Top 10 playwright

Hanoch Levin’s plays are being staged around the world at an ever-increasing rate.

A scene from the Israeli production of ‘Requiem’ (photo credit: COURTESY HACAMERI THEAT ER)
A scene from the Israeli production of ‘Requiem’
“I stood in a long queue to get my handful of sugar; the line was long and my turn never came,” says one of the characters in “Requiem,” the swansong of playwright Hanoch Levin before his untimely death from cancer in 1999, aged just 56.
Ironically, almost like a scene in one of his own plays, Levin’s turn for international fame never came during his lifetime. Now, however, his plays are being staged around the world at an ever-increasing rate, and those European directors who have only recently discovered him are calling him one of the world’s greatest playwrights.
“Levin is in the same category as Beckett or Strindberg or Chekhov. We’re talking top 10,” asserts Swedish director Phillip Zanden, who staged one of Levin’s plays in Stockholm in 2011. He was talking at a panel discussion of directors at the first Hanoch Levin International Festival, held by Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater in June, which comprised 20 productions in eight languages.
Israeli critics who claimed that Levin’s work was local and untranslatable have been proven wrong. The plays – provocative yet poetic, vulgar yet sublime, macabre yet uproariously funny, Israeli yet universal – have been translated into more than 20 languages thus far.
“Hanoch Levin is the torch we carry much like the Norwegian National Theater champions Henrik Ibsen,” Cameri director general Noam Semel tells The Jerusalem Report.
More than 24,000 people came to the Cameri to see productions from Moscow, Warsaw, Paris, Poznan and Ljubljana side by side with Israeli companies, including several versions of the same play.
“The festival demonstrates the richness of his texts by staging the same play with different productions and interpretations,” Varda Fish, the Cameri Theater’s dramaturge responsible for the festival’s content, tells The Report. “His language is succinct, muscular, like the Bible is very succinct, but there is depth and many layers. He’s first a poet and then a playwright; and when you read poetry, you don’t read it literally, you look to see what is behind and beyond the words. The audience is a protagonist in Levin’s drama. It makes them think.”
Levin’s characters speak with total honesty about taboo subjects, from bodily functions to existential questions of life and death. They observe their wasted lives without the ability to escape the cruel absurdities. Levin was a radical political critic, an iconoclast who confronted some of the founding myths of the State of Israel. His body of work ranges from satire to domestic comedies, to mythological plays based on ancient myths and biblical texts, with a recurring philosophical inquiry on the futility of suffering and survival in a sordid world.
But between the lines there is optimism. “When you first read Levin, he seems like a pessimist, but it’s not true; he’s a fantastic optimist,” said Jan Englert, director of the National Theater in Warsaw who directed Levin’s play, “The Labor of Life.” Speaking at the directors’ panel discussion, Englert remarked, “He’s writing about us with sympathy and empathy and with feeling. He likes his characters.”
The overseas boom in Levin’s plays began with a trickle in 2001, with five productions in Budapest, London, Kenya, St. Petersburg and California. Ten years later, there were 29 productions. This year, just in Poland alone, there are 11 different productions with three more in the works; and in France there are 12, including two at the upcoming Avignon Festival. Levin is also popular in South America.
European directors talk about Levin with an enthusiasm usually reserved for a standing ovation on opening night.
“The first time I read one of his plays, I was flabbergasted,” says Swedish director Zanden, who is pioneering Levin’s plays in the Scandinavian countries. He staged Levin’s play, “Job’s Passion,” in the Jewish Theater in Stockholm to critical acclaim.
“In 10 to 15 years, Levin will be as well known as Beckett, Strindberg or Ibsen,” Zanden asserts to The Report in a telephone interview from Stockholm. “When you read or see a play by Levin, it takes about 10 seconds and you’re already engaged in the conflict that is so human and so existential and told in such an entertaining way that it’s a masterpiece. Levin often asks the question ‘What is a human being?’ and theater has a great mission to reflect on this question,” he adds.
“It’s close to the Primo Levi question, and between these two questions there is a very interesting, deeply existential universe, which Levin depicts in a humoristic and erotic way.
For me as a director that is heaven. It’s like going to the fair. It’s like your birthday every day.”
“The Job’s Passion” includes a scene in which the naked Job is impaled through his anus on a pole by Caesar’s soldiers for adhering to his faith in God. When the pain is too much, he denies God, but too late. He is sold to a circus where his suffering becomes the main attraction. The Ringmaster who bargains for Job says, “For such a performance as this to go to waste. All those potential tickets mutely crying out like the souls of unborn children dying out. Not to mention the educational worth for those who still think God exists on earth. I’ve run musical circuses in all the most important capitals of Europe. I can even say that I’ve run Europe.”
Earlier in the play, when Job is stripped of his belongings and his clothes, he remarks cynically, “You forgot my gold teeth. I’ve got some gold teeth in my mouth.”
