Thoughts & Musings

Our Safta of Sorrow: Golda’s Balcony (2003) by William Gibson

Discussion Sunday is November 24th

© 2013 by Eileen Warburton

Nation-building is a dirty business. In Israel, this was especially so. The country began with gangs of idealistic young people digging up the dirt, scrounging farms out of the desert, raising poultry and livestock, erecting new cities on hills of sand. It’s this strenuous idealism that makes the task of nation-building possible at all and, at the same time, so bitter and heartbreaking. Nation-building for a Jewish homeland was motivated by both idealism and the will to survive as a people. As a teenager Goldie Mabovitch of Milwaukee was inspired by hearing Ben-Gurion’s speech: “The Jewish homeland must be a model for the redemption of the human race.” As a young bride, Golda Meyerson was aflame with the Zionism expressed by David Gordon: “The Land of Israel is acquired through labor, not through fire and not through blood . . . We must create a new people, a human people whose attitude toward other peoples is informed with the sense of human brotherhood . . .” By the end of her life, Golda Meir—once a peacenik, a passionate kibbutz dweller–was overseeing the arming of nuclear weapons, desperate to defend the beleaguered young country she had spent her life helping to create.

The sheer, awful need for the Jews to survive trumped the blazing youthful idealism. The Jews have been the collective scapegoat of the West for over 2000 years, driven out of Palestine by the Caesars, expelled from Iberia by the Inquisition, denied citizenship, restricted everywhere in where they could live, what work they could do, when and where they could travel, mocked and accused, blamed for every superstitious set-back in every little village and town, regularly slaughtered, burned out, and robbed . . . and this is before the Holocaust. By the time the Nazis were herding six million European Jews into concentration camps and exterminating them, those idealists who were working legally towards a modern Jewish state understood that their settlements in Palestine were Noah’s ark, a life raft, the only hope of a people enduring into an uncertain future. They had to rescue the remnant or face extinction. The people who had invented (or received, depending on your point of view) the sixth commandment no longer had the luxury of keeping it.

I was in Israel just once. When you are physically there, you have the overwhelming sense that you are in the crosshairs of invisible guns. Imagine visiting New Jersey—Israel is about that size, with the same kind of seaside border. Now imagine that New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland all want you dead. Imagine that those neighbors have their weapons trained on your house, on your children at school, on you personally when you head out to buy groceries or go to work. You can’t get away from it. My friend and I spent a day in Haifa, where we visited the Carmelite monastery on the top of Mount Carmel. Our plan was then to ride the aerial cable car from the mountaintop down to the city level where we’d do more touring. When we got to the cable car terminal hut, it was closed off, abandoned. Why was this? I couldn’t get my head around it. It had been shot up by mortar fire from only a few miles away. In museums, field-tripping schoolkids, as giddy and noisy as any other 8 or 9-year olds, were escorted through the exhibit rooms by armed soldiers, AK47s slung over their shoulders. Riding the trains, the cars were filled with teenaged soldiers, their babyfaces smooshed on their folded arms as they tried to sleep. How much must idealism be compromised to safeguard such a homeland?

For playwright William Gibson (1914–2008), it took a while to discover that this compromise, this tension between idealism and realpolitik, was at the heart of his play about Golda Meir. Gibson was already well known for his portrayals of strong women and for characters who grappled with the contradictory pull between living the private, personal life and serving a consuming commitment to some greater social good. His successful, enduring early plays Two for the Seesaw (1958) and the award-winning The Miracle Worker (1959) illustrate this tension. It’s also the central theme of his lovely little Nativity play, The Butterfingers Angel (1975), which we remember fondly from its 2nd Story production a few years ago

In the mid-1970s, following on the 1973 Yom Kippur War where Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria, Gibson was commissioned by the Theatre Guild to write a play about Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Gibson saw this as a “unique opportunity to meet human beings who wield state power.” He spent months in Israel in 1977, interviewing the survivors of Golda’s generation and, principally, Golda Meir herself, only a year before her death. These very extensive conversations became the basis of Gibson’s play Golda, which opened on Broadway later that year with Anne Bancroft and, inexplicably, flopped. Golda was a full, complex play with a cast of 20. But Gibson himself admitted that he wasn’t’ satisfied with it, that he had “failed to find half of something in me that wanted to be said.”

It took Gibson 26 years to understand what his theme actually was: “What happens when idealism becomes power?” Gibson thought beyond his original work and beyond Israel, contemplating other dedicated idealists: Oliver Cromwell, Robespierre, and Lenin. Then he was able—compelled, actually—to return to his mountain of material and radically rework it. Stripping out characters, dialogue, and event, he wrote Golda’s Balcony as a one-woman show, focusing on Golda’s intimate private regrets and the dynamism and difficulties of her political decisions. Actress Tovah Feldshuh created the role of Golda on the New York stage, was nominated for a Tony, and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. The powerful production ran for 14 previews and 493 performances, making it the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history.

What happens when idealism becomes power? The question hangs in the air still and forever, not just for Israel, but for all nations and in all times.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the theatre.

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