Theatre can heal our wound
GROWING UP in Bournemouth, it was almost holy writ: “when thou art seven or eight, thou shalt join the shul’s drama society and there thou shalt remain, yea, even unto thy barmitzvah year.” It certainly was compulsory in my house, as my father ran the society. Once a year, Dad would retire to the typewriter to pen a new script on a Jewish theme, with judiciously selected comedy routines from Not The Nine O’Clock News or Monty Python integrated into the story of Moses or Samson (his play on the Entebbe raid had scenes from Airplane).
These were great and transformative experiences for generations of children, which none of us have forgotten – and not just for the moment of incredulity we all experienced seeing The Life Of Brian for the first time and realising that, gasp, the Pythons had plagiarised my father’s scripts.
Working together so intensively on these shows, learning our lines, overcoming our fears, receiving applause for our labours: these taught us lessons we took with us into adulthood.
Theatre in Jewish history has been by turns hailed and reviled. The Talmud refers to “theatres and circuses of idolatory” but by the same token, theatricality is omni-present and potent in the religion and, emanating from there, in the wider culture. What after all is your average synagogue set-up but a promenade performance space, with the main stage, the bimma, in amongst the audience and a handy traverse up to the second stage where the theatrical splendour of the ark awaits moments of high drama?
What is the seder service if not a series of dramatic revelations? What are the notes prescribed for Torah readings if not brilliantly calculated control of a musical-dramatic flow?
The Torah itself could scarcely be more theatrically-orientated. Oh, I know there are pages and pages of lists and we’re condemned to be told who begat who at inordinate length (mind you, I’ve sat through some similarly dull experiences in Theatreland) but the bits we remember are the bits which spawned plays, musicals, films. Moses removing his shoes before the burning bush and later donning his flippers for the parting of the Red Sea, a true coup de theatre from the Almighty. Joseph telling his dream interpretations to a rapt audience. Jacob acting the part in dress and voice of his brother Esau. The understanding of overarching dramatic architecture in the Five Books is masterly.
Small wonder then the reach and influence of Jews and Jewish culture in the arts world. They fill our stages. They creatively power the film industry. You can scarcely go to a high-level classical concert without encountering leading Jewish musicians. And as a West End and Broadway impresario once told me, “Jewish audiences are hugely important – a producer’s bread and butter.”).
All of which you know. As a people we are proud of the arts and of our artists. Often in a slightly superficial, slightly boastful (admit it) “look how much we’ve achieved” way.
But most art is based on ideas of structure. Once you understand it, you can choose to develop it or even subvert it (itself a kind of development). But unless you know how the form works, you can’t master it. A society with the arts at its heart is a society which at an ingrained level understands structure as a concept, and how to use structure – including social and political structures – as a way of progressing through life.
There was no significant Jewish presence in the riots that afflicted the UK. The current political protests driving Israel’s tent cities at present are ordered and safe. Our understanding of the arts is related to these truths.
When they’re working out how to respond to the mayhem, the UK government should take note of the potential of the arts to help a society find its structure. Why did Jewish Children’s Theatre start? To ease friction between Bournemouth’s Orthodox and Reform communities by bringing children together. Through theatre.
James Inverne is editor of Gramophone