is view enough.

In his New York Times review, Jason Farago quoted part of a passage by French playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describing Calder’s kinetic sculptures.  To me, it rings true, especially of Calder: Hypermobility.  Here’s the whole impression from “Calder’s Mobiles,” a chapter in the writer’s We Have Only this Life to Live:

One of Calder’s objects is like the sea and equally spellbinding: always beginning over again, always new.  A passing glance is not enough; you must live with it, be fascinated by it.  Then the imagination revels in these pure, interchanging forms, at once free and disciplined.

[It wasn’t all that long ago that I went to another art show where I said I’d need a van in which to haul off the whole collection on my midnight shopping trip.  It was MoMA’s Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey: 1924-1954, and in that report (4 March 2016), I also wrote about my trepidation about seeing a show that I knew my late mother would have loved and that I probably would have saved to see with her.  More than a year later, I was disturbed to find that I still had that unease—a Calder show was the kind of exhibit we’d have made a point of doing together, like the Pollock—but I was also pleased to see that the hesitation was shorter-lived and less profound.  Mother’d have loved Calder: Hypermobility—but I did, too, in her absence.  At the Pollock, I felt a little guilty having enjoyed the show without her.  I didn’t feel that after the Calder.]

16 August 2017

Colley Cibber

by Kirk Woodward

[Kirk Woodward, the most prolific of Rick On Theater’s contributors, is not only a playwright, actor, director, and teacher of acting, but, like me, he’s a perpetual student of theater history.  If ROTters haven’t spotted that already in his slew of previous posts, he demonstrates it once again in his report on Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, the memoir of the 17th- and 18th-century actor-playwright-manager.  Cibber worked the boards during what’s arguably the most—certainly one of the most—tumultuous and confusing period of English theater history, the gap between the restoration of the British monarchy and the reopening of the theaters after the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and the rise of the great writers and actors of the late 18th century, the Enlightenment in Europe, and the surge of creativity in the early and middle 19th century that led ultimately to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, the beginnings of the modern theatrical era. 

[Kirk demonstrates his knowledge of theater history, as well as general cultural history, as he puts Cibber and his career in context and comments on his accomplishments (or lack thereof) often in contrast not just to Cibber’s contemporary detractors, but to the memoirist himself.  Kirk’s done this before on ROT, most notably with Shaw, of whom Kirk’s a huge fan but not a blind one (see his “Bernard Shaw, Pop Culture Critic,” 5 September 2012; “Eric Bentley On Bernard Shaw,” 3 December 2015; and the “Re-Reading Shaw” series, 3 and 18 July, 8 and 23 August, and 2 September 2016).  At the very least, Kirk’s profile of Colley Cibber is an opportunity to get an introduction to a less-well-known figure in theater history and a less-familiar time in British theater—which, after all, is the foundation for American theater, like it or not.  (We revolted against the British Crown in the 18th century—after Cibber’s death, of course—but not British culture.) 

[The recurrent benefit of Kirk’s contributions as guest blogger is that he always provides an informative and edifying perspective on whatever topic he examines.  I’m always delighted to publish one of his pieces and will always be grateful that my friend lets me do so as often as he does.  I trust that ROTters will agree upon reading “Colley Cibber.”  ~Rick]
Without question my favorite literary genre is theatrical autobiography. The reason couldn’t be simpler: I love theater, and I can’t think of anything more fun than, in person or in books, hanging around with others who love it too. I suppose the most thrilling example of the genre is Act One (1959), an account by Moss Hart (1904-1961) of his life up to his first big theatrical success, Once in a Lifetime (1930), which he wrote with George S. Kaufman (1889-1961). [Kirk has blogged on the Lincoln Center Theater’s stage adaption of Act One; see his article on 25 June 2014.]

An earlier example of theatrical autobiography is the Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740) – a life that more than one person has said he was right to apologize for. We will get to that point shortly.

A brief historical perspective: The English Civil War began in 1642 and the English theaters were closed that same year, breaking the continuous line of production from Elizabethan times. In 1647 the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) actually outlawed dramatic productions.

The restoration of a king (Charles II, 1630-1685) in 1660 led to the re-legalization of theater. Cibber describes in his book two major changes in the new theatrical scene around that time: plays began to feature scenery (as opposed to the relatively bare stage of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater of Shakespeare), incidentally raising the cost of producing a play; and women began to play women’s roles, something unheard of in Shakespeare’s time.

At the time Colley Cibber (1671-1757) began his theatrical career, there was only one authorized theater in London, located in Drury Lane (sometimes called Covent Garden). That situation changed dramatically during his apprenticeship, when a second theater, Lincoln Inn’s Fields, was established.

Cibber today is remembered, when he is remembered, for the following four things:

He was the sixth person to hold the title of Poet Laureate of England, from 1730 to 1757, so his name appears in any list of British Poets Laureate. Poet Laureate is never an easy job, since the title holder is required to create verse for state occasions, a task perhaps seldom congenial to the poetic imagination, which Cibber doesn’t appear to have had in the first place. It was generally assumed that he got the position because of his fervent support for the government in power.

In particular, his exalted position as Poet Laureate was particularly irritating to Alexander Pope (1688-1744), a genuine poet, in fact the greatest of his time. Pope made Cibber the central character – the “King of Dunces” – in his four book version of the Dunciad published in 1743. This mock epic poem pictured Cibber – who is generally recognized as a major factor in the development of the sentimental drama of his time – as the symbol of all that was wrong with British culture of the day.

Cibber is also remembered as one who liberally adapted several of Shakespeare’s plays, cutting and rewriting with abandon. His version of Richard III has received particular scorn in later years. Bernard Shaw, interestingly, defended Cibber a bit, noting that “Off with his head! So much for Buckingham” (Cibber’s invention) isn’t worse than many of the words Shakespeare put in Richard’s mouth. But in general Cibber manhandled Shakespeare’s plays, although Cibber speaks of the Bard practically as an idol.

And Cibber is also remembered today because he wrote his Apology (meaning a defense of, not an expression of sorrow over, his life), which Shaw considered the best account of theater in England during and around the years of Cibber’s theatrical career (1690-1745), an opinion expressed by others as well.

The book is said to have infuriated Pope, partly because of its lack of, well, apology. In the book Cibber takes himself pretty much as he comes. He doesn’t claim extraordinary merit for himself; he recognizes that his talent is limited, but he also recognizes that he has been able to make a living, and in fact a name, in theater, and why should he apologize for that? If all he’s accused of is writing some bad verse, he says, that isn’t worth his getting terribly upset over.

Pope’s Dunciad is brilliant satirical verse, ending with a vision of the triumph of “Dulness” that today still has the power to make us take a second look at mass culture:

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.

But one feels, reading Cibber’s book, that he does not feel responsible for the fall of civilization or anything of the sort. One also feels, perhaps, that Pope spends a lot of time and energy on someone he claims to consider an insignificant artist.

They knew each other and did not get along well; Pope attacks Cibber many times in his writing, Cibber replies several times. Pope would say that Cibber represented the decline of art in his time. Cibber would say that he was just trying to make a living. The two positions are not mutually exclusive.

There are, in fact, other reasons for possible irritation at Cibber. As a staunch Whig party [later the Liberals] man, he wrote a political play, The Non-Juror (1717) that infuriated the Tories [Conservatives], and on the other hand he supported the establishment of the censorship of the drama, originally created in particular to silence Henry Fielding’s anti-Whig plays and not finally abolished until 1968. Cibber devotes pages to a defense of that institution.

