Amorous Alma

An Austrian director stages a Jerusalem production of Yehoshua Sobol's provocative take on Alma Mahler.

alma theater 248 (photo credit: Courtesy of the production)
alma theater 248
(photo credit: Courtesy of the production)
There is a saying in Hebrew which, somewhat paraphrased, runs something along the lines of: If she didn't exist, someone would have to invent her. Alma Mahler would certainly fit that bill as Alma - the long-running theatrical musical extravaganza based on her kaleidoscope life, soon to be performed at the Underground Prisoners Museum in Jerusalem's Russian Compound - amply illustrates. Taken at face value, Alma is the stuff of pure soap opera - the crucial difference being that this larger-than-life character actually existed, and the story told in the show is based on actual events. Consider the bare facts. Alma was born in Vienna, in 1879, to a renowned landscape painter who became the most important artist of the Hapsburg monarchy. Alma was, by all accounts, an attractive and outgoing young woman and soon became a leading light of the social scene, attracting the attentions of numerous eligible - and some not so eligible - men of all types and ages. Whichever you look at her, Ms. Mahler (née Schindler) is a bewildering composite of conflicting philosophies, barely restrained passion and more than a modicum of musical talent. She also had a knack for attracting men with a generous helping of artistic genius. Add to that the fact that she harbored intense anti-Semitic feelings, which didn't stop her from marrying two Jews - first the composer Gustav Mahler and later poet Franz Werfel. Alma's first sexual liaison took place at the tender age of 17, after attracting the ardent attentions of none other than the celebrated painter Gustav Klimt. Klimt was as notorious for his lechery as he was acclaimed for his artistic endeavor. Alma duly fell in love with him, and their romantic rhapsodies soon evolved into her first sexual experience. Alma subsequently met and became involved with composer Alexander von Zemlinsky who, at the time, was considered one of the most promising figures on the Viennese music scene. And that was just for starters. Two years on Alma attained her first married surname when she wedded Mahler, who was almost twice her age, and he immediately insisted she give up any ideas she had about developing a musical career of her own. There were three more husbands and all manner of lovers betwixt and thereafter. ALMA HAS, in fact, been on the road for sometime. The play was scripted by Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol and first put on the stage by Austrian director Paulus Manker in 1996. Thus far, Alma has been performed, with Manker constantly at the helm, at various places where Ms. Mahler lived or passed through, including Berlin, Los Angeles, Lisbon, Venice and Vienna. A few weeks ago I witnessed a couple of performances in Vienna held in a magnificent 19th-century building. It is difficult to envisage a more striking location, complete with an amazing array of props - all the real McCoy from the various periods of Alma's life - complete with a full outdoor funeral ceremony for Gustav Mahler and a funeral banquet for the entire audience. Some of the props will also be pressed into service in Jerusalem. In Vienna, on a sweltering summer evening, the audience was received outside the building by waiters and waitresses dishing out glasses of wine, while a trio played a mixture of jazz and chamber-like music. Some of the actors then arrived at the main entrance in a pristine 1929 Morris car driven by a certain Dr. Yaakov Barnea. It later transpired that Polish-born Barnea spent his formative years in Israel, speaks fluent albeit somewhat antiquated Hebrew and is a font of pertinent biblical quotations, in Hebrew. Suitably fortified by the alcoholic refreshments, the audience then filed up an ornate staircase to the sixth floor of the building where the show began in earnest. Alma is anything but conventional. For a start there is no stage, and the actors perform among and around the members of the audience. After the opening scene, at which Alma's 130th birthday is celebrated with abundant panache, the action then splinters off in different parts of the building and the audience then has to decide which actors to follow and which scene it will catch. Alma is very much an elective, interactive and subjective experience - a polydrama. Due to the somewhat more limited confines of the Underground Prisoners Museum in Jerusalem, compared with the Vienna location, the show will be slightly abbreviated, but the powerful visual effect and in-your-face ethos will, no doubt, be maintained. Aviva Marks, who will play the older Alma here - the heroine of the story is portrayed by no fewer than four actresses - is thrilled to have landed the role, and appears to be enamored with the character she plays. "Alma had an eye and an ear for great talent," says Marks in reference to Ms. Mahler's choice of male consorts. "She was a very complex woman living in a fin-de-siècle cultural environment where beauty and the good life were the order of the day. She was a raging anti-Semite. She married two Jews, who later converted, but that didn't stop her from having Aryan lovers, including a priest 20 years younger than her when she was in her 50s. She was a fascinating character." The latter comes through loud and clear throughout the play. Abroad the show featured a generous amount of nudity - male and female - although the local version will be far more demure. "I always respect my hosts, wherever I am," says director Manker. "We have been invited to Israel to perform the play, and I abide by the rules of the local culture. I appreciate that Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv." STILL, THERE are lines in the script that leave very little to the imagination. Take for example a scene toward the end of the show when the aged Alma finds herself surrounded by her various menfolk through her life. As her husbands and lovers catch an eyeful of her intimate parts Alma proudly declares: "I'm full of semen. I'm full of semen! And I'm proud of it. I'm full up to my head. My brain is floating in a sea of sperm! It's dripping from my ears, from my nostrils, it's oozing out all my pores. Whenever I blow my nose, ten thousand little geniuses land on my handkerchief... Yes! I'm coarse, I know. Coarse and disgusting. But I wouldn't trade my life for yours. Not for all the money in the world!" Nothing understated about that part of the Sobol script. Marks feels the Sobol-Manker synergy works well. "Paulus is such a powerful personality, only someone like him could get this thing off the ground. He's absolutely immersed in this. Sobol is a supremely gifted writer. I haven't encountered a better writer for actors than him since Chekhov. And the Mahler element, for me, completes the picture. There is a fascinating trio at work here." Although it has been a long time coming, the local performances of Alma suit the geographical and cultural bill. Despite her antipathy towards Jews, Alma encouraged her third husband, Franz Werfel, to come to Palestine in the 1920s and the couple spent several months in the Middle East. Ironically, Werfel's experiences here were to rekindle his interest in Judaism. The Alma Jerusalem performance Web page ( 60-years.html) has it that the show was originally meant to be performed here last year, as part of the Israel Festival. The idea was that the show would be a gift from the Austrian government to Israel to mark our 60th anniversary. The reasons for the delay are the subject of some debate. According to Manker, everything was set up for the 2008 slot, until some financial caveats emerged. "Suddenly I was asked to come up with a deposit of $100,000 just in case something happened," the director says, "but they didn't explain why they needed the money. Then they said if I canceled a performance, for whatever reason, I had to pay them $50,000 per [missed] performance. I could not accept that." Meanwhile, Israel Festival director general Yossi Tal-Gan has a different take on the events of last year. "The show was never offered by an official Austrian entity as a gift from the Austrian government for the 60th anniversary of our independence," says Tal-Gan, adding that negotiations with Manker did not run too smoothly. "We were put in touch with Manker by the Jerusalem Foundation, but the foundation ended its involvement in the project after it got to know Manker and his demands." Be that as it may, Alma will be here throughout next month, with eight of the 21 scheduled performances already sold out. Alma is a compelling story about an amazing character who left her mark wherever she went and on whoever she met. As Marks put it: "It's very easy to dislike Alma, but it would be wrong to dismiss her."n For more information about Alma, go to For ticket information, call 054-940-7392 or send an e-mail to