Login | Search:
Home | About Us | News | Events | Resources | ShowBiz | Directory | Gallery | Contact Us

Home : News : The Bible on Stage


Artist in Spotlight
Association for Jewish Theatre
Book Reviews
Boston Stage
Call for Proposals
Children & Young people's Theatre
Conferences & Symposiums
David's Front Line
Editor's Notes
Ellen Schiff's Shelf
European Association for Jewish Culture - EAJC
Festival in Spotlight
Film Reviews
First Curtain
From Page to Stage
Global Arts Initiative
Holocaust Theatre On line Collection (HTC)
Info Center
Introduction to Jewish Theatre
Israeli Theatre Worldwide
Jacobo Kaufmann
Jewish Intercultural Performance Group
Kaleidoscope on New York Stage
Magazine Reviews
Merchant of Venice
Michael's Corner
New Publications
Open Space
Open Stage - Intercultural Junction
Philadelphia Stage
Play Reviews
Production Point
Productions on Tour
Recommended Website
Research & Collections
Revisiting the Past
Solo Performance - Online Catalogue
Spanish / Español : Artículos
Spanish / Español : Noticias y actividades culturales
Story Theatre
Success Story
The Arab- Israeli Melting Pot
The Bible on Stage
The European Research Center
The New York Scene
The Next Generation
Theatre and Physics
Theatre in Spotlight
Upfront Europe
What's New in Israel ?
What's New in London ?
What's New in Washington DC ?
What's Next ?
What's up in Australia ?
What's up in Europe ?
Yiddish Theatre

Email Page
Post Comment

So Sarah laughed to herself :Two Israeli plays from the 1990s examine the myth of Sarah
By Dan Urian

Publications by Dan Urian  :Books [1] The Ethnic Problem in the Israeli Theatre, The Open University, 2004, 336 pp. (Hebrew) [2.] Television Drama, Mofet, Ministry of Education, 2004, 285 pp. (Hebrew) [3]. Theatre in Society, The Open University (submitted), 300 pp. (Hebrew)
The following volumes were included in the Routledge catalogue 2001: [1]. The Arab in Israeli Drama and Theatre, Routledge Harwood, 1997, 165 pp. [2]. The Judaic Nature of Israeli Theatre: A Search for Identity, Routledge Harwood, 2000, 143 pp.
Translation :The Arab in Israeli Drama and Theatre Arabic translation: Shachsiyyat al-Arabi fi al-Masrah al-Isra'ili. Translation and Commentary: Muhammad Ahmad Salih, Editor and Preface: Muhammad Chalifa Hasan Ahmad. Cairo: The High Commission for Culture, The National translation Project, 2000, 288 pp. 
Editor :The Sociology of Theatre, (Contemporary Theatre Review), Edited with Maria Shevtsova., Routledge, Harwood, 2002, 132 pp. e-mail : d

Sarah "our Mother", wife of Abraham, the "father of the Hebrew nation", is mentioned in the sources: in the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrashim and in the Legends - but always by the side of her husband and subservient to him. Like other female biblical figures she too "appears on stage only when she is of an age to marry and her term of stay is generally determined only for as long as her status as a mother affects that of her son [for] biblical mothers simply disappear from the narrative the moment their sons become independent."

Sarah's "life history" in the Bible and the Midrash, attest to a problematic relationship between the first Hebrew couple. Abraham discovers his wife's beauty for the first time only when he goes to Egypt and the Egyptian king covets her. He does not confront the king, nor another would-be-suitor - Avimelech, King of the Philistines; neither does he defend his wife from their advances. Instead, God enlists His angels to strike down these kings. Sarah and Abraham's relationship is also a sterile one, for it appears that she cannot bear a child. She gives her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham for her to bear him a son. Only when Sarah reaches the age of 89 and Abraham is 99 do the angels inform them that a son will be born to Sarah. These are the tidings that cause Sarah to laugh - and thus to name her son Isaac [Hebrew: "he will laugh"]. Sarah was 127 years old when she died. When she heard that Abraham had bound Isaac upon the altar and slaughtered him - she swooned and died (translation Jonathan for Genesis 22:20) It was this act of binding Isaac that bestowed his independence upon him and annulled any need for his mother's continued existence.

The sole event in which Sarah is mentioned as a figure acting from her own wishes, in both the Bible and in other, later sources, is an act of cruelty. She casts out Hagar (mother of the Arab nation) and her son Ishmael into the desert. The book of Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer (an 8th century book of legends), blames her for this and absolves Abraham of any guilt: "and of all the hardship which had come to Abraham [italics mine, D.U.] this thing was very hard and bad." (ch. 30). Although several of the sources excuse Sarah's action on the grounds of Ishmael's plotting against Isaac, the impression remains, particularly in the biblical sources (Genesis 21) that this was an ugly act by a jealous woman, sending a mother and her child out into the arid desert where, had they not been helped by an angel, they would have died of thirst.