He is often an eccentric stylist as a writer. And he seems, even by his own account, to have been, to say the least, an imperfect character. On the other hand, who isn’t? And while Pope might not have approved of Cibber’s memories of the theater of the time, we ought to. Their historical value is huge.

In his Apology it takes Cibber a little while to settle in to the “meat” of his reminiscences, the sections on theater. In early passages, and occasionally later, he sometimes seems to feel he needs to write extensively in order to fill up a book. As he gets going, though, he seems to find he has plenty of material.

He writes his book as though he is speaking it, in an informal tone which one would guess also irritated Pope. Cibber can be droll, which makes sense since tragedy was never his field; comedy was his forte, and we see that, for example, in this glance at audience responses of the time:

To speak critically of an Actress that was extremely good were as hazardous as to be positive in one’s Opinion of the best Opera Singer.

A few samples of his narrative of the theater of his time will hopefully give the flavor of the Apology. For example, Cibber remembers vividly the life of an ordinary working actor. He recounts a squeeze play between management and performers, which the performers finally won, but not before management attempted to correct its mistakes by stiffing the actors:

When it became necessary therefore to lessen the Charge, a Resolution was taken to begin with the Sallaries of the Actors.

However, it turned out that audiences were not as interested in producers as they were in actors, so management had to give in – to an extent:

Powel and Verbruggen [two significant actors], who had then but forty Shillings a Week, were now raised each of them to four Pounds [i.e., 80 shillings] and others in Proportion: As for myself, I was then too insignificant to be taken into their Councils, and consequently stood among those of little Importance, like Cattle in a Market, to be sold to the first Bidder.

Like many another actor (say, off-Off Broadway), Cibber was happy to be poorly paid if he could only have a place on or near the stage:

Pay was the least of my Concern; the Joy and Privilege of every Day seeing Plays for nothing I thought was a sufficient Consideration for the best of my Services.

Management created one theater, many of the leading actors formed another. As the management side lost clout, its productions fell in quality:

Honours of the Theatre! all became at once the Spoil of Ignorance and Self-conceit! Shakespear was defac’d and tortured in every signal Character – Hamlet and Othello lost in one hour all their good Sense, their Dignity and Fame. Brutus and Cassius became noisy Blusterers, with bold unmeaning Eyes, mistaken Sentiments, and turgid Elocution!

Cibber notes that none of these disasters were his fault, since he was at that time such a minor actor that he was unable to have any impact.

Cibber’s entire account of these management/actor “wars” makes riveting and even hilarious reading. The story of two competing performances of Hamlet, and how first one theater and then the other gave up and abandoned Hamlet, both choosing instead the same replacement play, something called The Old Batchelor (by William Congreve, 1693); how at the last minute Cibber’s troupe realized they hadn’t cast an important role in the play, and in desperation let Cibber have it; how he impersonated the original actor of the role to perfection, to great applause; and how he still couldn’t get decent roles afterwards, because the company thought he couldn’t play anything else . . . one can hardly imagine a better theater story.

Cibber, in fact, notes that he was almost never able to get the roles he wanted, unless he wrote them for himself.

This Misfortune, if it were one, you are not to wonder at; for the same Fate attended me, more or less, to the last Days of my remaining on the Stage. What Defect in me this may have been owing to, I have not yet had Sense enough to find out, but I soon found out as good a thing, which was, never to be mortify’d at it.

Cibber wrote Love’s Last Shift (1688), giving himself the supporting role of Sir Novelty Fashion, and his play is the one usually cited in biographies today. John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) wrote a sequel,The Relapse (1696) that is still performed today, although Cibber’s ordinarily is not – an irony in Cibber’s career of ironies.

Cibber went on to write or adapt more than two dozen plays, frequently creating roles for himself. He played numerous villains, such as Othello’s Iago, and he speculates that he owed some of his rather unfortunate popular reputation to his success in playing disgusting characters convincingly. Cibber reports that he simply did not have the vocal qualities appropriate for noble or tragic characters.

His deficiencies, if that’s what they are, do not prevent him from describing a significant number of the actors of his time, with – as far as I can tell – skill and accuracy. He notes what his contemporaries can’t do on stage, but is much more interested in what they can do, and he is generous in appreciating them, even when they weren’t particularly kind to him.

Here is some of his comparison of two actors who were on the stage in the same era:

Booth and [Wilks] were Actors so directly opposite in their Manner, that if either of them could have borrowed a little of the other’s Fault, they would Both have been improv’d by it: If Wilks had sometimes too violent a Vivacity; Booth as often contented himself with too grave a Dignity. The latter seem’d too much to heave up his words, as the other to dart them to the Ear with too quick and sharp a Vehemence: Thus Wilks would too frequently break into the Time and Measure of the Harmony by too many spirited Accents in one Line; and Booth, by too solemn a Regard to Harmony, would as often lose the necessary Spirit of it: So that (as I have observ’d) could we have sometimes rais’d the one and sunk the other, they had both been nearer to the mark. Yet this could not be always objected to them: They had their Intervals of unexceptionable Excellence, that more than balnc’d their Errors.

Cibber ultimately became a successful actor (in certain roles – not in tragedy) and playwright, and one of a trio of theater managers who ran their operation successfully for twenty years – a notable theatrical achievement in any era. He appears to have shown generally good judgment as a theater manager:

I do not remember that ever I made a Promise to any that I did not keep, and therefore was cautious how I made them. This Coldness, tho’ it might not please, at least left the [actors in the company] nothing to reproach me with; and if Temper and fair Words could prevent a Disobligation, I was sure never to give Offence or receive it.

Toward the end of the book, Cibber appears to lose a little interest in his subject, and I found that the book began to wear me out. Theater, it appears, always has been and always will be a messy and exhausting business. It certainly was in Cibber’s time. Still, he loved it, and it has its rewards, including a large stock of terrific anecdotes, something of which the Apology has more than its share.

[As most theater people, both pros and amateurs, can attest, Kirk’s final statement is still true today: we love to tell theater stories culled from our own experiences as well as others’.  In fact, I’ve posted a few of mine on Rick On Theater over the years, most notably in “Short Takes: Theater War Stories,” posted on 6 December 2010.  Next to talking about ourselves, theater folk love to talk shop.  Get a bunch of us together under any excuse, add some food (preferably free) and drink, and you’ll be regaled with all the stage anecdotes you’ll ever want to hear!

[In addition to the books Kirk names in his opening remarks, principally Moss Hart’s Act One, I’d like to mention a few more that I found particularly enjoyable.  The first is Run-Through  (1972) by John Houseman (1902-88), which is more than just a theater memoir, covering, as it does, Houseman’s association with Orson Welles (1915-85) in his stage, radio, and film careers.  For theater people, especially actors, arguably the granddaddy of theater autobiographies is My Life in Art (1935) by Constantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), the story behind the founding of not only the world-renowned Moscow Art Theater, but the modern art of acting and actor-training in the Western world. 

