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  • Black Rain:The Apocalyptic Aesthetic and the Spectator's Ethical Challenge in (Israeli) Theater
  • Zahava Caspi (bio)

One feature that classical apocalyptic writings commonly share is their eschatological dimension, their "sense of an ending"1—the end of the world, of time, of humanity. But whereas traditional apocalyptic texts were for the most part utopian, their tales of destruction followed by narratives of redemption, modern secular apocalyptic literature is largely dystopian, ending in pure devastation. According to some scholars, the very arrival of modernity, beginning with Cartesian philosophy and its inherent doubt, was apocalyptic in nature. In the twentieth century, as Thomas Altizer has argued, no central literary work—from Rilke to Kafka and from Joyce to Beckett—managed to eschew the apocalyptic.2 Today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, with the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 haunting many as a "ghost shadow of apocalypse," apocalyptic fears, hopes, and dreams of redemption are no less ubiquitous (Cook, 21).

Whatever their differences, however, utopia and dystopia both point, as Douglas Robinson has argued, towards people's real-world choices between good and evil; though utopias describe ideally just societies, dystopias immoral ones, both types of apocalyptic genre belong to an ethical hermeneutics and, as such, demand to be discussed ethically (Robinson, 367)—a demand inherently and inextricably related to the "political" ambitions of apocalyptic art—its goal of effecting change in the real world. At the same time, the allure cast by the spectacular finality of apocalyptic art and by the aesthetic of evil often present in it tends to captivate the audience, all too frequently making us forget the work's ethical and political significance.

The present article will examine this constant tension between the dangerously seductive power of the apocalyptic aesthetic, on the one hand, and the inherently ethical intent of apocalyptic art, on the other. At the heart of the discussion stand the following two questions: How does the audience advance from a predominantly aesthetic view of the "apocalyptic sublime" to the establishment of an ethical or political stance? And can the two categories, the aesthetic and the ethical-political, coexist? To answer these questions, I will use as my paradigmatic example the [End Page 141] play Black Rain, written by Shimon Buzaglo and originally staged by the Herzliya Ensemble (under the direction of Ophira Hoenig) in June 2007 as part of the Israel Festival. Emmanuel Levinas's theory of the ethical will provide the central theoretical background.

Before I explore these themes, however, let me present a brief overview of apocalyptic plays in our time. Most scholars agree that the significant increase in apocalyptic writing in the West since the mid-twentieth century (and in recent decades in Israel as well) is explained by the specific historical circumstances of World War II and its aftermath, which made destruction on an apocalyptic scale a real possibility. Dystopian dramas had begun to proliferate on European stages as early as the post-traumatic period immediately following World War I—their visions of the world's imminent end influenced, no doubt, by the Great War's pioneering use of weapons of mass destruction. Thus, for example, in the second and third parts of Georg Kaiser's Gas trilogy (1918-20), the technology originally created to benefit humankind becomes a source of recurring disaster, exploitation, and suffering. The dystopian imagination took off, however, after World War II, in the wake of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the emergence of nuclear warfare. Dramas envisioning catastrophe were written in increasing numbers in the post-war decades. Some of these, such as Dürrenmatt's The Physicists (1962), focused on scientists and the destructive power of their innovations. Others, for example Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade (1964), examined the anticipated disasters of the future through the prism of historical paradigms (in this case, the French Revolution and its decadent aftermath). A later dystopian play, Arthur Kopit's End of the World (1984), is especially pessimistic, leaving humanity no exit from an explosion that brings the world to an end (Klaic, 84-100). Charles A. Carpenter has found a clear correlation between historical levels of nuclear anxiety in society and the...


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