This article focuses on two Israeli plays from the 1990s which examine the myth of Sarah and rewrite it from a feminine aspect. First, however, we shall take a look at the place of women in Israeli theatre; a look that will explain the acuteness of this deconstruction of the male myth as executed by Shulamith Lapid on a major Israeli stage in Womb for Rent (1990); and by a fringe theatre group in a Jerusalem theatre in Sarah (1993).

Women in Israeli Theatre

The Hebrew theatre has been perceived by its audiences since its inception in the 1920s as a highbrow cultural activity whose contents are given great importance, to the extent of arousing public controversy following certain of its productions. Its audiences generally comprise the well-educated, who often deliberately choose original plays in order to examine for themselves, in a public place, and within their own "social group" the problems and conflicts which disturb them, including those questions of cultural identity which so bother an immigrant society. This combination of elements explains the importance of the public discussion of various issues in the Israeli theatre. In connection with the Israeli women's theatre, it is important to note the absence of certain subjects and "voices" from the plays.
Among the "participants" in the Israeli social discussion, as characterised by Yona Hadari-Ramage, the following are almost entirely absent: women, oriental Jews, and Palestinians:
In the arena of Public Thought, the Israeli discourse is generally one of men among themselves. A discourse of warriors, of fathers and sons, of buddies and even of rivals, etc. In the main the discourse is still that of the pioneering Askenazi Jew [of European origin], the white, blond, pure-in-deed male [...] his acts and words [...] they have suppressed all the others, religious, Asian and African immigrants, and women [.3 ]

Most of the Israeli theatre repertoire is a dialogue of male playwrights. The female characters have been depicted in the main from a male point of view. From the early period of settlement, before the establishment of the State, men were presented as those who made the desert bloom, who provided a defence against the marauding Arabs. Women's roles were restricted to mother-wife-sister-daughter figures: they were lovers, cooks, laundresses - but only rarely "allowed" to help on the land, perceived at that time as holy work.

Two plays are characteristic of the period - He Walked in the Fields by Moshe Shamir (staged in 1948 by the Cameri Theatre) and In the Plains of the Negev by Yigal Mossinsohn (staged in 1949 by HaBima Theatre). In both these, and in other plays, the central motif recurs in which sending a son to the battle field is perceived as a "binding of Isaac". Just as the original biblical story does not relate to Sarah and transforms this divine test of faith into one in which only the man is tested, so too in these plays are the men those who are "bound" or who "bind", and the women remain passively behind, anxious, weeping and suffering.
In plays from the period following the establishment of the State, women in many cases present the changing values in Israeli society. They are blamed for the disintegrating pioneering ideal and the hedonism and selfishness that have negatively influenced the world of the male, who had formerly devoted all his energy to the Zionist enterprise. It is particularly interesting to note that from the beginning of the 1970s, female characters in the plays of Hanoch Levine, the most successful of Israeli playwrights, constitute a sort of caricature of the Jewish mother, depicted as a domineering, graspingly materialistic monster.
The Hebrew theatre has only a small number of women playwrights. The number of original plays written by women which reach the stage is low, and this has remained the case even in the 1980s and 1990s, despite an increase in the number of playwrights. The male playwright domination of Israeli theatre is only one of its masculine characteristics. Administrative positions (artistic and otherwise) in the large theatres were always reserved for men. There are few women who have administered or are currently administering small theatres. At first glance, it would appear that Israeli theatre has reserved an important place for its actresses. However, their status as stage figures is determined by texts written and directed by men. Under such conditions it is "natural" for women's theatre in Israel to find its place on the fringes. The repertoire of women's plays dealing with women's issues is surprisingly small. It contains theatrical texts presenting the "authentic" views of women on events involving men, such as women's conversation about war; or the "social" plays which deal with family violence or battered women, etc. The number of plays aimed at "re-writing" the place of women in Jewish and Israeli myths is particularly small.
Those few plays which succeed in being "feminist theatre" are therefore important. Of equal importance is the interpretation these plays give to the Hebrew-Jewish myths from a female aspect, including the two contemporary feminist versions of Sarah's life history.

