What are we to make of our biblical narratives? Jacques Derrida famously said that no comment on a text is ever innocent — that the act of exegesis means intervening in the text, asserting power over it and the reader. Such is the case with the legendary Judith Malina’s highly charged play, “Korach: The Biblical Anarchist.” In a production by The Living Theatre, playwright Malina (who also directs) offers an anarchist reading of the biblical narrative of dissent and rebellion among the Israelites in their 40-year desert trek.
“The experiment is over!” Thus Moses, in crushing the Korach rebellion, prefigures the end of the anarchist vision of Korach and his followers. Korach, denied participation in leadership and even (in the play) to the central objects and rituals of the Hebrew faith, is, in Malina’s reading, one of the first in a long string of anarchists to be wiped out.
There are two contexts for “Korach,” and they are not necessarily contradictory. One, of course, is the Jewish — or better, the Hebrew — context of the biblical Korach who, whatever his motives, sought to displace or at least share power with Moses. While Korach and his followers came to a ghastly end, he is not demonized in Jewish tradition; his sons are regularly recalled in the Psalms they composed, and the biblical prophet Samuel is reputed to have been a descendent of Korach.
The other context is the anarchist one, which provides the framework for “Korach” and is deeply embedded in the history, ideology and mission of The Living Theatre. The company, founded in 1947 by the visionaries Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, has been, for six decades, a pioneer in the staging of unconventional and experimental drama, all of it celebrating the theme of nonviolent anarchist revolution. Malina, the daughter of a rabbinic leader in Germany and later the United States, was trained by Erwin Piscator, a path-finding interpreter of contemporary drama. She and Beck (a New York School Abstract Expressionist painter) were among the first in America to stage Bertolt Brecht, Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Rexroth, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot.
It is the conceit of “Korach” that the anarchist ideal, though it has absorbed many blows over the centuries, will prevail. In the words of Emma Goldman (in one of three filmed segments that give “Korach” a contemporary shading), “We will lose every battle except the last one.”
The biblical Korach asks, in effect, a legitimate question: “Why Moses? Why not me?” and he is destroyed for his heretical challenge to the Mosaic order. The anarchist Korach — knowing that he is fighting one of the losing battles — asks, “Why Moses? “Why not everybody?” and, as is the case with every good anarchist, he is destroyed for his heretical challenge to the political order. Indeed, the biblical declaration, mantralike in its repetition throughout the play, that Israel is to be “a nation of priests and a holy people” is met by Korach’s counter-declaration: “We are all holy!”
“Korach” neatly telescopes a number of narratives from the Bible into a one-hour production: the golden calf; the story of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, who, in an excess of religious zeal, “brought strange fire” before God (in a wonderfully comic touch, they smoke weed) and are killed by the very fire they offer; Miriam’s kvetch about Moses’s Cushite concubine (an interpretation adapted from the medieval commentary of Rashi), and Miriam’s resultant affliction with leprosy. These episodes, seamlessly written into the script, presage Korach’s antinomianism and set the stage for the main event: Korach’s plaint, Moses’s harsh response and Korach’s destruction by God.
What makes “Korach” work is Malina’s direction of the intricately choreographed cast, as the actors depict the hunger, thirst, pain, anger, frustration and religious zeal of the Israelites in the desert, all culminating in Korach’s rebellious act and in his death. The script is not always smooth — some transitional moments stutter and sputter — and there is some confused pronunciation. (Is the fire pan — a central prop in the story — “censor” or “censer”?) But the production, which runs through February 28, is nothing if not disciplined, and it is energetic. Above all, it is great theater.
And what about The Living Theatre’s peroration to the playgoer? The final moments of “Korach” find Moses and a resurrected Korach in an embrace, with performers and audience members joining hands, dancing and singing together. “The experiment is over!” Hardly. For The Living Theatre, the ideal yet burns, if but for a flickering moment. For Judith Malina, “the last battle” has yet to be fought.
Jerome A. Chanes is a contributing editor to the Forward and author of the forthcoming “The Future of American Judaism” (Trinity/Columbia University Press).