All the world's a rage

He was one of the most brilliant voices in Israeli theater, but his life was marked by a self-destructive path of pills, alcohol and a lack of confidence in his own talent. A new biography reveals the hidden demons of playwright Nissim Aloni

By Michael Handelzalts | Jan.15, 2009
At the beginning of the 1970s I was studying theater at Tel Aviv University and was a novice theater critic. Back then, when my age was nothing to be ashamed of, I used to celebrate my birthdays with parties. One Friday I invited classmates, all of them ardent theater neophytes, and teachers, some of whom were theater professionals. Rumors of a party spread quickly in those days (as they still do), and if not, the blaring music announced the occasion. Close to midnight, the doorbell rang. I opened the door and Nissim Aloni and Yosl Bergner stumbled in.

They were our celebs of the time: the playwright who had cast a magic spell on the stage with "Aunt Lisa" and "The American Princess" (we knew the play by heart from the record: "Palestina, a little country in unshackled Africa. Very zealous. Much folklore," Yossi Banai says there) and the artist who had created some of the sets. They were greeted like kings, stayed a little, drank a lot and swayed back downstairs. I did not yet know how closely Aloni would accompany me on my journey through Hebrew theater.

Nissim Aloni died 10 years ago, a few years after suffering a stroke from which he had partially recovered. The last major play he wrote, "Eddy King," was staged by Habima Theater under his direction in 1975. Israel's theater companies, which return constantly to the works of Hanoch Levin, avoid Aloni because everyone knows there is something elusive there, that magical quality which even he as a director was not always able to evoke.

Sarit Fuchs, who as a theater student at the Hebrew University heard in 1975 lectures by the great magician of the stage and has since followed the development of Israeli theater and written about it with knowledge, understanding, curiosity and many insights, has now published a book about Aloni. The theater world has known for the past 10 years that she was working on the book. It is almost an "authorized" biography. In the last year of his life Aloni allowed her entry to his inner world, and once a week they would talk about his life and works. She also read widely about him, studied his work and spoke to the courtiers in his kingdom. The result is a unique book, "Burning Tiger: The Death and Life of Nissim Aloni" (Yedioth Books; in Hebrew). It is in fact doubly unique. First of all, the shelf of books by or about contemporary Israeli theater figures is almost empty. Some actors from the founding generation ensured that their life's work was documented. Shimon Finkel produced 10 books, testimony to his overweening ego. The pioneer theater figures Menachem Gnessin and Yehoshua Bartonov wrote books, as did other Habima actors, among them Shlomo Bar-Shavit, who published an autobiography a few years ago. But the generation after theirs wrote nothing. No written documentation exists of Yosef Milo, and, regrettably, the two great Cameri Theater actresses Hanna Maron and Orna Porat are not writing – not even memoirs, to the best of my knowledge.

So the book about Aloni is a distinctive contribution to the documentation of Israeli theater. But that is only a small part of the story. Fuchs did more than just research and tell the story; she took the materials of Aloni's life and work and formulated a thesis, first about his life and subsequently about his work, and proved it in riveting fashion based on the texts of his stories and plays. Her book juxtaposes fascinatingly with another book recently published about the life of a creative artist, who also produced work for the stage, Amos Kenan (the book by his wife, Nurith Gertz, "Unrepentant: Four Chapters in the Life of Amos Kenan," Am Oved; in Hebrew).

According to Fuchs' reading of Aloni's life and work, he emerged shell shocked from the War of Independence. The many quotes she offers, mainly from the stories he wrote and published after the war, about the horrors of battle and the bestiality of man – castigating both himself and his enemies – support her reading. Fuchs also draws on psychological theory, thereby revealing part of Aloni's oeuvre which is almost unknown, even to the great admirers of his stagecraft. To this she adds her interpretation of the influence of his childhood, the surroundings in which he grew up, his parents (a father who beat him, an adoring mother) and his brother. Building on these materials, she presents to the reader the character of Aloni, the psychically scarred Israeli who has survived the fighting but cannot find his place in resurgent Israel. He is filled with rage and criticism of the developing society, but is helpless to express his feelings coherently or creatively. This description of the boy-artist with a divided, complex personality who emerged from a cruel, arbitrary war and tried to carve a path in pioneering, collectivist and crudely high-spirited Israel recalls in many ways Gertz's portrait of Kenan, including a period in Paris, the center of European culture and a haven from the oppressive "we" that dominated the nascent state.

