Franco, an Israeli, and the Inquisition

A new off-Broadway production based on the Israeli play looks at two troubled periods in Spanish-Jewish relations.

Inquisition  311 Eran Tari (photo credit: Eran Tari)
Inquisition 311 Eran Tari
(photo credit: Eran Tari)
NEW YORK – Of all the places to get caught stealing state documents, Spain in 1968 was not among your better options.
In Conviction, a historical drama that opened last week off Broadway in New York, an Israeli scholar lands in hot water after attempting to sneak valuable papers out of Madrid’s National Historical Archives. The papers concerned the confession of Andres Gonzalez, a Catholic priest who had been born a Jew, then secretly returned to Judaism and entered a clandestine marriage – as well as parenthood – with a Jewish wife. Nearly 500 years old, the documents dated from the time of the Inquisition, when Spain’s Catholic leaders forced conversion on the country’s religious minorities, hunting those they suspected of illicitly maintaining their faith.
Based on a hit play from Israel’s Habima National Theater, Conviction opens at a later, still troubled period in Spanish-Jewish relations. Tightly controlled in 1968 by Francisco Franco, an ally of Hitler in the 1930s, the country was nearly two decades away from granting recognition to Israel and remained one of the last dictatorships in western Europe. The setting was not an auspicious one for attempted theft, particularly by Professor Tal, the Israeli Inquisition scholar whose detention sets the play into motion.
Professor Tal and his detention, as it happens, are the invention of writers – most recently Ami Dayan, who adapted Conviction for the American stage. The play hews more closely to historical truth in its depiction of Gonzalez, a real-life marrano, or underground Jew (literally a “pig”), who served as a Catholic priest and married in secret. Provided under duress in 1486, Gonzalez’s confession remains in Spanish possession even today; text from the document is projected onstage during several key moments in the show.
Conviction was adapted from Jew in the Dark, a Hebrew-language drama that ran for five years in Tel Aviv. Brought to the Israeli stage by Oren Neeman, the earlier play was based on the novel Confession, by Yonatan Ben Nachum, who mixed fact with fiction for his almost singularly gothic tale.
FOR DAYAN, who plays both Gonzalez and Tal, Conviction caps several years of writing and advocacy – much of it directed at Neeman, an old friend who nevertheless had to be convinced that the show should be altered for the American stage. Originally performed as a one-man production, Confession has been expanded for its New York debut to feature a cast of three, with Catharine Pilafas as Gonzalez’s wife, and Kevin Hart playing both a 15th-century priest and the director of Spain’s National Historical Archives. Weaving between its parallel stories, the play offers an almost unnoticed lesson in Spanish history and Jewish spirituality, gently incorporating key terms from the Inquisition and the Kabbala. (A glossary printed on the playbill includes definitions of auto-da-fe and tikkun olam, among other concepts.)
Dayan, whose earlier works included a drama about the first intifada, says he hopes Conviction will be picked up for an additional New York engagement following its five-week opening run, and that the material might eventually be translated once again – this time into Spanish – for productions that run where the story is set. Given the show’s dramatic setting and the success of its Israeli incarnation, hopes to produce it in other American cities also seem reasonable.
“A Jewish audience has a tendency to feel that this is a Jewish topic,”he says, although he notes that viewers of other backgrounds haveresponded with enthusiasm at rehearsals.
Hinging on some surprising twists and connections, the play mines a period that has not gotten much attention on the stage.
“It’s a beautiful play and a beautiful story,” Dayan says. “It makes for excellent theater.”