Womb for Rent (1990)

Shulamit Lapid's Womb for Rent (Cameri Theatre, directed by Ilan Ronen), is unusual in being a feminist text staged by one of the mainstream theatres. The circumstances of staging it in a public theatre also implied a covert feminist criticism of the myth of Sarah. This is a bourgeois-feminist re-reading of the myth.[4 ]
Under the heading "Embarrassing details about our Mother and Father", Amir Peleg summarizes Lapid's interpretation of the Sarah myth in her play:
The first Hebrews, the Fathers of the Nation, Abraham our father [(Avram in the play, D.U.] and Sarah our mother, are the mythological heroes of Womb for Rent, which uncovers their degeneracy, from a distance of almost four thousand years. It is only natural that the fathers of the Cameri theatre were chosen to present them on the stage. Shulamit Lapid, the playwright, transferred their story to Palestine of the early 1930s, a place in which Sarah (Hannah Marron) and Avram (Yossi Yadin) are still new immigrants, wandering from one architectural dig to another. Lapid herself dug into and researched the biblical sources, and discovered the following embarrassing details about our "father" and "mother": they were, it would appear, uncle and niece - "a cursed family, with everyone marrying one another." The barren Sarah, in the play as in the Bible, exploits her beauty to get officers and governors into her bed, in order to obtain benefits for herself and her husband. Her brother Lot (...) is the first to express the idea of putting his adopted daughter, Hagar (a minor), into Abraham's bed, and thus to arrange the matter of inheritance. Our father Abraham - who according to the sources led a life of celibacy with his wife, which according to Lapid was because of his secret affair with his young and handsome lieutenant, Eliezer - is much taken with the idea, and even after this union results in the birth of Ishmael, he will not forgo the favours of Lot's daughter. Little wonder, therefore, that Sarah cries out in protest and throws out the daughter and her baby, including the nurse. That way, at least, she and her Abraham will be able to grow old quietly. Then, however, the angels Gabriel, Michael and Rafael arrive and reveal to the pair that even at the age of seventy the pistol can still fire and hit the bullseye. And thus, in the end, Isaac is born.[5 ]

The interesting component in the tale of the play is what is missing from it - the binding of Isaac does not suit a narrative which deals principally with dwindling femininity, and thus its plot ignores it.

The theatre generally attempts to relate to reality, to draw upon its materials, to describe it, to criticise it and to translate it into an "autonomous" fictional world, with the help of artistic codes clearly separated from the real world. However, some of the theatrical components complicate, deliberately or in retrospect, this creation of a "credible" fictional world. Two of these components (comedy and celebrity) are linked to the actress Hannah Marron who plays the role of Sarah in the play Womb for Rent. Comedy, and other lowbrow genres, address the audience directly by means of the actors. "The resolution of a comedy comes," as noted by Northrop Frye, "from the audience's side of the stage." [6] Such direct addresses by comedy actors undermine, sometimes deliberately, the credibility of the stage reality, when they "raise" the spectators onto the stage or "lower" the actors into the audience. The celebrity too unfolds the fabric of fiction mainly through his own presence, of which both he himself and the spectators, who identify him as a celebrity, are aware. This can be confirmed by the reactions of the spectators. Whenever a famous actor makes his first entrance on stage in a French theatre, in the Boulevard theatres, this entrance is accompanied by applause even if it takes place in the middle of the second act. The combination of celebrity and the comic, or the casting of stars noted for their comic ability, can effectively serve ideological arguments as an amusing and instructive means of "alienation". A play written for an actress with both comic talent and celebrity status can thus be particularly effective for ideological purposes.

Hannah Marron has a rare comic talent. She addresses the audience directly, thereby creating and enjoying her own success. While Marron has indeed played many roles, including tragic ones, it would nevertheless appear (also confirmed in "confessions" magazines) that she herself particularly enjoys the comic roles; and she brings a comic quality even to her serious roles, releasing tension within the audience and returning it for a moment to the extra-theatrical reality.
In Israel, Hannah Marron is a celebrity. A celebrity is "someone" whom we know from outside the theatre too; someone who has particular qualities which continue (albeit not indefinitely) to keep him or her within the public eye. The celebrity is sustained, therefore, by public acknowledgement, which is not always the consequence of familiarity with his or her theatrical roles. Michael L. Quinn claims:
The celebrity figure is an alternative reference, competing with and structuring the role of the stage figure as it promotes its own illusion. The sequence can be graphed this way:
actor - celebrity figure - stage figure - audience.[7]

To these components we should also add: famous roles associated with the celebrity in the past and "quotes" from them, particularly the impressions of the celebrity's acting already stored in the spectators' memory banks. For spectators watching a celebrity act the enjoyment is doubled. They enjoy both the play itself and the pleasure of the acting which is linked in their minds to the "real" biographical details of the actor and their recollections of his previous roles. If the actor has also appeared in a television series, their enjoyment may be even greater; for a series, which involves frequent encounters between actor and spectator, engraves the actor even more deeply upon their memory, and may endow him, according to Martin Esslin, with a special status somewhere between fiction and reality - that of an almost mythological figure [.8] In the case of Hannah Marron, we should add to the above her previous roles, mainly the comic ones; the image she developed in the television sitcom Close Relations; the special quality of her voice; and the "cynicism" that several critics found in her way of expression; all of which combine to create the audience perception of Marron as Sarah in Womb for Rent. The appropriate graph for this play (and others) is circular:
Hannah Marron - Hannah Marron as celebrity: biography and theatre, TV and cinema biography - the image of Sarah (written specially for her) - Sarah in Womb for Rent as perceived by the audience as a celebrity version of Hannah Marron.

