On Stage: Joshua Sobel's universal homeless | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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On Stage: Joshua Sobel's universal homeless

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Israeli playwright Joshua Sobel is recognized throughout Europe as one of the 20th century's foremost dramatists, but his works have received little attention in America. The three plays of his "Ghetto Triptych," which deal with the lives of Jewish ghetto dwellers during World War II, have garnered him praise and awards in London and Germany. Ghetto--one play in the triptych, a study of Yiddish theatrical life during World War II--is running strong in its second year at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin.

"My dramaturgy is closer to European traditions than to American ones," says Sobel, who's in town for the midwest premiere of the most recent play in the triptych, Underground, which has a five-week run at National Jewish Theater in Skokie. The play concerns an incoherent old man (the Anonymous Man) in present-day Israel who endured the horrors of a Polish ghetto under Nazi rule. His story is told in flashbacks as a nurse reads his diary, which focuses on the typhoid-infected dwellers of the ghetto, who must conceal their illness from the Nazis or risk extermination.

"I have entire communities as the protagonists of my plays rather than individuals," says Sobel. "I'm not concerned with family drama. In American drama it seems to me that the family is always at the center of the play. In the triptych I've written, the action takes place in the theater in Ghetto, which is a public place, not a private place. In Underground the setting is a hospital, which is again a public space. We are not following the private stories into private locations. If we get a glimpse of private stories, we get that glimpse; we only get edges and scraps that we could observe in that setting."

Sobel says he's tried to keep out of the private lives of his characters because the rise of Nazism in the 20th century created an environment where the privacy of Jews was obliterated. That feeling was accentuated during the 1991 gulf war, which demonstrated the precariousness of his homeland; a missile landed at a drugstore near his Tel Aviv home. In an early version of Underground, which he was working on at the time, a Scud missile attack on Jerusalem brings back memories for the Anonymous Man that send him to the hospital. In the current version Sobel leaves the cause of the man's arrival vague. But the man's struggle to communicate with the nurse allows him to stand as a metaphor for many things: the Jew as exile wandering through an unsafe society, the modern homeless man, the last vestige of a disappearing society whose language and culture were destroyed by Nazism.

"The period prior to Copernicus and Galileo was the time when man felt at home in the universe, because the universe had very limited dimensions," says Sobel. "You could imagine where the roof was and where the floor was and where the walls were. Then the Copernican revolution came and exploded those walls and exploded that cozy universe, and we are exiled into a universe where we are homeless. That's why in Underground I made the protagonist, whose imagination we perceive the drama and the story through, a homeless man--a homeless man who refuses to receive a home, who refuses to stay in a home because he feels that home is a prison, who feels at home only when he's outside on the streets, who can't regain a home. A lot of Jews in the 20th century gave up their homes in Central Europe, and they had a feeling that they were leaving a certain history and a certain way of living, which the Zionists who came until the beginning of World War II realized would not survive. A catastrophe was going to occur. The founders of the state of Israel felt that they had lost a home, and there was a very strong endeavor on their part to create a home."

Sobel's dramas are also often concerned with the role theater plays in society. In Underground music serves as a sort of catharsis for the desperate individuals living in the Vilna ghetto, and curiously the most prominent Nazi figure in the play has a secret desire to become a theater director. "My point of view is that the world is theatrical and that theatricality plays a major role in politics, in history in general. I know this is a biased point of view, but looking at the phenomenon of Nazism, I consider it to be a theatrical phenomenon and I think it was part of a strange carnival. Hitler was the king of a carnival, and we all know that the king of the carnival is usually a rat or a strange creature who has nothing to do with the kingdom. It's kind of a buffoon who pretends to be a king, and for the duration of the carnival he is treated as a king by the people who celebrate the carnival--and know that he is not a king. But during the carnival, because they are intoxicated by the atmosphere, they are ready to kill for him in order for him to maintain his kingdom. I watched a lot of footage of Hitler, and whatever I saw I always saw a sort of histrionic buffoon who has repeated and rehearsed gestures in front of a mirror. There is nothing there that has not been rehearsed. You feel the deep urge of that creature is to show off and to perform. He is not concerned with truth at all. He is concerned with appearance and performance, and immediately it turns the audience into an audience of theater, with ritualized applause, putting them in rows outside under the open sky, making it a huge theatrical event."

For Sobel the future is not necessarily bleak. Underground is a tragedy, but it also provides a ray of hope. Sobel uses the theater to depict a grim period in history, but at the same time suggests that theater is one area of society where the human spirit can rise above its predicament. A devotee of Spinoza, he envisions a day when governments become obsolete and the world becomes a kinder, gentler theater.

"I believe that theater is eternal. As long as human beings exist theater will be there. I think it is the place where all the expressions of art meet and converge. I believe that at the heart of theater there is the urge to play, to play games, to play in general. This is the basis for all theatrical activity. I think it's precultural, precivilization, the urge to play and to act. It is what is common to us and to animals. When you watch young kittens and puppies, they are playing. When you watch young children, they are playing. That uncontrollable urge to play is at the base of theater. Maybe we will get rid of the oppressive governments, and we will reach a point where theater will reflect more fully that basic urge."

Underground will be at National Jewish Theater, 5050 W. Church in Skokie, through January 23. Performances are at 7:30 Wednesday and Thursday, 8:15 Saturday, and 2:00 and 7:30 Sunday; tickets are $19-$25. Call 708-675-5070.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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