[If we stretch Kirk’s parameters a little from autobiography to biography, I’d include Lyle Leverich’s Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995), which takes the arc of the playwright’s life up to his first success, The Glass Menagerie in 1944.  Generally deemed one the two best (with Arthur Miller) American theater writers of the second half of the 20th century, Williams (1911-83) lived a real-life soap opera—and his life is clearly reflected in many of his plays.  Finally, I’d add another bio, recounting the astonishing life and career of the first American actor to gain an international reputation, Edwin Booth (1833-93).  I’m referring, of course, to Eleanor Ruggles’s book Prince of Players (1953), turned into a film starring Richard Burton in 1955.  There are, of course, literally hundreds of books by theater men and women, and I daresay each of them has its advocates; I imagine ROTters have their own lists of favorites.

[Kirk observes above that Colley Cibber was known to have “adapted several of Shakespeare’s plays, cutting and rewriting with abandon.”  He wasn’t the only one to have taken such liberties, of course: bowdlerizing the Bard was a going concern in the 18th and 19th centuries.  I’m always reminded, when I hear accounts of this practice, of something my father told me of his own school years.  My dad was a native New Yorker and attended New York City public schools until college.  Because German was one of the languages (among several others of eastern and central Europe) spoken in his family, Dad studied the language in high school (1932-36).  He told me he was amused when he was assigned to read German translations of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as other works of literature, to find the title page of the texts inscribed with the phrase: übersetzt und verbessert.  In English, that means “translated and improved”!  The arrogance! he thought.

[Toward the end of his report on Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, Kirk remarks: “Like many another actor (say, off-Off Broadway), Cibber was happy to be poorly paid if he could only have a place on or near the stage.”  This calls to my mind  a line I repeated in a recent post, “MicroRep” by Kirk Woodward (27 July), so I’ll quote it again:

One of Kirk’s last comments, about the actors having been willing to perform for free, reminds me of a line an actor friend of mine used to like to say: ”Actors are the only people who’ll work for nothing if you let them.”  I suggested we get T-shirts printed up!

[Apparently, this is a sentiment that stretches back much further than the 20th century!]

11 August 2017


by Philippa Wehle

[I’ve just posted reports on two foreign-language plays, both part of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival.  One, While I Was Waiting, was in Arabic and the other, To the End of the Land, was in Hebrew—and both employed supertitles.  (My reports on these plays were posted on 1 and 6 August, respectively.)  I’ve often complained about how this device is used in theaters here, a common phenomenon at international festivals like LCF and the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Usually they’re placed so that a spectator like me can’t read them and watch the actors at the same time—or even alternately.  That was the case with To the End of the Land—though While I Was Waiting handled the matter differently, putting the supertitle screen on stage as part of the set.  Waiting included a two-level platform and the screen was located at the half-way point so it was just beneath the feet of the actors on the upper level or just over the heads of the actors on the stage level—perfect for reading the text and watching the actors at the same time.  (Another frequent problem, especially with what Philippa Wehle calls “language based plays,” is that the text goes by in the supertitles too fast to read.  Below, Wehle ponders the need to translate the whole text.)  My friend Diana, with whom I often go to shows, passed on going the the Lincoln Center Festival this year because she didn’t want to contend with supertitles.  Diana’s an opera fan and she often remarks that opera houses like New York’s Met have small screens embedded in the backs of each seat so that patrons can read the titles right in front of them.  No playhouse that I know of does this, probably because, unlike opera, theater repertoires don’t regularly include foreign-language performances.  (I also presume the technology is expensive to install.)  

[I came across Wehle’s two short essays on supertitles while I was writing my report on While I Was Waiting and I downloaded them to keep in reserve for reposting at an appropriate time.  I think that’s now, with the Syrian and Israeli play reports just published on Rick On Theater.  The first article below was originally published on  The Theatre Times, a New York website, on 26 October 2016 (https://thetheatretimes.com/musings-on-supertitles/).]


Thinking about how to make supertitles more friendly, more accessible to an audience that is anxious to know what is being said in French or Italian or Lithuanian (as was the case with the stunning piece I saw in Avignon this summer, Didvyriu Aikste, directed by Kritian Lupa),  but also how they can enhance the experience of the play.  I recently saw two shows that used them efficiently and differently with great success.

Romeo Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses at Peak Performances in Montclair [New Jersey], began with a scrim behind which we could see the players walking back and forth and exchanging bits of conversation in Italian, of course.  Later a Mother, the main figure in this piece, is being interrogated by a police inspector who speaks very fast as does the Mother.  Instead of supertitles overhead or on the sides, they were on the scrim and clearly part of the performance, not a separate entity.  The scrim is used throughout the play not only to distance us from the performance but also as a location for the supertitles.  Of course, Castellucci’s shows are mostly wordless.  They are visceral experiences rather than linguistic, but it is still important to understand what the woman, who painfully delivers a baby in a public toilet, whom she names Moses, is talking about. For example:

“We are close, so close to a new beginning of the world

. . . How can we say this to the poor?

They are fated to toil.”

It is fantastic to be able to watch her and see the words on the scrim at the same time rather than having our eyes leaving the stage to look upward and our necks aching from an hour or two of trying to keep up with action and words.

The other show was Letter to a Man, Robert Wilson’s piece created for Mikhail Baryshnikov, seen at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] on Wednesday, Oct 19 [2016].  Baryshnikov is wonderful as always. His dancing is so elegant; his presence throughout is electrifying.  From time to time, fragments of text are heard, either in Russian or in English.  “I am not Diaghilev.” Or “I understand war because I fought with my mother-in-law.” These are excerpts from Nijinsky’s diaries written when the great Russian dancer was losing his mind and was put in a mental institution by his wife.  The words we hear are voiceovers recorded by Robert Wilson, Baryshnikov and Lucinda Childs.  When they are heard, we also see them written as supertitles.

We hear “I am not Christ. I am Nijinsky.” In Russian, then in English and back to Russian, spoken by Baryshnikov in audio fragments, repeated over and over.  These phrases add essential layers to the drama of this man whose mind is deteriorating. We may not know Russian but the English translation follows immediately and then comes the Russian again. This is fascinating to me. I’m wondering if the art of creating supertitles couldn’t learn from this.  I’m just dreaming but instead of whole sections of a dramatic text in English projected up on a screen, for example, could there be shortened versions with the English on one side and the translated language on the other?  The audience for Wilson’s play was filled with Russians the night I saw it.  I have a feeling they must have been hearing the English as well as the Russian just as I was and perhaps feeling a melting together of both languages to add an exciting cultural dimension to the experience.

Of course, I realize that both of these pieces are mainly visual and physical, and that the problem remains as to how to successfully create supertitles for language based plays without translating every word.


[Wehle’s second article on supertitles was posted on The Theatre Times on 24 December 2016 (https://thetheatretimes.com/more-musings-on-supertitles/).]

“Knowing two languages doesn’t make you a translator any more than having ten fingers makes you a pianist.”  Unknown wise person

I have recently been asked to translate an important book on the subject of supertitles in the theatre. Called Guide du Sur-titrage au théâtre, and published in 2016 by the Maison Antoine Vitez  International translation center in Paris. Written by Michel Bataillon, Laurent Muhleisen and Pierre-Yves Diez, i[t] is a fascinating and thorough presentation of the principles and practices of creating the best possible supertitles. Along with answers to questions such as “Are supertitles absolutely necessary?” there is practical information about how to set them up on Power Point frames, in terms of length and number of lines per slide, dialogue and punctuation.

