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The Dead Speak: Tragedy and the Art of Adaptation

In Philip Roth’s 1993 novel “Operation Shylock,” an Israeli book dealer by the name of David Supposnik attempts to solicit support from “Philip Roth” — the character in the novel with the same name as the author — for the publication of the travel diaries of Leon Klinghoffer, the wheelchair-bound passenger murdered by Palestinian terrorists during the 1985 hijacking of a Greek liner, the Achille Lauro. Supposnik pleads with “Roth,” saying: “Leon Klinghoffer could easily have been a man out of one of your books. He’s no stranger to you….”

Supposnik is correct, in a sense: Klinghoffer was an ordinary man, an American Jew from Avenue D, who grew up above his parents’ hardware store. But Supposnik demands that Roth transform Klinghoffer’s ordinariness into a symbol for an epic historical struggle, one that barely concerns him. Though “Roth” politely refuses, others have been seduced by the artistic temptation posed by the dramatic story.

The events of the hijacking and Klinghoffer’s murder were immortalized in John Adams’s 1991 opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Adams’s opera, with libretto by Alice Goodman and direction by Peter Sellars, pieced together the events of the hijacking through the emotionally charged perspectives of both the Klinghoffers and the four Palestinian terrorists, alongside the retrospective accounts of the ship’s captain and select passengers. Interspersed throughout are a series of poetic choruses, echoing with ancient tales of Jewish and Arab suffering. Following the opera’s American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991, the Klinghoffer family, as well as American critics, accused the piece of unconscionably sympathizing with the Palestinian terrorists. The controversy arose once again in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled performances of select choruses from the opera. Some criticized the orchestra for small-minded censorship; others hailed the decision as a victory against those who would condone terror. The controversy continued this year, when filmmaker Penny Woolcock released “The Death of Klinghoffer,” an adaptation of the opera, and as the Brooklyn Academy of Music gets set to present a “staged concert version” of the opera next month.

So far the public discussion of Adams’s opera has focused on a single ethical question: whether or not the portrayal of the events is antisemitic. These accusations are based on the claim that the opera’s portrayal humanizes terrorism by giving voice to the story of the Palestinians — a story that, like it or not, needs to be told. Yet for all the heated public debate, little has been said about the ethical responsibilities toward the dead, or even more generally the danger involved in aesthetic representations of history.

The question is a personal one for me, perhaps because I am more aware of Klinghoffer as a man, a man with a wife and children, an ordinary citizen who was murdered. He was not only a victim or martyr. He was my great-uncle, my ailing grandmother’s brother.

I was not very close with Leon, who died just before my 11th birthday. But we met occasionally at family events, and a crabapple tree he gave my parents when I was born still stands on the front lawn of the house I grew up in. A few years ago, a professor of mine lent me a recording of the opera, and I was stunned to hear a voice with my great-uncle’s name operatically proclaim: “I’ve never been a violent man; ask anyone.” As the aria continued, my uncle’s true voice echoed in the back of my head, and the “I” of the songs sent chills down my spine: The dead man spoke. Suddenly, the libretto and, in fact, the whole opera seemed an act of violence against a man dragged onto the stage of history — feted only for his murder.

Yet it was not until seeing Woolcock’s film adaptation of the opera at the 2003 San Francisco Film Festival that I understood exactly what might be at stake. Adams’s opera, patterned on Greek myth and Bach’s Passions, transforms Klinghoffer’s murder into a spare, mythic story. But Woolcock’s film works against this abstraction. She weaves historical events into her film, pasting together images of mass graves at Auschwitz and fictional “footage” from both the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatilla. In addition, she adds a fictional subplot to the opera’s narrative. In the film, a young Jewish refugee couple, with numbers tattooed on their arms, arrives in Palestine soon after the Holocaust and immediately displaces a Palestinian family from its home. The son of this same Palestinian family will appear as a terrorist on the cruise liner where these same fictional survivors are passengers. The result is a confused historical narrative, which links Auschwitz, the establishment of the State of Israel, the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla and the hijacking in a causal chain of events.

Woolcock recasts the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle between two groups of refugees. Depicting 1948 as a battle fought by survivors belies the historical reality of the period and threatens to not only exploit the victims of Nazi genocide as justification for Israeli violence, but also to unfairly transform these same victims into perpetrators. The historical narrative of the film amplifies the weakness posed by the original opera’s depiction of Klinghoffer as a Jewish martyr in an age-old struggle between two rival ancient tribes. The hijacking of the Achille Lauro was a political action pitting not Jews against Arabs, but Palestinians against Israelis. Leon Klinghoffer was an American tourist, neither Israeli nor Holocaust survivor, which Woolcock’s film seems to imply. He was, in fact, a random victim of terrorism; perhaps the thing that singled him out most was his wheelchair. Adams, Goodman, Woolcock and others would all do well to remember that what fuels this violent conflict in the Middle East is precisely these mythological readings of history, themselves a form of fundamentalism.

Allison Schachter is a graduate student in the department of comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley.

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