Falling With a Thud: Levi on Levi (and Galileo)

Theater

By Raphael Mostel

Published January 21, 2009, issue of January 30, 2009.
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‘Falling Bodies” begins with a march recalling “L’histoire du Soldat” (“The Soldier’s Tale”), but understandably, without Stravinsky’s jaunty, off-kilter sensibility. Then the two actors begin a dialogue that seems to ask the tasteless question: Did Primo Levi fall to his death faster than a pasta pot?

LEANING AGAINST THE PRINCIPLE OF INDUCTION: Galileo, top, and Primo Levi, scientists of towering achievements.
LEANING AGAINST THE PRINCIPLE OF INDUCTION: Galileo, top, and Primo Levi, scientists of towering achievements.

Or, maybe we should rephrase that: Did he fall at the same speed as a pasta pot? Is a stalk of celery simply food, or salvation? But more important, were Galileo and Primo Levi both major soccer fans? And would you mind communing with those thoughts while some beautifully played, indifferent music marks time?

These and other equally irrelevant cryptic questions are pondered throughout the show, an inert and appallingly facile imagining of, in the words of the author,

“a meeting among three musicians and the Italian scientists Galileo Galilei and Primo Levi — one persecuted by the Inquisition, the other by the Nazis. Together they watch soccer on television, listen to music, and ponder the properties of falling bodies, from the heights of Galileo’s Tower of Pisa to the depression of Levi’s final moments in Turin.”

The playwright is agnostic on whether Primo’s death was suicide, preferring to quote Elie Wiesel’s comment that he “died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.”

Seen in Manhattan, at the Rubin Museum of Art, in what the author described as a “concert reading, unstaged,” “Falling Bodies” is one of a series of works written and directed by Jonathan Levi (no relation to Primo, and pronounced differently), with music director/violinist Gil Morgenstern for Nine Circles Chamber Theatre, which the two men co-founded for this series of works. Bill Camp played Galileo gravely, and Kathleen McElfresh portrayed a winsome Primo Levi. Bruce Saylor, an otherwise credible composer, provided the tedious, derivative but well-crafted music. Morgenstern, percussionist Yousif Sheronick and flutist Lauren Weiss breathed as much life into the limp score as it would allow.

Before going further, I feel obliged on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust, even more than on behalf of Primo Levi and Galileo, to state that I found the whole endeavor not just dramatically underwhelming, but also intellectually offensive in its core assumptions and conception. Playwright Jonathan Levi insists repeatedly that the Holocaust was not unique, since there have been, and will always be, genocides. This appears to be the central motivation and raison d’être of the piece. The playwright was at pains to explain, in his spoken introduction from the stage, that the Holocaust never meant anything special to him personally. No matter what his intentions, this personal disavowal made him sound like nothing so much as the solipsistic, wicked son of the Passover parable: It happened to others, not to him.

To “prove” the Holocaust’s unexceptional status, Jonathan Levi uses Galileo’s scientific method of repeating an experiment over and over to confirm that the result will always be the same (the method is called Induction — in contradistinction to Deduction), as with his famous experiment of dropping different sized objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. No matter the object — whether the pasta pot of Galileo’s landlady; a cannonball, or Primo Levi himself, in the stairwell of his home in Turin — Galileo has determined that everything falls at the same speed. Therefore, the Holocaust is just one of many genocides, no?

Unseemly as it is to engage in comparative victimhood, it is unfortunately true that genocides keep recurring, some on a scale rivaling or occasionally exceeding that of the Nazi madness. But limitations of Galileo’s method of Induction have been expressed recently by the black swan theory, which chides groupthink preclusion of the rare anomaly. Just because every swan you’ve seen is white doesn’t mean there’s not a rare black one somewhere else.

The Holocaust isn’t just some “game” of numbers or calculation of suffering. Wiesel himself, along with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Serge Klarsfeld, Claude Lanzmann and many others, see it as a black swan among the tragic recurrence of genocides, because of its combination of scope, “normalization” of procedures within the structures of an advanced functioning society and the specificity of its victimizations — all yoked together to the machinery of industrialization.

