Big Clay Man, Writ Small
The story of the Golem has been told in literature, film and theater, including a puppet production created in 1997 by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre. Now that show is back as part of La Mama Experimental Theatre Club’s 50th anniversary season, featuring music by The Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London. Unusually for the company, the show is danced as much as it is spoken. The Arty Semite caught up with writer-director Vít Hořejš and composer Frank London to ask about reviving the story of the clay man.
Gwen Orel: Why did you choose to restage this show now?
Vít Hořejš: It was our very first show at La Mama. We usually try to revive our shows every four years. “Golem” is our biggest production so it’s also very costly. It’s a story I grew up with as a child, and at first I was interested in telling a fairy tale, a legend. It’s a part of Prague lore that non-Jewish children will know. If you go to Prague today you will see little golem figures being sold all over the place as souvenirs.
As I was reading different versions, I learned about the blood libel. My daughter is Jewish (my wife is Jewish) so sometimes I have these fears, if somebody would hate her because of that. It is a show about religious intolerance, and there’s a lot of intolerance in this world. It’s also about how when fighting intolerance you can become dangerous yourself. I read some writings of Rabbi Loew, who some historians say would have been totally opposed to this magic.
Why do it with so much dance?
Hořejš: Puppetry is like a dance in the amount of rehearsal, and really the way you need to know all the movements. Some scenes in some shows were a dance. When I started this company, I thought it must be cheaper and easier to do puppet theater, you don’t have to deal with actors’ egos. Then I discovered that it is like dance in the demands and time and precision.
Frank London: There isn’t a lot of dialogue. It is as much a dance show as anything else, so there are long periods of uninterrupted music which you wouldn’t have in a normal show.
The music is an interesting mix of jazz, and obviously klezmer, given your your background.
London: Actually klezmer is not my background, jazz is my background. I play with The Klezmatics; that’s my foreground. My background is rock, avant-garde music and jazz. I came to klezmer from them.
The blend is absolutely what we were going for. Because if people see the imagery, its not a verité representation of Prague. It’s not realistic, and we tried to have a similar aesthetic. I started composing when I’d only seen sketches of the set. The choreography was done to the music, but, in this particular score, I left a lot of room open for improvisation, so it’s not through-composed. So it might be, play this vamp, this harmony, this groove, but react to the dancers, to the puppets. The Rabbi comes in and you hear the Rabbi’s theme interrupting some other theme.
Were those cowbells used when the Golem awoke?
London: I think Jonathan [Singer] has 30 different kind of bells. It’s one of my hybrid rhythms, with elements of Eastern European music but also Arabic and funk stuff.
Is the Golem real? Do you believe in him?
London: Who knows? There is the collective subconscious which, in reaction to the horrible dehumanizing brutality of pogroms and blood libels, yearns for a savior and creates a mythical hero which embodies their desires for redemption. But I lean towards a more pragmatic explanation.
Obfuscation. Propaganda. Cover story. A way for the Jews in the ghetto to attack and defeat their persecutors without anyone taking the blame. Given, as we know in our world, the complicity between authorities, oppressors and authoritarian governments, having a “golem” be responsible for these counter-attacks is a smart move.
Or, on the other hand, maybe these Jewish defenders attacked and defeated the cowardly mobs that persecuted them. And those defeated persecutors, in order to save face, invented the golem story as if to say, “of course we were defeated, there was a clay monster with superhuman strength…”
Hořejš: Of course. That’s why I prefer to believe Rabbi Loew was involved , although some attribute the legend a century after his death. The rabbi has a grave in the Jewish cemetery that is the most popular grave. It has a lot of stones on it.
Legend has it that the Golem was deposited in the attic of the Old-New synagogue, and if the need arises he will wake up again and protect the Jewish people. No one is allowed to go up in the attic.
Where was he in the 1940s?
Hořejš: Apparently the Germans were searching for him.