I love the authors’ comments such as “It’s a mortal sin to put any information on a frame that has not yet been spoken by the actor.” It’s hard enough for the audience to read the translated words that are zooming by. So please don’t confuse them.

Elsewhere the authors make it very clear how important the job of sending the supertitles onto the screen is. It is preferable that the translator of the titles be the same person as the one who sends the titles.  He or she is in charge of making sure that the comic or emotional effects hit the right spot.  There is nothing more disturbing to performers and directors than to hear laughter or a gasp after the delivery. To achieve an optimal result, the translator must attend rehearsals and consult with the author and the director as well as the performers.  Imagine a show that lasts for two and one-half hours. The person in charge of sending the slides sends about 2,000 titles during that time. The least mistake will be noticed. Needless to say, it is a very hard job and it is not often sufficiently acknowledged. As translator both from English to French and French to English over the past several years, I have been amazed to discover that my name is not on the credits not to mention that a theater company has used my translation without permission.

Another matter that concerns me is the question of how to downsize the original text without offending the author. First and foremost, it’s important to collaborate with all of the artists involved not just the playwright.  I’ve been fortunate to work closely with very helpful artists whose plays I have had the pleasure of translating.  I insist on a close collaboration even if the artist is in Zagreb and extremely busy.   For example, I worked with Kenneth Collins on three of his shows.  These words from him in an e-mail are typical of the kind of response I’ve had from all of the artists with whom I’ve worked:   “In terms of cutting words, it is really a case by case basis,” he wrote. “Some stuff I feel is important to the nature of what is being communicated . . . some stuff, clearly not so much.  Do you want to talk on the phone and walk me through what you would like to cut? . . . Then I can determine if I feel they take away from what I’m trying to say or not.”

More musings:

The wonderful Tiago Rodrigues, head of the Portuguese National Theater in Lisbon, who is a playwright, performer and director extraordinaire, performs his shows in Portuguese, of course, but also in French and English. No need for supertitles with Tiago.  It’s fun to think of how many people get to see his shows in a language they understand without the need for supertitles.

Talking with a friend the other day about the thorny problems of supertitles, she volunteered that she had finally seen Hamilton. To prepare for this exciting event, she bought the CD and listened to the lyrics because she knew that even if the company is singing in English, she wouldn’t follow them as well as she wanted to. Fascinating, I thought.

I’ve been in theaters where the translation of a text for a show in a foreign language is handed out to the audience in advance.  A good idea, I think, but it frequently doesn’t solve the problem of a fuller experience of the play. Either heads are down, reading the text, or the translation is read later.

[These posts were written by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in these articles are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, its staff or collaborators.

[The Theatre Times is a non-partisan, global portal for theater news.  With more than seventy Regional Managing Editors around the world, it aims to be the largest theater news source online.  In addition to its original content, The Theatre Times filters through more than eighty sources, around six hundred articles and thousands of pages of theater news every day.  Combining premium content with ease of use, The Theatre Times provides a high-performance experience that readers can trust.  Curating a steady stream of the top theater information, The Theatre Times is a leading destination for theater audiences and professionals worldwide.  Facilitating global, transcontinental collaborative models, and generating opportunities for interaction and creative development amongst a wide network of international theater artists, The Theatre Times asserts the importance and impact of theater as one of the oldest and most universal forms of human expression.

[Philippa Wehle, an editor and translator, is Professor Emerita of French Language and Culture and Drama Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York. She writes widely on contemporary theater and performance and is the author of Le Théâtre populaire selon Jean Vilar (Actes Sud, 1991 and 2012), Drama Contemporary: France (Performing Arts Journal Publications 1986) and Act French: Contemporary Plays from France (PAJ Publications, 2007). She has translated numerous contemporary French language plays (by Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, Philippe Minyana, José Pliya, and others). Her latest activity is translating contemporary New York theater productions into French for supertitles (ERS, Kenneth Collins, Jay Scheib, Basil Twist, Okwui Okpokwasili, Tina Satter, Christina Masciotti, and Andrew Schneider). Dr. Wehle is a Chevalier in the French Order of Arts and Letters.]

06 August 2017

'To the End of the Land' (2017 Lincoln Center Festival)

When the Lincoln Center Festival brochure came out last April, there were two shows that caught my attention.  One was While I Was Waiting, a Syrian play about which I was just curious (for reasons I delineate in my report, posted on 1 August).  The other, however, was a title I immediately recognized from a very enthusiastic review from the Jerusalem Post by my friend Helen Kaye: To the End of the Land, an adaptation by Hanan Snir (who also directed) of a 2008 novel by David Grossman (published in English in 2010 by Alfred A. Knopf).  In her review (included in “Dispatches from Israel 8” on Rick On Theater on 12 September 2016, http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2016/09/dispatches-from-israel-8.html), Helen called the play To the Edge of the Land (the original Hebrew title is Isha borachat m’besora [מבשורה בורחת אשה], which Helen translated as “A woman fleeing tidings”—though I’ve seen many various translations), and she wrote that the play was a “phenomenal, unforgettable, illuminating, wrenching evening at the theater.”  She ended her review with the pronouncement: “To the Edge of the Land will keep you on the edge of your seat.  A must see.”  It’s not a sentiment I was likely to forget, and though Helen added, “Just for that it deserves an English version,” I never anticipated it’d show up here.  When it did, however, I checked back with Helen and when I asked if she’d recommend seeing it, she said, “Oh absolutely.”  So I immediately decided to go and in May booked a seat on Helen’s recommendation. 

To the End of the Land, the eighth co-production of the Ha’Bima National Theatre and the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, opened at the Ha’Bima in Tel Aviv on 20 February 2016 and then at the Cameri on 25 February; the production alternated between the two theaters, playing to sold-out houses, and then toured Israel.  In 2017, the adaptation won most of the top awards at the Israel Theater Prizes: Best Original Israeli Play, Best Production, Best Director (Snir), and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Efrat Ben Zur), but the play has reportedly distressed some Israelis who’ve lost children to war or terrorism and others have been reluctant to see it.  (“People were very moved by the play in Israel, they cried, some felt shock, they felt identified with the characters.  Once people here [that is, the U.S.] identify with it, only then it can become universal,” reported director-adapter Snir.)  The North American premiere of To the End of the Land (which we’ll see generated its own controversy) ran at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York, from 24 to 27 July 2017; I saw the 7:30 performance on Wednesday, 26 July.  The performances were in Hebrew with English supertitles.  (See my report on While I Was Waiting for a brief profile of the Lincoln Center Festival and the Lynch Theater.)

The avant-garde Ha’Bima National Theatre gives expression to the revolutionary spirit of the Jewish people through the revival of Hebrew culture and language.  The origins of the Ha’Bima (also spelled Habima, meaning ‘the stage’ in Hebrew) go back to Bialystok, Poland, in 1912; it was reorganized in Moscow in 1917 when a company of Jewish theater enthusiasts—all Hebrew teachers—was formed.  At the time, when the study of Hebrew was forbidden, this group was determined to found a professional avant-garde theater troupe, focusing on plays on Jewish themes, often performed in Yiddish.  The company soon attracted the éminence grise of Russian theater, Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), who made the Ha’Bima one of the studios affiliated with his Moscow Art Theater.  (Many of the company’s productions were directed by MAT’s Evgenii Vakhtangov, 1882-1923.)  In 1931 the Ha’Bima moved to Palestine and opened in Tel Aviv; it became the Israel National Theater in 1958 and was granted state support.  Its Tel Aviv venue, where it presents new works and classics in Hebrew, affords a home for creativity and an incubator for playwrights, directors, actors, and designers.  The Ha’Bima also welcomes artists from abroad and has represented Israel in a variety of theater festivals around the world.