Apparently the references to World War II were lost on the deputy minister of education and culture at the time, who said in the Knesset in 1981 when the play was first staged that the state need not fund a theater “where a naked guy hangs for 10 minutes with all his privates waving around.”
French director Laurent Guttmann, whose theater in Paris put on Levin’s “The Whore from Ohio,” said at the panel discussion, “We discovered that the greatest writer of the last century was Israeli.”
In the play, a homeless beggar decides to buy himself a gift for his 70th birthday, a session with a prostitute. He tries to negotiate down the 100-shekel price. “What, am I a tourist?” and, when the time comes, he cannot manage an erection. She is not sympathetic (“Gramps, you’ve got a corpse between your legs”).
In the French production, performed in Tel Aviv, the beggar masturbates naked on stage, resulting in this comment in the French press: “Hard, violent, disturbing, but this is great theater. Elegant even in the most daring situations. Impertinent, without being vulgar.”
Matjaz Zupancic, director of the Ljubljana Theater in Slovenia, only read one of Levin’s plays, “Requiem,” which he directed, but that was enough to conclude that Levin is extraordinary.
“In my opinion, he ranks among the most talented modern playwrights of his generation,” Zupancic tells The Report in an interview backstage. “There is no doubt about that. Even if I read just this one play, it’s enough to see the talent. He’s so focused, so straight to the point, but on the other hand so poetic. The actors really love him. Actors are like animals with great instincts. They smelled that this is great text.”
One of the difficulties in disseminating Levin’s body of work abroad has been the issue of translation.
“His language is very original, very Levin. It’s poetry. It’s both vulgar and lyrical. It’s blunt and suggestive. It’s sacred and profane. It’s colloquial and poetry, all at the same time,” says Fish.
Agnieszka Olek, who has translated several of Levin’s plays into Polish, says in a telephone interview with her to Warsaw that his work, which she describes as poetry on stage, translates very smoothly into the Slavic language. This might go a way to explain Levin’s great success in Poland, where he is on his way to becoming a household name.
“This strange, foreign author is being performed every evening in Poland,” said a Polish director at the panel discussion. Englert’s production of “Labor of Life,” a cruel and honest look at marriage and old age, has been staged more than 100 times to critical acclaim and will be broadcasted on Polish television.
“Levin has a boom now in Polish theater where we have more than 10 productions with three more in rehearsals,” Englert noted. “Why? I don’t know exactly, but I think we have similar feelings, the Jewish and Polish people. We are living with the imagination that a simple man can be very important for the world. Jewish culture was popular in Poland for the intelligentsia and now with Levin, the middle class is also very interested in Jewish culture.”
Levin was born in Tel Aviv in 1943 to parents who had immigrated from Łódź, Poland. He grew up in the poorer south side of the city, in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood that abuts the Central Bus Station. Today, the neighborhood has been taken over by African migrants. His parents were religious and Levin received an Orthodox education.
In “Labor of Life,” the protagonist, Yona Popakh, reminisces. “Saturday morning. Look, a father is walking with his son to the synagogue. The son’s hand in his father’s. The father walks along humming quietly to himelf; the son is kicking pebbles.”
Levin’s father, a grocery store owner, died when Levin was 12 years old. Levin left school to help support the family as an errand boy and completed his high school degree at night. After his military service, he studied literature and philosophy at Tel Aviv University.
Levin caught public attention in 1968 with his controversial play, “You, Me and the Next War,” staged in a fringe theater in south Tel Aviv. The play lambasted the post-1967 Six Day War euphoria that swept the country.
Levin was one of the earliest and most outspoken critics of the war, clearly going against the tide.
“Levin is an iconoclast,” says Fish. “He’s kept breaking religious, political and social icons and the stereotype of the Israeli military hero, which was the dominant religion in Israel.”
His next play, “Queen of the Bath” in 1970, proved to be even more controversial, provoking nightly demonstrations in front of the Cameri Theater. In 1982, his satirical revue, “The Patriot,” was banned by the Film and Theater Censorship Board as harmful “to the basic values of the nation, the state and Judaism.’’ “
In the Israeli context, he was a prophet, and we see in retrospect that the things that he criticized after the Six Day War have come to be and we are living with the consequences,” Prof. Nurit Yaari, who teaches a course on Levin at Tel Aviv University and has coedited a book about him, tells The Report.
In total, Levin wrote 56 plays and directed many of the 34 that were staged.
Levin kept working until the very end, from his hospital bed in Tel Aviv, holding auditions for his newest play “Crybabies” about terminally ill patients in a hospital ward.
“He was a rich and complex person and a great artist. The vast work that he left us can help us build a theater tradition for ages,” says Yaari.
While Europe and the rest of the world are discovering Levin, there are still close to 20 plays that have never been staged anywhere, not even in Israel.
“It is the responsibility of Israeli theaters to delve into his plays and perform those that haven’t yet been staged,” says Yaari. “To me, it was always clear that he is one of the best and that one day he will be recognized. He died so early but he left a huge heritage that we are still working on and still have to discover.”