From the spectators' perspective, "Hannah Marron" is a text maintained by biographic items incorporating past appearances in the theatre and other media; within this text certain characteristics dominate, such as her sexual attraction, sharp tongue and sense of timing, her laughter ... even the name - Hannaleh, frequently used by journalists, and implying familiarity, indicate a special closeness - an intimacy which her stage personality solicits. Her biography has been summarised in the press, starting from the very outset of her career as an actress in Israel and up to articles dedicated to her seventieth birthday. Many articles recount her life history - from being a child wonder in the German theatre to present times, interweaving her relations with her mother, her parents' divorce, her three marriages, her special relationship with her first husband - the actor Yossi Yadin, who was also her permanent stage partner ... all this while frequently emphasizing the barrier she erects, and wishes to maintain, between her private life and her professional one. She herself characterizes her life as "schizophrenic" - "So there's the stage Hannah Marron and then there's Hannah Marron-Rechter, who is a person with different problems entirely." [9] Little wonder that the spectators (who are also the readers of the above-noted texts) relate to her "biography" when they encounter her on stage. As a text she is also characterised by her intertextuality with other similar/different texts, as are other actresses. She herself, as mentioned, supports "secondary texts" such as newspaper interviews, pre-performance articles, critics' reviews. All these nourish her existence as a celebrity both within and outside the theatre. Several of these interviews are also instructive regarding her fear of losing her actress-celebrity status (e.g. her story about the taxi driver who called to check whether she was "Hannah Rovina", "Ilana Rovina" or "Hannah Aharoni" - actress, singer and film star, respectively10); or her reservations about being eternally typecast by her television sitcom role, as well as fears that her success as a comic actress might affect her status as a serious dramatic actress. The unique nature of Marron's celebrity status regarding Womb for Rent lies in the theatre text having been written for an actress who is herself a text already; and in it making use of this celebrity element, deliberately directed at her comic talent.
From the playwright's perspective Womb for Rent is "a play about the mother and father of our nation - Sarah and Abraham. Hannaleh is Sarah our mother and Yossi Yadin is Abraham our father." [11] It is reported elsewhere that the theatre approached Shulamith Lapid with a request to write a special play for Hannah Marron, who is considered in the public consciousness as one of the "founders" of the Cameri theatre. The press also note that Lapid hoped that an additional founding father of the Cameri theatre, Yossi Yadin (son of a well-known Israeli archeologist) would take part in the play, "and thus on the associative path, the family of Abraham and Sarah became the archeologist's family," linked in her mind with "digging", "also in its sense of soul-searching, like an archeologist of the soul." Lapid also revealed an additional layer of the text and performance: "Fantasy constitutes redemption for my characters, which depend upon the imagination as something consolatory, compensatory and enriching, just like finding a refuge in the theatre, cinema or literature, which amuse and entertain the imagination." [12] Her intentions here are more toward the world of the performing actors than that of the dramatis personae, for a barrier has been lowered between actors and their roles which may not have been there at the beginning.

The appearance of a celebrity in the theatre may undermine authority, which is placed in conflict - much like the relationship between men and women. The celebrity may cause a breakdown of order in not being part of the ensemble of characters; and in shattering the illusion of coherence of the fictional world, meant to be established in a theatrical text by the presence of the character who is herself a familiar text to the audience. Hannah Marron recognises her own celebrity status: "I've been in the theatre for many years and 'legends' have already sprung up about me." [13 ]If we add to this her comic ability, which in itself can contribute to "disrupting" the rules of the fictional world, we can understand the deep connection between Lapid and Marron in a text which contains, as noted by several critics, "feminist intentionality"; a connection within the Israeli theatre system in which men have a "natural" senior status. Such intentionality is perhaps to be found in the weak roles given to men in the play, as noted by the men themselves. Yossi Yadin, almost grumbles in an interview: "It's been said that Shulamith Lapid wrote a feminist-chauvinist play. In dealing mostly with the character of Sarah." He continues enviously: "The figure of Sarah was tailor-written for Hannah Marron. And she still claims that she tailor-made Abraham for me - she seems to have erred by a few centimetres here and there."14 It may well be that this is what Lapid aimed for, in wanting to strengthen the female image and the "female voice" at the expense of the male figures, whose common denominator is their wretchedness, and who are made to play alongside Sarah (Hannah) and not at the centre of attention.
The game of spectating to which the audience is invited in Womb for Rent is complex, and constructed upon a row of dichotomies which present the conflict between man and woman:

