While scripts are merely a blueprint to a highly visual art that is created on stage, not on the page, there is something satisfying about reading a collection by a single playwright or on a single theme.
In The Golem Methuselah and Shylock, playwright and artistic director Edward Einhorn publishes three full length and one one-act exploring legendary Jewish figures. While there is a distinctly Jewish flavor to all the plays, they explore themes that are meaningful to all audiences.
Einhorn is the artistic director of Untitled Theater Company #61, a theater in New York that embraces the avant garde style of theater and believes in spicing absurdity with laughter and fun. Einhorn has also written Oz pastiches, the first coinciding with the anniversary of the Baum version.
This collection of plays make for a wonderful introduction to Einhorn's work and reveal an incisive mind which has a flair for injecting even serious and heart-wrenching tales with a deep-belly laughing humor.
The first play in this collection takes on the telling of the golem of Prague. For those not familiar with the golem legends, the golem is a figure made out of clay that is brought to life to defend the Jewish people in their times of great need. One of the stories centers around Prague in the late 1500s. Jews were forced to wear yellow bands and were subject to pogroms and increasing amounts of racial hatred. There were some glimmers of hope in that the ruler was lifting restrictions on professions and extending the right of trials to Jews. However, this did not slow the hatreds being riled up against the Jews. Nor was it enough to counteract the blood libel--the story that Jews killed Christian babies to make their Passover matzos.
Einhorn's dramatization of the golem's creation and defense of the city's Jews is a highly humanistic and touching version of the tale. Of the plays in the collection, it is the one with the least humor but is also the one with the most tenderness.
Rather than portraying the golem as a superhero savior who swoops in to smash the enemies of the Jews, the golem takes on the role of interrogator, forcing his creators to ask what their values really mean to them. He listens to their stories and questions the conventions that support the tales. In doing so, he provides a subtle, almost political free examination of freedom, the value of life, and the danger of demonizing our enemies.
Yet, Einhorn's play is not a lecture. While there is much that happens off-screen and must be given to us in exposition, the play remains very dramatic. Einhorn creates a drama with multiple protagonists who find themselves changing before the final curtain is drawn. His characters are richly drawn and we find ourselves sympathetic with their plight and the decisions they must make.
While the tale of the golem is very old, Einhorn's approach is both fresh and compelling.
Methuselah has probably the least dramatic potential of the three, though perhaps it could come to life under the hands of an imaginative director. However, as a script for reading, Methuselah is rich with humor and fascinating in its approach.
Methuselah is the oldest man listed in the Hebrew Bible. His age is 969 and he appears to have died when the Flood hit. In Einhorn's play, he simply stopped having birthdays at that age. He managed to survive the flood through sheer stubbornness while hanging out for 100 days at the top of Mt. Ararat, up to his nose in water.
Since the flood, he's managed to survive the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Pompeii explosion, the black plague, and the bombing of Hiroshima. He married the oldest woman in the Bible--Serach, whom he met during her 400 years of slavery in Egypt. She has been at his side for all of the later-year tragedies, though her immortality is less certain than his.
Methuselah's doctor, a mortologist who specializes in calculating people's exact death date and time, has told him he won't live to see the end of the play, er, day. Methuselah's life begins to flash before his eyes--a process that is rather lengthy for a man who has lived for thousands and thousands of years.
Throughout the process, Serach keeps trying to convince him that he shouldn't die--that he is a great man and the last of his kind. Meanwhile, through flashback after flashback we see that Methuselah must answer the question of his wickedness--and whether that wickedness sprung from his mediocrity.
A play compact in its characters--there are only Methuselah, Serach, the doctor, and a few handmaidens--Methuselah takes an absurdly funny look at a dying man who has survived simply out of a complete lack of character.
The third play has some of the greatest potential, a comedy that is both intelligent and amusing. It is the story of a man named Jacob who is searching for Shylock. He's received a letter saying that Shylock--a relative of his--wishes to leave him some money. He begins his search for him, but is hard-pressed to find him.
He is accompanied on his search by a female Hamlet, whom he meets in a Nazi-era hotel where Lancelot Gobbo is bellhopping. When he asks Hamlet what she is doing in Venice, she replies, "I've been placed in Paris, Beijing, New Delhi, ancient Rome and a futuristic Manhattan, just to name a few places. Being a woman in Venice is merely my latest incarnation."
It is perhaps here we realize that we've passed over into a world that is real and not-real. Like Alice, we have fallen into the rabbit hole and are dwelling in the places where literature is alive. We follow Jacob as he searches for Shylock in Nazi Germany, in Freud's office, inside a vandalized synagogue, amongst the Marxist revolutionaries, in the courtroom, and behind the stage. We start to question who Shylock is. Is he the villain? Is he a sympathetic character? Is he a comic charlatan?
Weaving in and out of Jacob's earshot, Shylock himself shows us all his different sides, giving Shakespeare's speeches in the styles of myriad directors.
A Shylock would be a challenge to stage with its numerous specific costume and makeup instructions and the need to quickly change scenes as Jacob makes his search. However, it is also a play that takes full advantage of those uniquely theatrical possibilities found only in live theater and on a stage. It is a comedy that would be fascinating to watch when created with a capable cast and able director. It is a solid, entertaining play that leaves the audience thinking long after the laughter has stopped.
One-Eyed Moses and The Churning Red Sea
The collection wraps up with a one-act that Einhorn produced as part of a 24/7 theater in March 2005. The theater experiment is one in which playwrights are given a theme and must write a play between the hours of 10 p.m. and 11 a.m. At 11 a.m., the plays are cast and the performance is done that evening.
To make sure the playwrights don't arrive with pre-written plays, a set of rules are revealed right before the writing begins and the playwrights must meet all those rules. For the 2005 festival, the rules were:
Rule 1: One character must have a Biblical name that is relevant in some way.
Rule 2: The play must involve a dream.
Rule 3: The story must move through time in an unpredictable manner.
Rule 4: The play must include a birth and a death.
Rule 5 (audience suggestion): One of the characters must be a pirate and/or have a hook.
Given those restrictions, it is hard to be too tough on the play that resulted. It in no way meets the quality bar set by the previous three plays, but it is amusing enough for a quick read and shows the great deal of flexibility that the playwright is capable of.
While the story doesn't really go anywhere, it is amusing to read a play that opens with Moses as a pirate, blithely combining pirate-speak and Yiddish. However, it is difficult to switch from the broad opening shots of farcical comedy into the suffering of a couple who is losing their first child. Toss in a dash of Kabala and the play starts to become obscure for the uninitiated.
And Then There Was More
The September 2005 collection of Einhorn's plays includes an introduction by the playwright where he shares his passion for Jewish legends and stories. He talks about how they have been a part of his consciousness and his character even long after he thought he had forgotten the stories.
He also wraps the book up with an appendix of facts about the characters--a useful tool for directors, actors, or even just readers.
Finally, he wraps up the book with a bibliography of books that were part of his research for these plays.
In a time when many absurdist plays exhibit a complete disregard for storytelling or their audiences, Einhorn's collection is a refreshing breath of air that makes for wonderful reading and could be an exciting challenge for any theater troupe.