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Reviewed by:
  • Drama and Ideology in Modern Israel
  • Rachel Feldhay Brenner
Drama and Ideology in Modern Israel, by Glenda Abramson. Cambridge University Press, 1998. 265pp.

Drama and Ideology is an important book to English readers interested in Israeli culture and its historical transmutations. I say “Israeli culture” and not just “Israeli theatre” advisedly. The book presents much more than a survey of Israeli drama; it places Israeli theatre in the context of ideological and political developments since the establishment of the state. This context is necessary because, as this book makes very clear, Israeli theatre has been indelibly connected with Israeli political, cultural, and historical reality. Even further, it has often created, shaped, and affected this reality. This theater is, as Abramson claims, “frequently on the brink of becoming a social process” (p. 232). In this sense the theatre both initiates and evaluates the moods and modulations of Israeli society; as a rule almost, the plays touch upon sensitive issues and raise provocative questions which frequently evoke polemical heated discussion and disputations. Israeli theater often focuses on current political events; it translates and even transplants controversial issues from the pages of daily papers onto the stage.

This tendency for unmediated representations of the vicissitudes of everyday life in theater has of course its drawbacks. Indeed, Israeli plays often fail in terms of aesthetic values and artistic sophistication. For instance, Hillel Mittelpunkt’s well- known play Gorodish has missed its the audience as a satire on Israeli militarism and its glorification of war heroes. As Abramson tells us, this failure illustrates “one of the central problems of Israeli drama”: it very often does “little more than dramatise facts which are already known to the public” (p. 115). This problem is exacerbated, and to some extent even produced, by the nature of critical attention that Israeli theatre has received. Almost consistently the critics have disregarded the artistic qualities of the play and focused on the controversial issues raised by its content. Quite often the critics [End Page 172] participate in and sometimes even initiate ideological debates in the wake of the performance. In connection with Motti Lerner’s play The Pangs of the Messiah, which raises the problem of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, the critics expressed their concern about Lerner’s political attitude towards the settlers. Such reviews of the play, Abramson claims quite correctly, represent the problems of Israeli criticism, namely, “its employment of unrelated criteria and its lack of political objectivity” (p. 71).

Political bias in the theatre is, to a great extent, due to the fact that the politics of Israeli culture is marked by both extensive and intensive partisanship. Such partisanship has not been confined to the sphere of the theater. The extreme divisiveness between the orthodox and the secular circles in Israel has precluded an objective evaluation of Israeli arts at large, and for the most part, critical appreciations have been colored by the left-wing secular point of view. The animosity between the secular and the orthodox, however, is only one manner of expressing the overarching theme which has affected, practically without exception, all Israeli drama. Throughout her study, Abramson coherently demonstrates the centrality of Zionism, and to be precise, the centrality of the critique of the Zionist idea and its socio-political implementation, in Israeli theatre. With the short-lived exception of the first few years of the state, when the halutzim were glamorized in plays such as Ygal Mossinzon’s In the Wastes of the Negev (1949), Israeli theatre has not lacked unmerciful dissection of the ideology and ruthless demolition of its main representative, the heroic, proverbially prickly outside, but sweet inside, sabra. At the beginning of the 1970s, Hanoch Levin’s The Queen of the Bathtub and Amos Kenan’s Comrades Tell Stories About Jesus set the tone for the dismantling of the Zionist myth and the exposure of the true nature of the Israeli-born hero.

Abramson identifies two main themes which serve as vehicles to expose the moral disintegration of the Zionist project: the Holocaust and the Palestinian refugees. The Holocaust theme allowed the reexamination of the Zionist concept of the negation of the Diaspora. The notion of...

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pp. 172-174
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