Monday, March 01, 2010

Headstand

A rather inspired class in Religion & Theater today, I dare say! Recently we've looked at Eliade's argument that "archaic" societies are built around "archetypal repetition" rather than the iffy satisfactions of presuming to "make history" (for most peoples, he argues, history is a source of "terror," time a source of suffering), and evil as problem for thought and action. We also had a mask workshop. And before today's play, Elie Wiesel's rarely performed The Trial of God, students were required to attend a Purim service or Purim Play - the Jewish holiday was this past weekend. (To tell the truth, I built our syllabus around religious holidays, something I do whenever I can.) It's argued that comic and often masked Purim Plays (purimshpiln) are the origin of Yiddish theater; Wiesel's play takes place on Purim in a pogrom-ravaged Ukrainian town in the 17th century, and is in its own way a purimshpil, though it speaks of "Purim without the Purim miracle." It all worked pretty well, I think, as it gave students a chance to experience a vibrant religious theatrical tradition, and to see the dramatic/performative space it has offered for dealing with the terror of history. Purim is the festival of Esther, who with her cousin Mordecai saved the Jews from destruction by an evil adviser to Persian King Ahasuerus named Haman (but when the megilla - the Esther scroll - is read, you never hear H's name as the whole congregation drowns it out with noise-makers). The story is, in fact, a farce, working through dramatic, even violent reversals ("it was reversed," 9:11): Haman (hiss!!) plans a parade for himself but Mordecai is celebrated; Haman (boo!!) builds a gallows for Mordecai and his people but is hanged there himself. Shoah survivor Wiesel's play hopes for reversals but finds none. But it explores the horror of this through three elements of Purim-like drama. First, Purim is like carnival, upside-down time, a time when structures are turned on their heads and roles reversed - a time of release but also be a time of truth-telling: in Wiesel's play, everyone plays a part and even an embittered inkeeper's refusal to allow purimshpil in his inn becomes part of the repartee; when he says the players can stay only if they stage a trial of God, does he hope they'll agree? Second, on Purim it's a mitzvah to get drunk - indeed you should drink until you can't tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman: as The Trial of God proceeds, its characters get ever drunker, saying ever more outrageous things - but do they know they do? and is this taking them farther from or closer to truth? Finally, Purim is about secrecy, about hiddenness - God is, if He's in Esther at all, hidden, since it's the one book of the Bible in which even the name of God doesn't appear. (In the Septuagint, the Bible translation still used by Orthodox Christians, six chapters full of prayers are added to Esther to remedy this.) Is God in the play? If so, He's hidden in it, hidden perhaps even in the playing. Profound, and perfect for our class. And then there's this:

MARIA: What's theater?
BERISH: When you do something without doing it, when you say something without saying it, while thinking that you did say, and you did do something - anything - that's theater.
(38)

followed up near the play's end with this:

MENDEL: Outside, Haman's mob is getting ready, while inside, the Jews went on with their prayers; that was their idea of theater. (96)

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