Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fiddler on the Roof - political theater?

A few weeks ago, I heard Alisa Solomon give an interesting talk at the Jewish Theological Seminary about productions of Fiddler on the Roof in Poland. Shockingly to me, the play was banned for many years there, into the 80's. Almost all Jewish theater was banned in Poland, partly because of Communist anti-religious sentiment, and partly because of general anti-Semitism in the government.

Then recently I read the news that a production in Venezuela has run into trouble - the orchestra has been forbidden to participate in anything Jewish, because one of the bureaucrats involved are afraid of the government reaction.

Anti-Semitism has been on the rise in Venezuela for a while: a synagogue was recently attacked and Chavez (who has sadly been working more successfully towards his dream of being president for life) has a long history, like many totalitarian leaders and totalitarian wannabes, of using old lies and stereotypes about Jews to help him gain power.

But this is about politics and Jewish theater. As I have been working of the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, on a few occasions I have given Fiddler as an example of a stereotype I want to break - it has been so associated with Jewish theater in this country that many assume it is all Jewish theater. I enjoy the show, but I want things I consider more challenging or unexpected. It is one of the last pieces I would think of as political theater.

Yet political theater is all about context. I remember speaking to some Romanian directors who described political theater during the Communist years. Everything was censored, but somehow it slipped through. In one play, for example, they chose to cook eggs live onstage. The smell of those eggs cooking in the theater was a reminder of the deprivation everyone felt and the difficulty there was in even buying something as simple as an egg. So that moment in an otherwise unobtrusive play was transformed and suddenly became political.

It is because Fiddler has become such an icon that it has become political in Venezuela and was political years ago in Poland. When people are deprived of connection to their culture or religion, any connection becomes subvesive. When the government wants to demonize a people, anything that portrays them onstage sympathetically becomes immediately political.

When Fiddler was finally shown in Poland, Solomon reported, the audience was in tears. The irony of repression is that sometimes it makes theater so much more vital than it ever could be. I am thankful that when I see Fiddler, I smile and enjoy it but leave it with a shrug. It is a privledge to be able to say--just another Fiddler.

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