  •  Providing the cultural background we find Abraham-Sarah, parents of the nation, whose biblical myth presents the man as superior and the women in his shadow. Lapid is interested in replacing the masculine approach to the myth with the feminine one; from this aspect the play is not "a deconstruction of the myth", as claimed by one critic, [15] but rather its "feminist reading".
  • The "husband" and the "wife". It is the "husband", in the biographies which Hannah Marron provides through the press, who makes demands upon her, among other things because of her roles as wife and mother, which restrict her theatre appearances. "I try to perform only once a year [...] I have, God bless them, three very nice children. It's important that I'm at home occasionally and get involved in the problems of football. And I have a husband, and he too wants to see his wife at home from time to time - definitely not an exaggerated request. You should know that my profession is not a particularly good one for women.[16 ]
  • Avram-Sarah in the play: he as a well-known archeologist and she as his aging wife whose beauty has faded.
  • And, principally, Hannah Marron as Sarah and Yossi Yadin as Avram, in a reversed patriarchal "order" to that of the previous dichotomous pairs, with Marron, as one critic described her acting: "making full use of her dramatic power and comic talent"; while Yadin, like the rest of the male figures: "is made of cardboard!" [17 ]

The feminine discourse in the play challenges the female status in relation to men as well as the presentation of a woman as a sexual object who exists for men's pleasure - like having her bottom pinched (already in the first scene of the play) and being used sexually by men for their own self-serving purposes. Hannah Marron is particularly suited to this role as an actress whose sexual image is part of her celebrity text. Like Sarah in the play, she too "confesses": "When I was young, I was very successful, I always had suitors. I think I still do today. What do I care if they gossip about me? It's flattering." [18] Indeed, one critic found that Marron: "really does look ageless, sexy and amusing." [19] However, "aging is a particular problem for a beautiful woman," [20] stated Marron in an interview, which in the play becomes a monologue in which Hannah-Sarah describes her fading beauty when faced with Hagar, a young women and her adopted daughter, who is reawakening her husband's sexuality. For, indeed, if the success of an actress in the Israeli theatre depends upon beauty and "sexiness", then she will surely be replaced by a younger woman, who will serve those same male needs.

Many details in the play support Marron the actress and celebrity as Sarah: her age, her image as a desirable woman. The playwright directs Hannah-Sarah to laugh (her special rolling laugh) at the "masculine" biblical myth which enables such "miracles" as a 90 year old woman giving birth to her 100 year old husband's child. At the end of the play Sarah sums up the feminine message in the play as one of male exploitation and the contrasting effect of time on the two sexes: "Yes, Avram investigated the past, so now he has a future. I was interested in the present, so now I have a past." [21]
Womb for Rent is a play written by a female playwright for an actress in a male world. It is a text in which the "biography" and theatrical career of Hannah Marron combine in a feminine effort to rectify the biblical myth of Sarah. This is put to use in a play which contests the masculine narrative by means of the celebrity Hannah Marron and her comic ability, in order to introduce the present version of the feminine "voice" of the past.

Sarah, 1993

The affiliation of women's theatre to the fringes of the system is particularly apparent in its specific forms. The repertory theatre trends toward works of a coherent nature; narratives with a beginning, middle and end, as well as a tendency to the spectacular: technologically advanced stages, sophisticated scenery, varied lighting, and a wide selection of costume and props. The identity of the women's theatre has developed from its objection to the central, patriarchal mainstream, and its consequent choice of alternative characteristics. Both fringe theatre and women's theatre trend towards the fragmentary and minimalist. Such characteristics are particularly suitable to emphasize their message and contradict those views and beliefs which differ from the "accepted". In works by the Theatre Company of Jerusalem (TCJ), the theatrical-experimental form serves the demand for "a new Judaism" - a Judaism in which there is a well-deserved place for women, who choose for this purpose - following the path of the American intellectual writer Cynthia Ozick - to set out against the injustice inherent in the sub-human status demonstrated by the Torah toward women:
If we look only into Torah, we see that the ubiquitousness of women's condition applies here as well. [...] Women's quality of lesserness, of otherness, is laid down at the very beginning, as paradigm and as rule: at the start of the Creation of the World women is given an inferior place[.22 ]

The masculine model of theatre is presented in one of the TCJ's plays, The Last Play (1992), as a model to be shaken off; it echoes the words of the French poet, playwright and essayist, Helene Cixous. Cixous, who is not known by the TCJ, closely approaches them in her concepts and plays, and will be helpful in understanding their theatrical activity. In a short essay "Aller a la mer", [23] Cixous refers to the problematic link between women and theatre. The theatre serves the "male fantasy" in which well-known female figures (such as Electra, Ophelia or Cordelia) are always the victims, always exploited, disappointed, and serve as a mirror for the heroic male. Such a theatre suppresses femininity which refuses to remain silent: "and if, like Cordelia, she finds the strength to assert a femininity which refuses to be the mirror of her father's ravings, she will die." [24 ]