Induction has little to do with the Holocaust. Despite the Holocaust’s vast scale, there were more than a small number of anomalies, as amply demonstrated by the wildly improbable but true experiences of Solomon Perel, which are dramatized in the film “Europa Europa.” “Falling Bodies” aspires to the territory perhaps best exemplified by Tom Stoppard — playful, literate explorations of philosophical propositions. Jonathan Levi’s flimsy farrago, however, fails to rise even to the level of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons, which it also emulates in having musicians play music as if it were dialogue.

To justify using historical figures for ventriloquism, a writer has to be able to approximate these figures’ voices. Playwright Jonathan Levi, alas, is no Primo, a chemist who emerged from Auschwitz as one of the most eloquent and emotionally precise writers about the Holocaust. But hey, if Galileo and Primo are kicking back, watching soccer together on television, why demand authenticity?

Repeatedly, the tattooed number on Primo Levi’s forearm is recited, usually accurately. The music dutifully encodes the numbers as part of its design. Other numbers are recited — the year of Galileo’s birth, the year of his arrival in Rome, the year Primo returned to Turin, etc. — a free-associative listing with tangential logic. Why has the play so purposely strayed to the point where strings of numbers are used to replace dramatic teleology? It gives the actors a useful crutch for their rhetorical flourishes, but for what purpose?

But what is terrifyingly and inductively true in its repeatability, as Holocaust survivor and later suicide victim Jean Amery put it, is, “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured.” As a child, I studied “Pirkei Avot” (“Ethics of Our Fathers”) under the guidance of a Hebrew teacher who — in warmer weather, when he had to roll up his sleeves — exposed tattooed numbers on his forearms. This was my first contact with a survivor of the Holocaust, the tattoo a tangible certification of torture. I both feared and wanted to learn the secret of those numbers, but it was clear we would never discuss them or the reason that at odd moments he was filled with strange intensities. Only once did I even think to try to broach the subject. Before I could even get any words out, he abruptly ended the lesson and sent me out the door, voicelessly demanding, “How dare I?” Evidently, Primo Levi used the exact same tactic to silently cow German scientific colleagues. Primo Levi, in contrast, evinced in his writing the unlikely combination of careful patience and forceful intensity of focus to cut through all cant or pretense.

The gravity of the experience of torture, suffering and evil in the Holocaust, and how it desperately needs to be understood, is what Primo Levi succeeded in getting on the page with such infinite care, despite the fact that the effort cost him his life. Despite a brief passage where the playwright has him repeating the word “unique” in discussing genocide(s), nothing in this pretentious play proffers — let alone demonstrates — more than a paper-thin, helium-light understanding of these phenomenological problems.

Only once does the play come anywhere near something like truth, and it does so just glancingly, as if by accident. In the most affecting moment of the play, Galileo admits to the Inquisition that, yes, Giordano Bruno had been a rival candidate for the professorship of mathematics to which he had been appointed. (The audience is expected to know that the Inquisition tortured Bruno for eight years and kept him in a dungeon before burning him at the stake for heresy, so by association and implication, shouldn’t Galileo be treated similarly? And to know, too, that Galileo, unlike Bruno, recanted his scientific beliefs and was allowed to live out his days under house arrest.) Suddenly, the threat seemed real. But then, Jonathan Levi has Galileo whine, like some empty-headed television celebrity, that Rome erected a statue of Bruno, “but not of me!”

If intentions were the same as achievements, this glib exercise would be more of a play. Taking Wiesel’s comment of bereavement to its logical extreme, Jonathan Levi posits that Primo Levi surviving Auschwitz was a violation of Galileo’s inductive reasoning, which was finally resolved by his death 40 years later, in the stairwell of his home in Turin. But the fact that the playwright has chosen as his mouthpieces two famous personalities who had major but quite different achievements, and who were both victims of persecution but of different kinds and for distinctly different reasons, argues against the very point he is trying to “induce.”

Galileo and Primo Levi live on in our collective memory, precisely because of their unique, individual achievements. So Galileo asks Primo to drop a ball with him to repeat his famous experiment and asks what will fall first, his ball or his skepticism. (This from the man reputed to have muttered under his breath, at his recanting to the Inquisition, “and yet the earth does move”!) But then there is the business of the celery. In the end, “If we survive, will they [the musicians] survive?” “And see the stars?” Holding out a frame drum, the percussionist steps downstage and slams a stalk of celery on the drumhead. Blackout.

Raphael Mostel is a New York-based composer who teaches at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The Israeli premiere of his work “Night and Dawn” will open the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s Independence Day concert.


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