Founded in 1944, the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv is Israel’s largest theater, staging up to 12 new productions annually amounting to more than 2,000 performances a year in the theater’s five auditoriums.  The Cameri has produced some 500 productions at home and on tour and keeps 20 shows in its repertoire.  The company employs 80 actors, and its productions are staged by directors from both Israel and abroad.  In addition to the Lincoln Center Festival, the Cameri has performed at leading theaters and festivals worldwide, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Barbican in London, Hannover Expo, Washington Shakespeare Festival at the Kennedy Center, Gdansk Shakespeare Festival, National Center for the Performing Arts (The Egg) in Beijing, and Moscow Theater of Nations, and more than 100 international tours with other productions.  The Cameri’s yearly international theater festivals recently included Robert Wilson’s The Three Penny Opera and Arturo Ui from the Berliner Ensemble, Volksbühne (Berlin), Schaubühne (Berlin), Deutsches Theater (Berlin), National Theater of Norway, National Theater of the Czech Republic, Public Theater, National Theater of China, Shakespeare’s Globe (London), and more than 70 other theaters worldwide.  The company’s productions have won more than 120 awards, including the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State of Israel.  This year, the company received an honorary fellowship from Tel Aviv University for its singular contribution to Israeli culture for its repertoire and for nurturing excellence in theatrical performance.

On the night I went to Land, the scene entering the Lynch Theatre with the heightened security was more like getting onto an airplane than into a theater.  This was all because of the protest by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, a proponent of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (known as BDS) movement against Israel  in opposition to the country’s treatment of the Palestinians.  Some 60 noted theater artists, including actor-playwrights Tracy Letts and Wallace Shawn, playwrights Lynn Nottage and Annie Baker, director Andre Gregory, and writer-actress Greta Gerwig, signed a letter calling for the Lincoln Center Festival to cancel the production of To the End of the Land because it’s partly sponsored by the Israeli government.  (Support for the production came from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in North America.) 

Lincoln Center rejected the demand.  “As a cultural and education organization,” said Lincoln Center president Debora Spar in part in a statement, “. . . we are committed to presenting a wide variety of artistic voices and trust that the art we bring can stand on its own.”  (A New York Times article about the controversy is at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/05/theater/artists-protest-lincoln-center-play-backed-by-israel.html, in case readers are interested.  There’s a lot of other coverage of the protest, as well as some responses, on the Internet as well.)  Free-speech organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship supported the Lincoln Center stand on presenting To the End of the Land under its umbrella.

A few yards from the entrance to the theater on 59th Street, there was a barricade across the sidewalk manned by a cop who stopped each pedestrian to ask if she or he was attending the play.  Then at the foot of the steps leading up to the front of the building from the sidewalk was an LCF staffer with the evening’s will-call tickets (theatergoers who had their tickets with them had to show them) to be sure everyone entering was a bona fide ticketholder.  (I doubt there were any spot tickets available—the house was full as far as I could see and the Forward reported that the run was sold out—and I don’t know what LCF did to deal with non-ticketed potential theatergoers.)
Just inside the entrance, there were CUNY security officers with metal-detector wands who checked bags and purses and metal objects that set off the indicators.  This created a bottleneck, of course, so the audience was still entering the auditorium at 7:35 and even later (for a scheduled 7:30 curtain).  I didn’t leave at intermission, but I assume there was also some security-checking for returning viewers to be sure no one sneaked in for the second act with a weapon or a banner.

(I’ve made my feelings known on the subject of censorship and attempted censorship very clearly, whether the effort comes from a government agency, a powerful corporation or industry group, or a politically, socially, or religiously motivated organization.  My last statement on Rick On Theater on this kind of act, the demand that the Public Theater withdraw its Trump-invoking production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar from its summer Shakespeare in the Park season, was “Donald Julius Trump,” posted 27 June.)

The fact was, nothing came of the protest.  There was no sign of demonstrators before, during, or after the show.  (Of course, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been.)  There was apparently an Israel supporter from the Jewish Defense League on hand, ready to counter-protest if necessary, but since no one showed, she was gone by the time I saw the play—the night before it closed.

Not that Land is in any way pro-Israeli in a jingoistic sense; Grossman, the author of the source novel, has frequently criticized the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians and the spread of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.  “This play in itself is a protest,” pronounced the novelist.  “We protest against this situation of people in Israel living all the time under the threat of war after war after war, with no striving towards peace.”  Adapter and director Snir asserts that the story “depicts the situation of the Israeli milieu and touches upon the shared multilayered trauma experienced by everyone living in this country. Jews, Arabs, rightists, leftists, secular Jews, and those who wear a kippa—we all share a common fate.”  (A kippa or kippah is a skullcap or yarmulke worn by observant male Jews to show their devotion to God by keeping their heads covered.)  It’s about the emotional and psychological devastation of war—especially constant war—and isn’t disparaging of Arabs or Palestinians except an occasional remark that’s directed at an enemy who’s shooting at, principally, the soldier-son of the play’s central character.  (She utters a perfectly understandable curse at one point when she’s more than usually distraught.)  In addition, the Arab cab driver the lead character hires, levels his own expletives at the Jews in a moment of anger and frustration at the plight of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. 

The plot of To the End of the Land is twisty—and time-bending—especially the way adapter and director Snir tells it.  (Grossman, who had no hand in the adapted script, apparently tells the story more realistically and, I gather, straightforwardly—though it, too, jumps around in time.)  It’s non-linear and leaves a lot of the (historical) facts out so that if you’re not up on Israeli history and, to a lesser extent, culture, you miss details that might be telling.  (Do you know, for instance, what an “Arabic” salad is?  It’s central to one scene, and Helen says it’s a “very fine-cut” salad.)  Snir acknowledges that he knows Israeli audiences but not those in New York.  He can rely on his homeland viewers to understand what the characters are going through, but there were initial doubts that the novel could be adapted for theatergoers from outside Israel.  (There have been inquiries from places like Poland, Germany, and England about translation and production rights.)  It doesn’t help that the supertitles are either on the far sides of the proscenium or at the top of the arch so that you can either read the dialogue (which zips by pretty fast in the titles, handled by Tami Rubin and Omer Strass) or watch the actors—but not both.  (At While I Was Waiting, the titles were halfway up the two-level platform that was the back part of the set—that is, right over the heads of the actors on the stage or below the feet of the ones on the upper level—perfectly placed to watch and read.)  

In part, the play’s an odd love story among Ora (Efrat Ben Zur), Avram (Dror Keren), and Ilan (Amnon Wolf) that takes place during three wars.   The three main characters meet in a hospital in 1967 at the age of 16, in the midst of the Six Day War.  (They’re not war casualties; they’re all suffering from a life-threatening fever.  They even compete over who has the highest temperature—making a game of their own potential death!)  This random meeting ties them together and shapes their fate, in light of the fragility and anxiety of Israeli existence.  (This aspect of the play is a little like Design for Living with war and psychological damage.)

