Thursday, January 8, 2009

Theater as commentary - the tradition of midrash

Irecently completed Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee (at least for now - there is some possibility of future productions), and I'm back to reading submissions for the upcoming International Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas.

A few of the submissions I am reading fall clearly into the area of midrash - which Judah Maccabee did, as well. According to the Zohar (one of the main books of the kabala), The Torah was written with black fire upon white fire. The black fire is the written word. The white fire is midrash. The midrashim are commentaries, sometimes in the form of laws and interpretations, and very often in the form of aggadic midrash—stories that expand on the writings. For example, The Haggadah, as you can tell from the name, is one long aggadic midrash. It also is part of a long tradition that stretches into contemporary Jewish theater—exploring the world of ideas through storytelling.

The Hebrew word drash means, literally, to seek, so a midrash is a seeking of sorts. It is a seeking for answers, a seeking for insights, and ultimately a seeking for even more questions. Midrashim often don’t agree—they are there to inspire discussion, but never provide a final answer, because a new midrash can always be written that says the opposite of the last.

There is something pre-postmodern about a midrash. Postmodernism takes everything, from pop culture to ancient literature, and uses all these sources to comment on each other. Midrash is a commentary that makes the ancient stories relevant to contemporary life.

I work a lot with midrash, in my theater. Sometimes I comment directly on the Bible, or even on the midrashim that already exist in the Talmud. Sometimes I comment on the legends that exist in Judaism. Sometimes I comment on Shakespeare, or the Wizard of Oz, or whatever intrigues me about a noteworthy work of literature. It is not uncommon to do so, in theater nowadays. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a midrash of sorts about Hamlet, and Wicked is a midrash on the Wizard of Oz.

Of course, these plays are not written exclusively by Jews (though interestingly, Tom Stoppard is of Jewish descent and so is Stephen Schwartz, one of the main creative voices behind the musical). But I find it a particular appealing and relevant approach to bring to Jewish subjects.

My book of plays, The Golem, Methuselah, and Shylock, contains four midrashim, of sorts. Golem Stories is not only a midrash on the ancient legend, but it also uses and comments on midrashim (which the Rebbetzin tells) throughout the text.

The Living Methuselah is a more straightforward midrash, riffing on the Biblical characters of Methuselah and Serach, the two longest lived people in the Bible. A Shylock comments, of course, on the Merchant of Venice, and One-Eyed Moses and the Churning Red Sea is a more traditional midrash again.

What they all try to do is examine an idea that lies buried within the original story. Theater is best when it challenges people’s ideas, and often those ideas come from the stories and traditions of the culture. What better way to examine the entrenched, almost unconscious assumptions that we all make, then to examine the stories that those assumptions originate from? What better way to both celebrate and question, two things that so near to the heart of both theater and Jewish thought?

When I was writing A Shylock, I realized that though what I wanted to say something about The Merchant of Venice might be original, the idea to write a midrash about it was far from new. I saw two productions based on the character, and read about many more. What better way to deal with such a thorny character, one that may not have been written by a Jew, but has been so intertwined with Jewish identity over the years? What better way to simultaneously acknowledge both the anti-Semitism and the oddly sympathetic speeches Shylock is given to say?

For Purim, the tradition is to write a satiric plays, "spiels," which are in essence dramatic midrashim about the Book of Esther. Taken in its original form, the Book of Esther can be disturbing at times. Without midrash, we would be left with a story in which, for one thing, a woman is punished for not dancing on her behest of their drunk, unreasonable husband. Midrash makes it possible to charge that portrayal, to comment on the portrayal, and yet to preserve what is interesting and relevant about the Megillah today.

In the end, I would argue, most theater has an element of midrash to it. No play can exist in a vacuum. Every play must in some way acknowledge the wealth of what has come before, and in acknowledging that, its story in some way comments on the stories that already exist, both ancient and modern.

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