Monday, October 26, 2009

Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel in Jerusalem

Yesterday we went to see Yehoshua Sobol's startling play about Alma Mahler. It was fascinating, on many levels.

Alma was as interesting a person as they get. In a long life she was married to Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel, and was attached to Gustav Klimt, Alexander Zemlinsky, Oskar Kokuschka, and other cultural luminaries, mostly in Vienna. She was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, died in New York as an American, and is buried in Vienna.

Any play based on her story should be fascinating. Sobol, along with an eccentric Austrian actor and director, Paulus Manker, did more than write a play. They created a theatrical spectacle.

Recently they transplanted it to Jerusalem, where it took on additional layers of fascination.

The play begins in a large banquet hall. About half the audience - 70 people or so - are seated at a gigantic table, the rest sit or stand in the wings. The furniture is 19-century, lots of candelabra, no obvious electricity. A striking elderly woman enters, and welcomes us to her 130th birthday; she then calls in her series of men to join her, one by one. Three young women then come in, each claiming to be the true original Alma. Improbably, everyone then sings a version of Tom Lehrer's "Alma Tell Us". The elderly Alma tells that whenever she chose a creative man, he rode with her to ever-higher levels of creative genius. Our task should be to follow the young women and decide which has the gift.

At this point the play morphs from unusual to highly unusual: it splits into about four different plays, with part of the audience following each of the four "Almas". For the next four hours or so the actors and audience wander the building, sitting in a room with two or three actors until they abruptly leave, and the audience either manages to follow them (but what happens when they themselves split up and go in different directions) or stumbles into a different scene. At one point we had been standing in a courtyard where a young Alma and three famous suitors had been cavorting, when two of the figures ran off through a doorway. We followed, but they had already disappeared - no matter, a different scene was unfolding in the room we had entered, between the elderly Alma and an agonizing young suitor in 1938. I'm told it takes at least four visits to the play to see all its sections.

Occasionally all the strands converge, in a central courtyard, or back in the banquet hall, before spinning off again.

Some of the scenes were unremarkable: he accusing her of sleeping with him, that sort of thing. The overall effect, however, was magnificent. There were two scenes which I especially liked. The first was Mahler's funeral. Everyone converged in a central courtyard; The four Alma actresses stood in a row, each holding a candle; Mahler's Funeral March boomed out as the casket was slowly marched across the courtyard to where the four women stood, then we all followed it to the next courtyard where it was set down. The three young Almas moved somberly off, leaving only two figures facing the bier: the elderly Alma, fully in black, leaning on the arm of... Mahler. You begin to see there's no attempt to adhere to factual chronology.

The funeral scene draws high drama from the real Mahler's music. Not so the second scene. It was late in the evening, in a largish room full of bookcases, a few desks, lots of candles, and perhaps 30 people from the audience sprawled around. Among them sit or stand Franz Werfel, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Mahler, and they're talking about what it meant to be attached to Alma, comparing notes, ribbing one another ("she told me you weren't very good at that"). The real Alma outlived them all, and there was no point in time when they all might have come together, so the entire scene is a-historical - but poignant, reflective, and memorable.

Alma herself was born in 1879, died in 1964, and lived every moment of her life in chronological order. She had as linear a life as the rest of us, with no parallel tracks and no looping back on herself in the next room. Yet she was always immersed in art, so she'd probably love the way Sobol has coiled her life into this post-modernist braid. The act has been on since 1996; originally played in Vienna, its website tells that it has since been presented in 9 towns where Alma visited or lived, including Venice, Los Angeles and Berlin. Each town must have had its own effects; the ones in Jerusalem certainly enhanced the drama.

First, the venue. The play can't take place in a normal theatre, obviously. In Jerusalem the building chosen was a 19th century hostel constructed by the Russians, as part of the Russian Compound. During the 1940s this was the heart of what was derisively called Bevingrad, after Ernst Bevin, the British anti-Zionist Foreign Minister; nowadays it would be called a Green Zone, where the occupying forces hunker behind their massive fortifications in the center of a hostile town. This particular edifice was converted to a prison. Among the many people incarcerated in it were a number of Etzel and Lehi members, and some of them were even hanged here. It's normally a depressing place.

People who have seen the play in Vienna and in Jerusalem tell me much of its profanity and nude scenes have been cut, out of deference to the venue (tho there was quite a bit of profanity even so). The language has been adapted: almost no German, mostly English, but also some Hebrew. One act we saw had an actor who knows no Hebrew with an actress who was using only Hebrew, and the two of them conversed for seven or eight minutes like that, for all the world as if they weren't even noticing the oddity. (At one point he tried to ward off an outburst of her anger by muttering B'seder, B'seder).

Then there was the trip to Palestine. Apparently Alma and Werfel came here in the 1930s, so one of the threads of the plays does so too: literally. Three or four actors and a dozen spectators climb onto a desert-jeep (a sort of Safari-vehicle) and traipse off to Palestine, followed by another 20 spectators, an Austrian actor who knows no Hebrew leading them all in singing some 1920s' halutzim songs (Anu banu artza livnot u-lehibanot ba). As we approached the gate of the compound we passed the graves of two of the hanged men from 1946, then we passed along the back side of the new City Hall edifice, turned right and passed the municipal court, then the imposing Russian Church with it's Kremlin-like architecture, then the Kishle police station and detention, before turning back. Along the way a police car gut stuck in the middle of our cavalcade, and the officers sat there resignedly waiting for us to pass; three Haredi men from Mea Shearm, just down the hill, watched the entire scene with astonishment.

As well they might. Even I, part of the scene, spent much of the evening in a state of astonishment. As you well may: Should Alma ever come to your town, make a point of going to meet her.


Anonymous said...

That sounds amazing, Yaakov.


Anonymous said...

great description, best I've read on the play (Werfel is on of my beloved)
and no I wouldn't want to see it, too much excitement, too much action, though the sitting still on a chair during a performance isn't any longer my cup of tea either.
something's changing with lots of long cherished entertainments not being it anymore and the new ones not appealing to me either
at least reading keeps its attractions as fresh as on day one

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