The plot then zips through some years to Yom Kippur 1973 (the Yom Kippur War, when Golda Meir was caught napping and almost lost to the Egyptian army).  Avram, who’d be 22 by then, was in the army and was captured and tortured; we see the consequences of that in the rest of the play, which moves into 2006 and the Second Lebanon War, in which Ora’s son Ofer (Daniel Sabbag) is now a soldier.  This is the crux of the play.

Ora’d been planning a hiking trip in the Galilee (“the end of the land” of Israel) with her son to celebrate the end of his enlistment.  Then the day after he’s released from his military service, Ofer gets a call from his unit to tell him there’s an emergency brewing on the Lebanese border and he volunteers to go back.  Now, in real life—a fact revealed in program notes—Grossman’s youngest son, a tanker, was killed just hours before the cease-fire with Lebanon, while the writer was finishing the novel.  In the play, Ora decides to go off to Galilee anyway, believing that if she can’t be reached to receive the “notification” of Ofer’s death, he’ll be safe.  (Ironically, the Galilee is on the border with Lebanon, right where the military emergency to which Ofer’s rushing is underway.)  She hires a cab driver, a Palestinian named Sami (Guy Messika), and makes Avram, who’s Ofer’s father, go with her.  (Ora directs Sami, “Drive to where the land ends.”  The driver responds, “For me, it ended a long time ago.”)  Avram’s still damaged from the  experiences in 1973, which he relives in a gruesome flashback.  Over several days and nights, as they hike along the Israel National Trail, doing the only thing she can think of to protect her son, Ora recounts Ofer’s life story as if that will keep them both safe from the dreaded “notifiers.”  As if in a split-screen film scene, we see Ofer and his unitmates as they prepare for possible combat on the Lebanese border, singing and joking—as well as expressing fear for what they know may come. 

This is what the play’s really about—the woman fleeing the tidings, “evil tidings, that is; that awful knock at the door, the ‘tidings’ etched on the serried ranks of military gravestones that punctuate our wars,” in Helen Kaye’s words—though it takes half of act one to get to it (and it doesn’t get going until act two).  The obsessive actions Ora takes to “protect” her son are really (though the play doesn’t use this term) magical thinking. 

Though Grossman’s son was killed in that same war, it isn’t clear what Ofer’s fate is—though the sense I got is that he survives.  But that’s not really relevant—its the effect of constant warfare on Ora and her companions (Ilan is off on a hiking trip of his own with their son Adam—not a character in the play—in Peru).  At one point, Ora loses it when she hears that a bomber has killed people in Tel Aviv and that he’d passed through her son’s checkpoint without being detected.  She’s glad that he didn’t blow himself up at the checkpoint instead, but Ofer insists that it’s his mission to have the bomb go off at the checkpoint rather than in the city.  This notion makes Ora crazy. 

In my report on While I Was Waiting, I said that that play was about how Syrians living in Damascus in the midst of that civil war try to live normal lives in the face of the violence, destruction, and personal grief.  Coincidentally, To the End of the Land is also about the herculean, not to say sisyphean, struggle to keep the fragile bonds of family together in the face of what Snir calls “a reality of existential uncertainty”: the constant violence and terror which threaten to be “the end of the land” of Israel in a different sense.  At the same time, the play shows the beauty and warmth of Israeli reality for, as Grossman explains, much of the story takes place “in nature,” in the “stillness and beauty” of northernmost Israel.  In the play, Ora and Avram meet a group of cult-like ascetics who befriend and comfort them.

David Grossman, a native Jerusalemite born in 1954, is a former child actor on Israeli radio and an outspoken left-wing peace activist.  He believes that working with the Palestinians is the only route to peace.  He’s written nine internationally acclaimed novels, five works of nonfiction, and a short story collection, as well as more than a dozen children’s books, a children’s opera, several poems, and a play.  His books have been translated into more than 35 languages.  Of his approach to writing, he says: “I experience writing like the removal of layer after layer of a cataract which prevents me from seeing the story I’m writing clearly.”  

Grossman’s received numerous awards, including the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), Prix Eliette von Karajan (Austria), Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation (United Kingdom), Buxtehuder Bulle (Germany), Sapir Prize (Israel), Premio per la Pace e l’Azione Umanitaria 2006 (Italy), Onorificenza della Stella Solidarita Italiana 2007, Premio Ischia – International Award for Journalism 2007 (Italy), EMET Award 2007 (Israel), and the Albatros Prize (Günter Grass Foundation, Germany).  He also received the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association in Frankfurt in 2010, France’s Prix Medicis for translated literature in 2011, and the Brenner Prize (Israel) in 2012.  The 2010 English translation of To the End of the Land was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; in 2013 he received the French Point Award for Land and the Italian Fundazione Calcari for Lifetime Achievement.  His latest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar (2017), recently won the Man Booker International Prize for the year’s best fiction in translation (U.K.) and has been adapted for the stage at the Cameri Theatre, directed by Dror Keren (also one of the adapters), who appears as Avram in Land.

Hanan Snir, born in 1943 in Tel Aviv (then within British Mandatory Palestine), is a graduate of the department of theater arts at Tel Aviv University and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.  He was a trainee director at the Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Brook (1970) and directed at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (1970–72).  In Israel, Snir was a resident director at the Beer Sheva Municipal Theater (1972–74) and associate director of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv (1977–82); since 1984, he’s been associate director at the Ha’Bima National Theatre, where he was artistic director from 1992–93.  Snir’s received numerous awards for his productions, including the Israel Theater Life Achievement Award in 2015.  He received the Israeli Academy Prize for Best Production, Best Director, and Best Translator in 2007 for Sophocles’ Antigone, and won Best Play and Best Director in 2015 for Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class.  In May 2017 he won Best Director and Best Playwright for his stage adaptation of To the End of the Land at the Israel Theater Prizes.  The stage director is also a certified psychotherapist and holds a diploma in family therapy, psychodrama, and cognitive behavioral therapy, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston University.

Snir began working on his adaptation of Land in the summer of 2014 when he was in London for a gig. When he first read the novel, he was “unable to put the book down,” but was daunted by the challenge of adapting it for the stage.  It took him “about two years to digest” the book, he said.  While he was abroad, Israel launched a military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip and “the ground operation and the first casualties” drove the director into “a flurry of writing.”  He also identified very strongly with the central characters:

I liked the book very much, the three main characters are people who are my age, so I know what the period is like. I was in that world too, I knew the characters, the circumstances and felt I could really understand it and have empathy towards them. 

While Grossman didn’t collaborate on the writing of the script, he did approve of the finished version and attended the dress rehearsal and has since seen about half dozen performances.  (He attended the opening performance of the Lincoln Center Festival run.)  The novel covers 630 pages (575 pages in Jessica Cohen’s English rendering) and over 50 years of the lives of the three main characters.  Reducing it to a 2½-hour, two-act play, Snir decided to concentrate on “the triangle between Ora and the men in her life, Avram and Ilan,” leaving out the “numerous characters and subplots” and the early scenes of the three characters’ childhoods. 

Snir also saw that he couldn’t reproduce on the stage a realistic representation of all the locales in the novel, particularly the outdoor scenes, and turned to what he calls “story theater.”  In Snir’s application of the term, this technique has little to do with Viola Spolin’s improvised staging of fairytales and fables, made popular by the work of her son, Paul Sills, in the 1960s, but more closely resembles Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theater”: “It does not attempt to delude the audience into thinking that this is a realistic, ‘well constructed’ play . . . but emphasizes the fact that it is a theater performance and all its elements are exposed to the audience.”  