The Last Play, a collaborative work by Joyce (Rinat) Miller and Aliza Elion-Israeli, offers a re-write ("writing as re-enactment" from the masculine model according to Helene Cixous) of feminine characters: So he gave me the stage as if it belonged to him [...] he wants a monodrama? Monodrama? He probably thinks that I'll begin with a major classic role. Medea (acting:) "We women are a cursed race." That's what Euripides put in her mouth before he let her kill her two children. Why do I need to be a party to this perversion written by men? Why do I constantly continue doing exactly what Michel wants, even now, on the stage that is all mine, when there is nobody here to bother me with their Doll's House fantasies. Michel wanted me to play Medea like a witch and Ophelia like a betrayed and innocent virgin [...] What's he afraid of? I've actually played both of them as clever women with great sensitivity, standing on the brink of an abyss.

The TCJ has several features in common with other women's theatre: its organisation, themes and theatrical forms and strategies. From the organisational point of view, this theatre has no hierarchy: its female participants share their ideas, the writing, acting and directing. They are assisted by guest directors and additional actors/actresses. They work as an ensemble, with most of the writing done by Aliza Elion-Israeli. Preparation is accompanied by research by all the participants, and does not cease with the first performance. Their choices involve the audience, and they are known for their tendency to continue shaping the play even after its preparations are "complete" (as in Sarah Take 1 which was changed and updated to Sarah Take 2). This continuous process leads to an extensive examination throughout the life of the play, of questions relating to feminist issues. The playwright and actresses use various techniques of persuasion, such as different theatrical styles: comedy, musical or cabaret. Among the accepted distinctions between the different directions of women's theatre - "bourgeois" feminism, radical and "socialist/materialist" - the TCJ tends towards the radical which proposes a feminist counter-culture. This direction is characterized by Elaine Aston as "investigating the possibilities of a gender based ritualized style of theatre which seeks the emotional, mythical and historical keys to woman centred culture." [25 ]
The Jerusalem Theatre Group has been active since 1982 "mainly with plays from Jewish sources". Its Jewish identity is linked with the biography of each of its participants. Gavriella Lev, Ruth Wieder and Aliza Elion-Israeli refer to the Jewish tradition in both their work and lives. Gavriella and Ruth are sisters who grew up in Australia in a religious family of holocaust survivors, while Aliza was born and raised in a secular Israeli home. They keep many of the mitzvot [religious commandments] "but the concept 'religious' means little to me" states Elion-Israeli.

In contemporary feminist theatre in which women seek to present an "active subject", they turn towards an "interrogative style" of text and performance practice,26 demonstrated by the work of the TCJ as described by Aliza Elion-Israeli: "our process evolved from within the tradition [...] study as a way of life [...] the creative system is therefore a process of study. We thus approach the material as it has been taught in the havrutot [groups of students] throughout the years in the yeshivot [colleges for Torah study]".
Burdening the women with dumbness is also described by Helene Cixous. In one of her references to her own Jewishness (which she terms juifemme - Jewoman) she explains the subordination of the juifemme as an arbitrary act by a male whose claims to the superiority of a father as God, she refutes:
What is a father? The one taken for father. The one recognised as the true one. "Truth", the essence of fatherhood, its force as law. The "chosen" father[.27 ]

Cixous believes that the main political and ethical roles of the theatre lie in its correcting injustice and rehabilitating disabilities, as well as in creating an unbiased openness to the "other" (ibid. 127-144). There is a clear trend in the Jerusalem Theatre Group repertoire towards those "other(s)" in Israeli society: women, oriental Jews, and Arabs.

An important part of Cixous' theoretical and practical work relates to deconstruction: "Derridean deconstruction will have been the greatest ethical critical warning gesture of our time: careful! Let us not be the dupe of logocentric authority." [28] Deconstruction serves her as a strategy in demolishing those myths which support the patriarchal system and in abrogating their "natural" status. She conceives the Oresteia as a narrative in which patriarchism overcomes and defeats matriarchism, and firmly installs father and son, Agamemnon and Orestes, at the centre of things; while the daughter, Electra, serves the aims of phallocentrism, for her voice is the clearest in its demand to revenge her father's death by killing her mother.[29] The JTC too studies, dissects and rewrites the myths from their feminist aspect. Their approach to the figure of Sarah is similar to Cixous' feminist "reading" of myths, according to Elion-Israeli:
One can approach the sources from contradictory directions. As in the case of Sarah. One can claim: How does one turn the mother of the nation into a barren woman? And not just barren, but without a womb? What sort of culture are we? In which a woman who is supposed to be the 'fertile mother', has her tale told by a male culture; which removes her womb so that she will not be able to give birth naturally but only by means of a miracle from God - who is a man. The image of Sarah in particular is important because historically she is situated on the border between the matriarchal and the patriarchal cultures. This does indeed generate anger. But that's the way it is, that's the tradition we have for Sarah. Sarah does not speak out in any of the Bible stories. She is a silent character. We do not set out against what is told. We understand it in our own way. For us, Sarah is the hero of the play. She speaks throughout the play and we give her many opportunities to say what we think she says; mainly to say the world of Abraham her husband is not her world. She says to her son Isaac: "The world that you and your father have created is not my world [...] my world is a world of plenty [...] of embryos and of benediction."

