A current affair

The infamous Dreyfus case is brought to the stage in two plays - one from Israel and one from France.

dreyfus affair 224 88 (photo credit: )
dreyfus affair 224 88
(photo credit: )
The central theme of the long-past Dreyfus affair - the ever-creeping threat of anti-Semitism, even in seemingly liberal societies - is all too contemporary. Some 110 years after French novelist Emile Zola famously wrote "J'accuse!" in an open letter charging that an anti-Semitic French government had wrongfully convicted a young Jewish captain named Alfred Dreyfus, two plays at this year's Israel Festival will address the incident that shook the French Republic. The entire General Staff office claimed that Dreyfus had supplied military secrets to the Germans, when in fact it was Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy who was to blame. Among those reporting on the trial was a 34-year-old foreign correspondent named Theodor Herzl. Dreyfus was found guilty and was sent on a miserable voyage to Devil's Island, a penal colony off French Guiana, in January 1895. Zola's landmark letter to French president Felix Faure brought Dreyfus's case to the world's attention in 1898 and helped to sway public opinion in his favor. It was not until 1906, however, that Dreyfus was finally vindicated and freed; Esterhazy was acquitted in an 1898 trial and immediately fled to Britain, where he lived out the remainder of his life on a French pension. French playwright and actress Pierrette Dupoyet, who has represented historical figures from Josephine Baker to Don Quixote on the stage, explains that she was drawn to the Dreyfus character because "even after being accused and mistreated for four years, he never fought back with hatred," she says. "He always had the hope that truth would be triumphant, and he never tried to seek revenge for this miscarriage of justice." Dupoyet first put on the one-person show Dreyfus: The Affair in 1994 at the Festival of Avignon in the south of France. Now David Arveiller, a long-time mainstay of the Paris theater scene, takes on the task. The play, which has already been performed 40 times in Paris, finds Dreyfus on Devil's Island during the years of his imprisonment. Arveiller calls it "not a historical play but a psychological play," examining Dreyfus's state of mind following his wrongful indictment. It has special meaning for Arveiller, as his aunt is Dreyfus's granddaughter. "I was always involved in this story, and since childhood I knew the case quite well," he says. The story is especially relevant today, he adds, given "increasing anti-Semitism," in Europe, especially in his native France. "It's a common thing to be anti-Semitic now," he says. "It's no longer something shameful. You can say 'the Jews constitute a lobby' and it's not a problem to say. For me it's a big deal. There's no taboo anymore." THE REBIRTH in France of anti-Semitism was highlighted by the 2005 case of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jew of Moroccan descent who was kidnapped and then tortured, until he died three weeks later. It drove Alex Ansky, a French actor, to look deeper into the kind of hatred that could drive people to such action. "I saw this story in the press, and it struck me so hard. I wanted to do something that concerned this hatred, the monstrous hatred against Jews and against people in general. I was pondering this. Why does it happen?" he says. Ansky went to playwright Yehoshua Sobol with the idea for his play I'm Not Dreyfus. The innovation in their approach was to examine not the victim, Dreyfus, but the villain, Esterhazy. "We thought Dreyfus was an innocent victim, so he had nothing to tell us; maybe we should pick one of the villains and let him confess the reasons and the motives for why he became anti-Semitic," explains Ansky. I'm Not Dreyfus finds Esterhazy (played by Ansky) in the last year of his life, standing on a bench in London's Hyde Park and divulging the dark secrets of his life to passers-by. Ansky says it was not difficult to play the role of the treacherous French major. "As an actor, it's a great benefit to play a villain. If I had the choice to play Abel or Cain, I would, of course, pick Cain. He is very interesting. What does he go through? Why does he envy his brother? It is a great challenge and a great pleasure to portray such a villain. Look at Shakespeare - the villains are the best parts!" Hebrew University Prof. Shlomo Avineri will comment on the two plays at a special panel at the Israel Festival, examining the Dreyfus affair through the prism of Zionism. "The Dreyfus affair became an icon in Zionist history," says Avineri, whose lecture is entitled "This Is Not Dreyfus." "It was often presented as if it were the trigger that made Herzl into a Zionist," he says. "This is simply not true. Herzl was aware of the beginnings of the trial and initially, like most people, thought that [Dreyfus] was guilty. Herzl's root's to Zionism were a much longer affair than just a response to a trial. [To say otherwise] is erroneous." The Dreyfus affair, Avineri explains, became important later. "It really split French society in a very significant way and became a battle between anti-Semites and anti-anti-Semites." For Ansky, the event is a reminder of the resilient power of hatred. "Hatred is undying," he says. "In the play, I say 'Hatred is the mother of invention.' It is the most powerful feeling. It moves, it develops the scientific mind. Hatred is everything - much more than love." Dreyfus: The Affair will be performed at Hama'abada (28 Derech Hebron) on June 11 at 8:30 p.m. and June 12 at 9 p.m. In French with Hebrew subtitles. A panel discussion with Prof. Shlomo Avineri will precede the performance at 7:30 p.m. I Am Not Dreyfus will be performed at Hama'abada on June 12 at 6 p.m. For more details, call 1-700-700-920.