This includes occasional direct address to the audience from the edge of the stage and musical interludes composed by Ori Vidislavski (members of the cast play drums, guitar, harmonica, and accordion) that have a klezmer-ish sound.  The scenes of Land on stage don’t transition by cause-and-effect, the way a realistic, well-made play is structured.  The leaping about in time obviates this logic, so, in Snir’s words, “It is sometimes rapid, associative, or contrapuntal in order to heighten the dramatic tension.”

Snir’s “story theater” works pretty well for the most part, especially in the shorter and more conventionally-staged scenes.  But I found the longer outdoor sequences ultimately repetitive as Ora and Avram circle and circle the center of the set trying to convey obsessive movement along the trail.  The pace of the hikers varies some, but the circling still just goes round and round.  (The play’s movement is credited to Miri Lazar.)

The acting in Snir’s To the End of the Land is essentially realistic—high-pitched and psychologically heightened, but not stylized—but Roni Toren’s set (brightly lit by Roni Cohen) is nothing but a three-sided white box that’s almost doorless.  (There’s one large double door, like one to a hospital ward, on the stage right wall and several hidden entrances on all three walls.)  The props are mostly some chairs and a table that get moved about to be used for different things (like Sami’s cab), a couple of hospital beds (for the first scenes), and some doors that actors carry on and off now and then.  These aren’t used as entrances or exits; they’re just symbolic objects which I decided were visualizations of the door Ora doesn’t want someone to knock on to bring her the news of Ofer’s death.  (I don’t know if that’s right, but that’s what I figured.)  The simple but straightforward costumes, from military combat uniforms for Ofer and his comrades-in-arms to religious robes for the ascetics, are by Polina Adamov.

To stand in for the natural beauty of northern Israel, which isn’t depicted literally on stage, though the novelist’s “picturesque descriptions of nature and the landscape are rich and wonderful in their beauty,” according to Snir, the director has the actors place some large rocks around the center of the stage and the actors who play the solders and cult members turn to the white wall and draw child-like pencil representations of the Galilean hills. 

While Ben Zur’s Ora is clearly the focal character of the stage version of To the End of the Land, the play functions essentially as a four-character ensemble with eight extras, most of whom do double duty as musicians.  Ben Zur’s a very strong presence on stage, which isn’t to say the character’s always in charge of either her own situation or the goings-on around her—but she’s never anything less than totally committed, both the character and the actress.  In her trek through the Galilee, she leads Avram in what begins to seem like a frantic effort to lose herself—literally.  Wolf’s Ilan, who has less stage time than the other two members of the triangle (since the character’s abroad, Ilan only appears in the flashback scenes), is the closest thing to a grown-up in the central foursome.  Ilan accepts Ora’s affair with Avram and, when Avram refuses to be part of Ofer’s life, Ilan steps up; but Wolf exudes an air of troubled resignation.  Keren is mercurial as Avram, ranging from a very young 16-year-old in the hospital to a nearly out-of-control damaged warrior on the Israel National Trail. 

All three of these middle-aged actors give portrayals of a trio of oddly naïve teens in the play’s first scenes, behaving almost like 10-year-olds rather than 16, but that’s largely due—perhaps intentionally—to Snir’s script and directing than just Ben Zur’s, Wolf’s, and Keren’s acting.  In contrast, Daniel Sabbag is all adolescent bluster and ego as the young soldier who revels with his buddies in the camaraderie of army life and the adrenaline high of potential combat.  (One wonders if Avram had felt this way in 1973 before he faced Anwar Al Sadat’s Egyptian army.)  When Ofer’s on the phone with his unit, you can see his excitement to rejoin them even as his mother is packing for the hiking trip.  It’s clearly more than patriotism that’s driving Sabbag’s Ofer—it’s the chance to howl with his fellows in a world without his mother.  (I confess, in my own military service, I never quite felt that impulse—but I had peers who did.  I recognize it, but didn’t experience it first-hand.)  This is clearly acted out in the scenes of impromptu singing and dancing in which Ofer and his band of brothers (and sisters) engage.

Land works better, at least for those of us who don’t speak Hebrew and don’t know the novel, on an emotional level than on a narrative one.  (A lot of the audience around me was speaking Hebrew so I gather that many Israelis were in attendance.)  The emotions and psychological states of the main characters are not only the real point of Snir’s adaptation—a hallmark of both Grossman’s writing and Snir‘s directing is reported to be an unstinting portrayal of emotional anguish—but they’re the core of the performance as well.  This isn’t surprising when we hear Snir confess that after rereading the novel as 2014’s Operation Protective Edge unfolded in Gaza, “I felt very emotional about it.”   We need the outline of the story to generate the emotions and so that they make some sense, but it’s the feelings that matter here, not the story.  That’s especially true of Ora, but also of Avram and Ilan—and even, to lesser extent, of Ofer—who’s really a catalyst.  He’s also the connector among Ora, Avram, and Ilan, the living embodiment of their childhood connection: he’s Ora’s and Avram’s son, and Ilan (who was married to Ora) looks on him as his son as well.  

As with While I Was Waiting, the press coverage of To the End of the Land was slight.  (In this case, part of the issue might have been the protest and call for boycott.  I don’t know how many critical outlets might have been deterred by the political controversy, which got more press attention than the performance.  I found it odd, though, that the New York Daily News and websites Broadway World and Stage Buddy carried related stories—the News and Broadway World both reported on the protest and Stage Buddy interviewed Snir—but didn’t carry reviews.)  Once again, there’s also no Show-Score tally for Land.  I’ll be reporting on four New York notices (there are some reviews on line for the Tel Aviv performances), and I’ll recap Helen Kaye’s Jerusalem Post notice from 2016.

The Forward (formerly the Jewish Daily Forward) ran two articles on To the End of the Land, both essentially reviews (while covering other aspects of the event as well).  In one, Talya Zax, the Forward’s culture fellow, saw the play as “a microcosm of Israel as it is: Devoid of—and even ambivalent towards—a once-desired peace, struggling for internal cohesion, and demanding extraordinary physical, emotional, and ethical sacrifices from its citizens, Jewish and Arab alike.”  Quoting Snir, Zax reported the director-adapter felt, “Israel is living on many, many layers of trauma,” and added: “Those layers appeared onstage in surprising ways.”  She noted that there are scenes of “rare theatrical choice that [evoke] real wonder” that are also “heartbreaking” and others that “became alarmingly hectic.” 