French feminism, principally Cixous, presents the male/female dualism as deterministic and does not believe in a harmonious solution. The JTC raises both questions and doubts in this direction. The "duality" of Sarah is recognizable in its feminist narrative structure that sharply diverges from the masculine narrative characteristic of mainstream theatre. Teresa De Laurtis, in her semiotic research into cinema, characterises narrative strategies according to gender, most of which fall into the masculine category. Between the genders, on screen (and on stage) there is a rigid division of labour: the man in many narratives is the subject who initiates the path to adventure, while the woman (the "princess") is merely the sought after object, neither active nor activating. [30] To contest this dominant model, Cixous proposes a theatre with a powerful physical female presence at its centre. Non-theatrical. Without a barrier between stage and auditorium. And there is "no need for plot or action." [31] Like Cixous (and Teresa de Laurtis), Gabriella Lev exposes a concept of separation between the male and female models:
The model of western theatre - a linear plot constructed towards a climax followed by relaxation of tension - is a masculine model. Our plays are constructed along feminist lines: they are episodic, circular, containing various interwoven elements, all equally important. We leave things open, which also contrasts with the masculine model.[32]

The play Sarah is constructed like a lesson in a havruta. The spectators' seats are arranged around the acting space. The texts relating to Sarah are projected onto the wall; the audience sits up close, experiencing and learning together with the actors. During the performance the various midrashim which recount "Sarah's life history" are examined, and emphasis is diverted from the heroic image of Abraham to the almost reticent figure of Sarah. By means of masks and a slide projector, the spectator becomes aware of her multi-faceted image. The director Serge Ouaknine "was fascinated by the dialogue between the archaic and mythological Sarah and her image as our contemporary." [33] We therefore find three Sarahs on stage - the biblical Sarah, the Sarah of the Talmud and Midrash, and the contemporary Sarah. During the course of most of the scenes the actresses undergo a transition from ancient biblical times to the period of the Talmud and Midrash and to a feminist present in Israel. They seek the common denominator whose main issue is the status of women in Judaism.

A sense of tension, emanating from the contradiction that has no solution, accompanies a study of Sarah, many clear expressions of which can be found in the text, such as the emphasis on duality in all the components of both form and content, which express the sharp divide between man and woman. The play occasionally evokes among some critics and members of the audience the illusion that it is attempting to solve the problem from a feminist perspective, within the framework of the existing halacha; but this is only an intermediate strategy enabling the playmakers to progress in a radical direction. It can serve as a case study from the female point of view, questioning the spirit and authority of the harsh male halacha. The play aims at revealing another halacha and a different Judaism. Not only a Judaism in which there is a place for woman, but a Judaism in which the female spirit guides the way of life.

The two theatrical versions of "Sarah's life history" differ greatly from one another. In common, nonetheless, is their understanding of the severity of Hagar's banishment, as well as their anchoring the tale in present day contextual Palestinian reality. Ann Hackett cuttingly formulated the injustice done to Hagar in the biblical story (Genesis 21:9-21): [...] this story can be seen to make a point about the kind of power some human beings have over other human beings, and perhaps especially over a human being who is in the most vulnerable position possible: female, slave, and foreign.[ 34 ]

In Womb for Rent, which was staged during the period of the intifada (the Palestinian rebellion in the occupied territories), there are few indications of those same Palestinian offspring of Hagar who had been humiliated, suppressed and finally rebelled. In Sarah, in contrast, there is a more clear cut reference to the Jewish-Palestinian dispute. In Sarah too there is a request for Hagar's forgiveness, which is accompanied nonetheless with a justification for banishing her together with Ishmael: [...] I ask forgiveness. (turns to audience) I ask forgiveness from all of you. In the books - they didn't let me speak. I stood there hard as iron: 'Go, Hagar!' I said to her. 'Now! For this dispute is not only between you and me. It belongs to all the generations to come. - Go! And only an angel from heaven can help you. For know that this quarrel is not only about position.' And I let her go and watch how her child was thirsting in the desert. And I was even right, yes Isaac, I was right. But there has to be some other way that doesn't end in a mother sitting at a distance from her child, watching him starve.

Sarah, who was wronged, in turned wronged Hagar and Ishmael. Neither of the two playwrights are “happy” with this turn of affairs in “Sarah’s life history”, but they both deal more with the insult to one women and less with the tragedy of the other.


