One on One: No Stopping Sobol

The sprightly septuagenarian and acclaimed playwright marks the milestone of his 70th play at the Holon Mediatheque.

Actors perform in the play ‘Eye Witness,’ based on the story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian who refused military service during World War II. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Actors perform in the play ‘Eye Witness,’ based on the story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian who refused military service during World War II.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a commonly held belief among writers that, when it comes down to it, all you really need to kickstart a literary work is a good story. In that respect, Yehoshua Sobol had the best possible of beginnings.
“We lived in Tel Mond, in an extended family arrangement,” recalls the 74-year-old internationally acclaimed playwright, who now has no fewer than 70 plays under his belt.
That notable milestone will be marked at 11 a.m. today, in the Seventieth Night installment of the “Ten Lamilim” (Let the Words) series at the Holon Mediatheque. “There were my parents, my grandmother, my mother’s sister, my mother’s aunt and uncle; my mother’s brother was in the British army and would visit from time to time. We’d all sit around the table telling stories.”
As the junior member of the tribe, Sobol fit the antiquated “children should be seen and not heard” tenet. “I think that’s where my writing stems from,” he muses, “hearing all those stories as a kid. That has stayed with me all my life.”
Music has always been a pervading presence in Sobol’s oeuvre, whether in pure sonic form or as an element that informs the rhythm of his writing. It is an efficient means for conveying emotions but has, on more than one occasion, provided the catalyst for some of Sobol’s most enduring creations. For example, there is Ghetto, the 1984 play based on the experiences of the inmates of the Vilna Ghetto, focusing on the Jewish theater there.
“The whole thing started from the music,” the playwright recounts. “I discovered that the Jews composed songs in the ghetto. And not only did they write songs, they were not sad songs. There were songs full of the joys of life, and even the sadder numbers had happy parts to them. The rhythms came from tango, and waltzes and the foxtrot.”
Sobol was not particularly musically gifted as a child, but the sounds of the BBC left a telling mark on his acoustic development. “We had an enormous Philips radio at home, and people from the village would come over to listen to news on the BBC about what was happening in World War II,” he says. “I was very small but I remember hearing about British ships sinking German ships, and each time an announcement was made about that on the radio, it would be preceded by a phrase from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I remember, also, when Stalingrad happened.”
The latter refers to the Battle of Stalingrad between Germany and the Soviet Union, which raged for five months and ended in February 1943, when Sobol was barely three-and-a-half years old. “Everyone was so happy when we heard the news of the Soviet victory on the radio. I danced around the table.”
Almost half a century since Sobol produced his first literary works, the sprightly septuagenarian says the creative process has become a little easier over the years. “Once I get the structure of the play in place the whole thing flows more smoothly,” he notes. “When I started out I’d go through lots of anguish, and I didn’t understand what I was doing. It was only once I’d completed the play that I could look at it and see the structure. In the last few years, the structure has become clear.”
However, that hardly means that Sobol reels them off in conveyor-belt fashion. There are unexpected twists and turns to be navigated en route to achieving the finished article. “There are always surprises in the scenes of a play, like in the play I am working on the moment.”
The current work-in-progress is a play which is due to be performed by students at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was inspired by a seminal creation made by early 19th-century French Romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault, called The Raft of the Medusa. The picture reconstructed a tragedy which, at the time, rocked France and caused a seismic political upheaval – just when the monarchy had been restored following Napoleon’s demise. The story goes that after a ship had run aground, 150 survivors made a makeshift raft to tie to one of the lifeboats, but the rope was later cut from one of the occupants on the lifeboat, leaving the rafters to fend for themselves.
For Sobol, like practically every other event in life, it provides a highly fertile substratum for his writing exploits. “There was so much drama in the actual story,” notes the playwright.
“There wasn’t enough food to go around, but they had three barrels of wine. “Arguments broke out about how to ration the wine. Some wanted to drink it all and end their lives.”
The drama plays on human nature, trying to establish societal order in a completely extraordinary situation.
In a dramatic moment, the survivors resort to cannibalism. For Sobol, true to his satirical and darkly comic ethos, he found a way to only imply the repulsive survival solution, then threw in some musical elements for good measure.
The fact that Sobol found his latest muse in the Géricault painting is indicative of the playwright’s lifelong mind-set. The characters in his works are all life-size, and the ideas, emotions and colors feed off street-level energies and mundane events.
Sobol’s salute to the common man courses throughout all his threescore and 10 plays, and two novels to date.
That and, in fact, his entire literary endeavor.
It all began for him in Paris in the 1960s, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. That must have been quite an escapade for a young man from the sticks in a small Middle Eastern country. “That was an exciting time in Paris, in particular,” he recalls. “There were lots of things going on then.”
Yet if Sobol had expected his mind to be incrementally expanded and his eyes opened at the university, he was to be disappointed. “They were very conservative there. They just about accepted [iconic existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul] Sartre, but they were not very open.”
Sobol found his principal cultural and artistic educational channel in the theaters and cinemas of the French capital. “My wife and I went to see lots of plays and movies. I got a lot from that.”
Frustrated by the lack of forward thinking at university, Sobol eventually went for a very different line of academic evolution. “I did a degree in computers,” says the writer. “I was always good at mathematics, so that appealed to me.”
That is in the Sobol literary mix, too.
“There is something mathematical about writing, about the structure and shape of a new work which enables you to organize the scenes and events you relate.”
The Israeli student’s writing was sparked by a local injustice. He heard about a blood libel against some Jewish traders in Paris, and wrote about it for the Al Hamishmar daily (published in Mandate Palestine and Israel between 1943 and 1995). That set his journalistic stint in motion and, when he returned to the Middle East, he took a job with the newspaper as a roving reporter. “I told them I wanted to work from the field,” recounts Sobol.
“I wanted to meet people, at street level, and hear their stories.”
By now, Sobol had developed a keen interest in social injustices – a sentiment that informs much of his work – and began going to development towns around Israel to meet olim and visit various socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. This was in the early ’70s, when the country was divided between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and the Black Panther movement was in full swing.
So how did the development town residents take to the blue-eyed Sobol? Weren’t they suspicious he was just a do-gooder Ashkenazi, whose heart might have been in the right place but who was really part of the Establishment? “I am a good listener,” notes Sobol.
“I think that is what helped me gain their confidence.” Indeed, he has been keeping his ear to the ground for over 50 years.
Those early forays to the periphery of Israeli society spawned one of Sobol’s most famous – and most contentious – works, such as Kriza (Nerves), which focused on social injustices and discrimination in the country. The play also featured a couple of songs by Moroccan-born percussionist-vocalist Shlomo Bar – “Yeladim Zeh Simha” (Children Are Joy) and “Etzlenu Bekfar Todra” (The Village of Todra) – which helped to launch Bar’s career.
Naturally, music will hog much of the spotlight at today’s Seventieth Night show, with Efrat Ben-Tzur, Karni Postel, Shlomi Shaban and Eran Tzur in the artist lineup, as well as Sobol’s artistic offspring, rocker Yahli Sobol and actress-lecturer Neta Sobol.
Yahli’s actress wife, Adi Gilat, will also offer her salute to her father-in-law’s work.
Seventy plays is quite a landmark, but the 74 year old shows no sign of slowing down. “There are always lots of things that interest me, and I just go with that flow,” he says. “That’s what keeps me going.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 502-1552.