In the other Forward piece, Jane Eisner, the paper’s editor-in-chief, acknowledged, “I approached seeing the theatrical adaptation of David Grossman’s brilliant, disturbing novel ‘To the End of the Land’ last night with some trepidation” due to the “long list of notable but misguided literary types” who’d called for its withdrawal.  The protest being unsuccessful, Eisner “was forced to confront the deep, haunting, indeed primal fear of a Jewish mother facing the loss of a beloved child” which “somehow . . . seemed more piercing in the play, dominant and unrelenting,” than in the novel.  Eisner, a self-professed “Jewish mother” herself, found this “all the more remarkable because the play was written and directed by men.”  Ben Zur’s Ora “holds the stage like she holds your heart, in a tight almost suffocating grasp that gets at every raw emotion a mother feels and expresses.  She is at once loving, confounding, infuriating, pitiable, caring and self-absorbed, but she is not irrational.”  Noting that the original Hebrew title focuses the story on Ora, the Forward editor proclaimed that “seeing the play last night affirmed my sense that the story is Ora’s story.”  In answer to the protesters, Eisner insisted that novelist Grossman “is . . . a fierce anti-war activist in the Israeli political context” and “his characters speak to a human condition that extends beyond the specific conflict in the Middle East to all mothers whose children face existential danger.”  She added: “Or should I say, all parents,” noting the writer’s own loss.  “Even if he had tried to flee,” concluded Eisner, “he could not have escaped the b’sorah [‘notification,’ ‘tidings’].  Neither, in the end, can any of us.”

Alexis Soloski noted in the New York Times that Grossman’s novel “is a work of realism, but it has a hallucinatory quality marked by intensity of feeling and complicated shifts in time” and pointed out that “Snir’s adaptation feels feverish, too.”  The stage adaptation of To the End of the Land “has a sanitary, all-white setting, but no ice-bath descriptive prose to cool down the story.”  Soloski reported, “The first act is particularly frantic, yet its most striking moments are its quietest.”  Complaining, as I did, that “the positioning of the supertitles means that non-Hebrew speakers must ignore either the acting or the translation,” the Times reviewer warned, “The story will remain somewhat opaque to those who haven’t read the book or at least a summary.”  In the other hand, “More legible were the emotional complexities of the characters.”  Soloski caviled, “The play moves swiftly, if not always deftly” as the writer and the director-adapter “nest Ora’s struggles in their fraught and pessimistic context, made even a little more fraught, perhaps, by the controversy surrounding the production.” 

Dubbing To the End of the Land part of “a mini-trend” of “[f]amilies at war . . . at this Lincoln Center Festival” on the Huffington Post, David Finkle described the relationship among the three central characters as “a romance that’s also a bromance.”  (Whereas I invoked Noël Coward’s Design for Living as a template, Finkle compared this part of Land to “a spin on Henri-Pierre Roché’s Jules et Jim, which Francois Truffaut stunningly translated to the screen.”)  The HP reviewer observed that Snir “is intent on his work being absorbed as storytelling rather than as a play” and found that the “story theater” “notion works most of the time,”  especially “when Ben Zur, Keren and Wolf are lending every ounce of their intense talents to Ora, Avram and Ilan.”  Finkle added: “The anguish they expend in the two-act piece is extraordinary.”  “[Ev]ery once in a while,” the review-writer lamented, “Snir’s storytelling, as opposed to Grossman’s, becomes repetitive,” citing the same circular trekking that I did earlier. Complaining also about the “the musical interludes,” which he said sometimes “become a mite overenthusiastic,” Finkle admonished, “Story Theater should always be once-upon-a-time smooth, never twee.”  Nonetheless, in the end, he concluded that

when the last sprint has been concluded, the way in which war exacerbates the already complex quality of love and the teasing, taunting and trashing of family life is movingly, possibly even memorably rendered.

On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell reported of To the End of the Land, in which “the lives of the three main characters . . . are less defined by love than by war,” that adapter Snir “chops this story into pieces, and presents the pieces in an order that makes it more dramatic, and at times less than clear.”  Mandell added that Snir “also spices [the production] with an anti-naturalistic theatricality . . . using minimal props, [the actors’] own bodies, and occasional musical instruments.”  Though the addresses to the audience seem “attempts to help the audience . . ., the play often feels geared to people who’ve read the novel,” the New York Theater reviewer found.  In the end, however, Mandell judged that “there are enough moments in ‘To The End of the Land’ that hit hard enough to compensate for the confusion.”

As I noted at the top of this report, I was prompted to see To the End of the Land by the review from the Jerusalem Post written by my friend Helen Kaye.  Though I posted the 14 March 2016 notice on ROT last September, I feel it’s appropriate to capsulize it here as well.  Given that Helen’s an Israeli and writes for an Israeli reader, she saw the play a little differently than I could.  To the Edge of the Land (as I pointed out she called the play in English) “explains us to ourselves but it’s also the portrait of us that the world doesn’t see,” she asserted.  She continued:

For a few years now we’ve been uneasy about ourselves, about where we’re going, about what we’re doing to ourselves (and to others), as a people, as a nation.  As a people, as a nation, we’ve tried to reconcile lives that are lived on the edge of an abyss; to live normally in the fractious spaces between the endless wars.

Our theater reflects this existential dis-ease.

“Ben Zur, Wolf and Keren drive the play,” Helen affirmed.  “Watching them, I had to remember to breathe.  Had to stop myself from racing up there to comfort them, to encourage them, to hear and listen.”  Snir (of whom Helen declared in an e-mail quite simply: “Hanan Snir is a genius”) “always coaxes from his actors more than they realize is in them.”  Ora and Avram’s trek through the Galilee, emphasized Helen, “is the story of the ties that bind, that heal, that destroy, the ties of love, of pain, of joys and fears among and for us and the bruised, beautiful, laden land in which we live.”  

I think it’s obvious why I’d be impelled to see Land when I found out it was coming here.  Helen’s review betrays how moved she clearly was.  I’d never be able to see the play the way she did, of course—just as I couldn’t experience it the way Jane Eisner, a self-proclaimed Jewish mother, experienced it.  (Even though Eisner made a sop to fathers, I’m not a parent at all.)  But I could conceivably see what communicated those feelings, the performances, the staging, the writing, the theatricality.  Even though the veil of the translation, I could glimpse these aspects of theater that said those things to Helen (and Eisner).  How could I not give it try? 

[A personal note: I went through a vaguely similar situation to Ora’s with my own mother 48 years ago.  She never went walk-about to become a “notification refusenik,” as Ora calls herself in To the End of the Land, but she made “bargains”—some overt, some silent, and some expressed as jokes—to keep me alive.

[I went into the army in December 1969, as some ROTters will know by now, while the war in Vietnam was still raging.  (The Mylai massacre was revealed less than a month before I reported for active duty.)  I wouldn’t be available for overseas duty for several months at least, but my minimum contractual commitment was for two years and there was no indication at the time that the war would end by then.  Indeed, it was a common expression in those years to refer to an impossible outcome for any endeavor as “like asking for peace in Vietnam,” where the military conflict had been going on since 1949.  It had been 15 years since the United States took over the support of South Vietnam and five since U.S. troops were committed to combat after the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. 

[Things worked out fortuitously for me, as it turned out.  I was in one kind of training program or another until 1971 before I was assigned to West Berlin for what was on paper a three-year tour.  The policy when I got to my new post, however, was for officers to serve 18 months in Europe and then be sent home for leave before transfer to Southeast Asia.  I fully expected that to happen to me as it had for my first boss in Berlin within a few months of my arrival.  But on 27 January 1973, almost exactly a year-and-a-half after I took up my duties in West Berlin, the parties to the war in Southeast Asia signed a cease-fire at Versailles.  I ended up doing the rest of my military service fighting the cold war in Europe rather than the hot one in Asia.  I served almost five years in the army, but I never saw combat.  Much to my mother’s relief—though she suffered more than few frights in my behalf nonetheless.  It was easy for me  to see myself in Ofer’s place and my mom in Ora’s.]