Citations with no reference to source are all taken my interviews with Aliza Elion-Israeli and Gavriella Lev.
[1]. Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach, Tel Aviv, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1996, 61. (Hebrew)
[2.] In the chapter on Abraham on the book by Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Ramat Gan, Massada, 1967, vol. 2., 1-68. (Hebrew)
[3.] Yona Hadari-Ramage, Thinking It over: Conflicts in Israeli Public Thought, Ramat Efal, Yad Tabenkin and Yediot Aharonot, 1994, 20. (Hebrew).
[4.] Elaine Aston, An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre, London and New York, Routledge, 1995, 65-66.
[5.] Amir Peleg, "Embarrassing facts about our Father and Mother", Hadashot 30 March 1990.
[6.] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1971, 164.
[7. ]Michael L. Quinn, "Celebrity and the semiotics of acting", New Theatre Quarterly, 22 May 1990, 154-161.
See also: Marvin Carlson, "Invisible presences-performance intertextuality", Theatre Research International, vol. 19, no. 2, summer 1994, 111-117.
[8.] Martin Esslin, The Age of Television, San Francisco, Freeman, 1982, 41-45.
[9. ]Hannah Marron (interview), "This nation is expecting to be told: No!", LaIsha, 29 December 1975. (Hebrew)
[10]. Hannah Marron (interview), "This terrible compulsion to be otherwise", Ha'Aretz, 22 October 1976. (Hebrew)
[11.] Haim Nagid, "Hannah our mother and Yossi our father", Ma'ariv, 22 January 1990. (Hebrew)
[12.] Daniella Fisher, "Who will be the mother?", Al Ha'Mishmar, 8 April 1990.
[13.] Yirmi Amir, "I've always had suitors", Yediot Aharonot, 20 April 1990. (Hebrew)
[14.] Dan Urian, "Theatre needs to arouse, not to give answers. Dan Urian interviews Yossi Yadin", Bamah, 13, 1991, 123-124. (Hebrew)
[15.] Michael Handelsaltz, "Deconstructing the myth", Ha'Aretz, 18 June 1990. (Hebrew)
[16.] Rachel Inbar, "From the creator's house", Bamah, 36, 1968, 56. (Hebrew)
[17.] Shosh Avigal, "They missed the biblical story", Hadashot, 22 May 1990. (Hebrew)
[18.] note 13.
[19].Giora Manor,"Meteorological-archeological and Madatory-bibilical", Al Ha'Mishmar, 18 June 1990. (Hebrew)
[20.] note 13.
[21.] Shulamith Lapid, Womb for Rent, Tel Aviv, 1990, 95.
[22.] Cynthia Ozick, "Notes Toward Finding the Right Question", Forum, 35, 1979, 56.
[23.] This title can be translated as "Going to the Seaside" or "Going to the Mother".
[24.] Helene Cixous, "Aller a la mer", Le Monde, 28 Avril 1977, trans. Barbara Kerslake in Modern Drama, Vol. 27, No. 4, December 1984, 546-548.
[25.] Aston, note 5, 68.
[26]. Lizbeth Goodman, Contemporary Feminist Theatres: To Each Her Own, London and New York, Routledge, 1993, 21.
[27.] Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1991, 103.
[28.] Helene Cixous, "Preface", The Helene Cixous Reader, Susan Sellers (ed.), London and New York, Routledge, 1994, xviii.
[29]. Cixous, note 27, 191-98.
[30.] "The mythical subject is constructed as human being and as male; he is the active principle of culture, the establisher of distinction, the creator of differences. Female is what is not susceptible to transformation, to life or death; she (it) is an element of plot-space, a topos, a resistance, matrix and matter." Teresa De Laurtis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984, 119.
[31]. Cixous, note 24, 547.
[32.] Lee Evron, "Blessed Be He For Making Me a Woman", Jerusalem, 29 October 1993. (Hebrew).
[33. ]Motti Neiger, "The chapter on Sarah's life", Kol Ha'Ir, 29 October 1993.
[34.] Ann Hackett, "Rehabilitating Hagar: fragments of an epic pattern", in: Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, Peggy L. Day (ed.), Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1989, 25.

All rights reserved to  Dan Urian

“So Sarah Laughed to Herself”, was published in Modern Jewish Mythologies, Glenda Abramson ed., Hebrew Union College Press, 2000, pp. 89-106. pp. 99-102

Bookmark    Print    Send to friend    Post a comment  

There are currently no comments about this article

Dan Urian

Copyright © 2002 - 2015 All About Jewish Theatre. All rights reserved.
Concept and Content by NCM Productions | Graphic Design by Sharon Carmi | Programming by Tigersoft, Ltd.
Privacy Policy | Site Map | Contact Us