By Lally KatzDrama
A Golem Story
Lally Katz didn’t know much about golems, the mystical Jewish creature, until she began researching them for this play, commissioned by Michael Kantor. She says that the golem mystery soon became her ‘whole world’; this is her take on the legend.
Set in fear-ravaged Prague in the sixteenth century, a rabbi creates an avenging golem out of clay, after an emperor declares a purging of the ghetto. But when the golem begins killing indiscriminately, he must contain what he has created. The story carries resonance well beyond its setting, raising questions about appropriate responses to violence – and what we do about the monsters we create to defend ourselves (like nuclear weapons).
The play is rich with philosophy and humour, and while it marks a departure from Katz’s usual oeuvre, it is not out of place with the fractured fantasies of her past works.
On her influential blog Theatre Notes, Alison Croggon calls the play ‘a parable of power, politics and transgression’ with ‘a disciplined, episodic narrative that draws on a number of golem stories and gives a contemporary twist’.
Lally Katz’s A Golem Story is a confronting and haunting parable of authority and transgression. What sacrifice will we offer to protect our beliefs and satisfy our desires when the happiness of one people is at the expense of another? When protecting ourselves from persecution is to unleash an uncontrollable weapon? With exceptional elegance and control, Lally Katz recharges a traditional fable to boldly connect it with the contemporary imagination. Just as her golem is brought to life by a word, Katz’s world is powerfully conjured through language and its unpredictable powers of activation.
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Lally Katz’s play premiered in 2011 at the Malthouse Theatre and is a period drama honouring the Judaeic folk tale of the monster made from clay who serves its creator when a tablet bearing the name of God is put into its mouth: the golem. The golem, like its inspiration, Frankenstein, is an unpredictable and inhuman creature capable of eliciting great pathos. The Golem of Prague appears first in Czechoslovakian folklore, but my first introduction was the 1920s German expressionist film, Der Golem. Its director, Paul Wegener went on to become an artist ‘for the state’ under the Nazi regime, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that troubling political vibrations shake up my unequivocal admiration of this script.
Katz makes a rich offering of language to the actors, particularly Ahava, a ‘young Jewish woman’ who is much more (and less) than that. Rhythm and repetition lend themselves to a juicily non-naturalistic approach and we are immediately drawn into an atmosphere of foreboding:
Ahava: Something terrible has happened …
Rabbi: Yes. Something terrible has happened.
Our protagonist, Ahava, unfolds her longing to make conscious the vast emptiness inside her – an absence of soul, of God, of Jewishness, of womanhood. Invited into a complex and layered realm, nevertheless, from the first lines we are expertly and firmly placed in space and time:
Ahava: Is this Prague?
Rabbi: Yes. It is Prague.
Ahave: What year is it?
Rabbi: It is 1580.
Ahava: Am I Jewish?
Ahava remembers little except that her fiancé, Israel Ha-Chassid, was killed before their wedding; in fact, in an act of great portent, he cut his own throat. The connection between them, his ‘shaping’ of her, possessing her and finally being dragged from her, leaving her ‘empty’, is beautifully resolved when, toward the climax of the play, we discover Ahava’s true identity.
The Emperor’s Guard is at the gates with a warning. A child is dead, sparking a call of blood libel, a corrupt and ruthless contrivance to justify persecution of Jewish communities. The guard reveals to Ahava the awful truth about who is killing the orphans of Prague. Ahava’s longing to know herself – ‘What do I feel like? Do I feel like a woman?’ – seems to redress the balance of power and like Amos, the rabbi’s young student, it is the guard who seems threatened and retreats.
Because in 2012 it is impossible to divorce a volatile Jewish narrative from the political context of the Israel/Palestine tragedy, it is Amos (who ultimately refuses to help the rabbi create the golem) who utters, in my opinion, some of the most charged statements of the play: ‘Forgive me. For speaking as though my perspective is the inalterable truth.’ The rabbi asks Ahava to be the ‘other’ that is necessary to enact the occult ritual of creation. Ahava asks if the golem will bring her back to God and Amos replies, ‘No. It will drive Him further.’
Like a Sophoclean messenger, Amos reports on the victory of the golem over the forces of the oppressor, winning the rabbi the audience he desired. ‘… for a long time, it was easy to let my people punish you,’ the Emperor tells him, ‘But now, you have the golem.’ A deal is struck, but when the guard hears that only the complaint of parents can be used to charge a blood libel, he contemplates the murder of his own son. ‘It is not hate,’ he tells Ahava. ‘It is reason.’ Golem stories seldom end well, and the chilling conclusion of A Golem Story is no exception.
In the Malthouse production (which I really wish I had seen), the golem was represented by light and chanting (as was the calf) and the text augmented with traditional Yiddish songs. I shall certainly look out for the next interpretation of this very beautiful and troubling play.
Clare is also a director and ‘occasional actor’, and creator of Literary Rats.
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