- The Cameri Theatre (1945–1961): The Success, the Crisis and Its Healing by Leah Gilula
By Leah Gilula. Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben Zvi, 2014. 319pp. (Hebrew).
In this book, Leah Gilula tells the story of Israel’s Cameri Theater, a modern theater that started out as a revolt of young actors against the established and acclaimed Habima Theater, which did not make room for the new generation. Tyrone Guthrie wrote scathingly about the allocation of roles not by correspondence of age, but by the seniority of actors.
“Cameri” in Hebrew means “chamber,” so a modest chamber theater, rather than a stage for spectacle (and “habima” means “the stage”), calling for a tightly knit, realistic action taking place within a restricted, intimate space. The founder of the new theater, director Yosef Millo, had suggested naming the new theater the “1944 Theater,” renaming it year by year. Another suggestion, “The Young People’s Theater,” was rejected on the grounds that it would turn ridiculous as the actors grew older. The debate over the naming of the new theater is indicative of the grappling for a new content and a new style. [End Page 138]
From a rebellious splinter group, the Cameri has grown into a central, perhaps the central, theater in Israel, overshadowing the famous Habima and its Russian-trained actors. The story of Habima has also been told recently by Elena Tartakovsky, in her book, Habima; The Russian Heritage (2013), which spans the whole history of that theater. Together, this duo of new books by young researchers provides an invaluable, and largely missing, perspective on the development of the Hebrew theater in Israel. This perspective is created through a painstaking collection and examination of historiographic and archival material, in conjunction with interviews of surviving firsthand witnesses.
The need for a new and more modern theater was not only the result of the growing disaffection of the younger generation of Habima trainees struggling to find suitable employment, but also the natural outcome of the inpouring of young talent from central Europe, especially from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.
An important component of the Cameri innovations was the introduction of the first original Hebrew play, Moshe Shamir’s He Walked Through the Fields (Hu Halach B’Sadot, 1948), dealing with the War of Independence, and premiering just two weeks after the declaration of independence, directed by Millo. This was not only an original Israeli play, but was directly engaged with what was happening in the country. The success of this performance encouraged the other theaters to also look for promising, original, contemporary plays.
Gilula emphasizes throughout the importance of the financial basis of the theater, perhaps even beyond its artistic aspirations, showing how this influenced all aspects of the budding theater, but especially the nature of the personal relationships between the members of the collective.
A good example of Gilula’s treatment of a particular staging is her examination of director Millo’s first production at the newly founded theater, Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters. This performance was heavily indebted to Max Reinhardt’s world famous production of the play. The playful, physical, commedia dell’arte style of presentation was a marker of departure from the conventional acting that had become the norm in Habima. Furthermore, moving away from the Russian heritage, the Cameri was eager to adopt the new ideas circulating in contemporary European theater, in line with the countries of origin of the young actors.
Gilula critiques the discrepancy between the purported intention of the new theater to be small, intimate, and true to life, and the actual visual spectacle and artificiality of Servant. But she also points to the refreshing introduction of [End Page 139] original, contemporary, European and American plays. The new trend was to emulate what was going on in the Western world, to immediately translate the new hits and have them produced locally. This was the case with Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Anouilh’s Antigone, as well as with a long list of other plays that were enjoying success on the stages of Europe and Broadway. The plays were also...