Playwright Zellnik, and actor Glenn Fleshler
A couple weeks back a guy named David Zellnik emailed me, asking me to come see a reading of his play: “Ariel Sharon Stands at the Temple Mount and Dreams of Theodor Herzl.” What a title! So crazily, breathtakingly ambitious—I knew I had to go.
I was blown away. Last Thursday, the Epic Theatre Center staged a reading and “talkback” at the Beckett Theater on 42d Street, and I confess I was crying at its savage conclusion. Zellnik’s play seems to me important as an artistic signal of change—the criticism of Israel that is mounting among young progressive Jews.
But first: what the hell is it?
“Ariel Sharon Stands at the Temple Mount and Dreams of Theodor Herzl” reimagines Israel’s history by dramatically linking the Viennese journalist and playwright Herzl, who founded the Zionist movement in the 1890s, with Ariel Sharon. The two men dream of each other in Zellnik’s play, which begins when Herzl loses a tender friend to suicide and creates a golem—a Yiddish Frankenstein—of that friend and undoes the original’s softness. A century on and that golem becomes a (literally) insatiable monster, Ariel Sharon, who, steeped in war and massacre, hates Arabs and is consumed with the idea of taking all the hilltops in the Palestinian territories to create a greater Israel.
The play is stunning not so much because of its imaginings, but because of its unnuanced morality. Its facts may be debatable, but its moral is emphatic: the Jewish state is brutal to Palestinians. The theater critic Alisa Solomon was at the staging. “We need to acknowledge that there will be people who will attack it,” she said, with understatement. Later Solomon (who is co-editor with Tony Kushner of the fine collection, Wrestling With Zion) told me she found the play “unusual” and “exciting.” Yes it is “provocative,” but she said that Zellnik had quoted history responsibly. “And the history is full of shocking moments.”
I called the playwright to find out, How a sweet Jewish boy named Zellnik could make such a thing?
Zellnik is 35. His late father was born in Vienna and fled the Holocaust with his family in 1939. Zellnik has never been to Israel, but that background gave him authority. “I’m intensely proud of being a New York Jew. I love New York. I feel that this is the promised land for Jews. I get upset when Israel is portrayed as the homeland… I do feel tremendous sadness and engagement with Israel. My first memories of it, as a conscious human being, was the first intifada.”
Zellnik points out that earlier generations of Jews were formed by the ’67 war, and a vision of heroic Israel defeating its wicked Arab neighbors. He has come of age with a very different idea of Israel. And he has read the so-called New Historians of Israel, Jewish scholars who contest a lot of the founding myths.
His play is heavily-researched, and when readings of it were staged last summer by the Chautauqua (N.Y.) Theater Company, it brought attacks from “a lot of angry Jews,” as Zellnik says with a half-smile. “About half the people who came to the play were very upset. Israel brings out the crazies and the crazy part of otherwise sane people. A 13-year-old said, ‘Why don’t you do a play about George Washington as a war criminal?’ Someone else compared it to a Hamas suicide bomber. I say, God bless the Hamas suicide bomber who gets on a bus and performs a play.”
Something impressive about Zellnik is his self-possession. He can hear the A word—anti-Semitic—thrown at him without getting agonized or guilty. He responds to attacks with statements like, “I know the facts are contested. I do understand there’s incredible disagreement. But I had to go with the scholarship that I believe.” He is calm, and dreamy as his play.
I can’t wait for it to reach a New York stage in a true production. It is a big play, with visions and violence—and the big and splendidly physical Glenn Fleshler as Sharon—and deserves to be seen and, yes, argued about. “One upstate theater company was very interested, the artistic director was excited about it, then he showed it to his community board,” Zellnik relates. “Half of them said, This is anti-Semitic, we will not do it. It could kill our funding.”
Ron Russell, a non-lily-livered founding producer at Epic, praises the work: “beautifully immense.” As he cleared chairs from the stage, he told me that Epic might put it on in the next 12 months, but he can’t commit (there are several contenders). He also says that the Rachel Corrie problem, the New York Theatre Workshop’s sudden abandonment of a play composed of the late 23-year-old protester’s words before she died in Gaza, will not afflict Epic. For her part, Solomon worries that the play will get “workshopped to death” without ever reaching a New York stage. That would be political tragedy.