Fuchs plunged deeply into Aloni's life. She spoke to the women in his life – his three wives and a few women who lived with him – and provides monologues by them about him and about life with him. These intimate stories, verging on embarrassment for the reader, describe a man who charmed women and treated them like queens when they were alone but was quite capable of hurting them when presiding over his court. This is a recurring pattern, and his friends, particularly Bergner, appear in a troubling light: on the one hand hurtling Aloni and being hurtled with him into an odyssey of self-destruction fueled by mutual admiration, alcohol and pills – both uppers and downers; and, on the other hand, luring away the women close to him, supposedly to protect them, telling them "It's not worth your while," and protecting him by portraying him as a type of creative monster. In addition to the personal side of the story, Fuchs draws on the thesis of Aloni's damaged personality to explain his inability, which became increasingly acute, to organize his theatrical work, commit himself to an artistic statement and indeed to decide what he wanted to present without contradicting himself, changing things or saying yes and no at the same time.

She writes in detail and with understanding about Aloni groupies who followed him blindly with eyes aglitter; about his inability to live up to their expectations of him and about the distress caused by his constant doubts about his ability – not really understanding the success of "Aunt Lisa" or "Gypsies of Jaffa" or "The American Princess." Fuchs shows how the playwright's verbal and theatrical brilliance is fraught with trenchant comments on Israeli society – the true setting of the imaginary places he conjured up – and how he fought the winds of war no less than Hanoch Levin, who is considered the most political of Israel's playwrights. Thus, she reads "Gypsies of Jaffa" almost as a political-social-historical allegory on Jews, Gypsies, victims and henchmen, a devil whom one engages in business and death. Clearly Fuchs became very close to the hero of her biography, but that closeness has not dulled her sharp judgment. She exposes mercilessly the distress, the emperor's feeling that he is naked, his shame at making a living by marketing underwear to his kingdom in the form of the skits he wrote for the Hagashash Hahiver comedy troupe, in which (as in his many translations) Aloni was in fact a scintillating renewer of language. She gets the reader to identify with the helpless rage of a king who feels that his throne is a stage prop and that there is no chance that the set will be ready in time for the premiere; the anxiety in the face of the madness that is taking over, and the struggle for sanity.

A very unpleasant part is reserved for me in this life story. This is not even a full disclosure, because the facts are already known. According to Fuchs, "Aloni felt an oncoming breakdown. In another year he would be 50. His body was battered from alcohol, from smoking and from pill popping. The headaches began. The need to decide on the other, final version [the play to be performed on the opening night] seemed to him a satanic plot." On the opening night of "Eddy King" he claimed, after nine months of rehearsals, that the play was not ready. "After the premiere, Aloni's nightmare came true. A kid in the audience got up and shouted, 'The emperor is naked.' It was a 24-year-old critic, Michael Handelzalts, who had succeeded [legendary theater critic Haim] Gamzo at Haaretz." I reminisced in print (in the literary pages of Haaretz) about that particular review not long ago. What I wrote in my review of "Eddy King" was that the managements of the theaters that were giving Aloni unlimited freedom and critics who were cultivating his theatricality were inducing him to be a "charlatan against his will." Fuchs writes: "The critic was the son whom he had always feared, the son who murders his father. Beyond the use of the phrase 'against his will,' which was too clever by half, what came out of the review was that he, one of the most knowledgeable people of the time, was being accused of charlatanism, pretentiousness and fraud."

Fuchs does not make it clear whether she is writing these harsh remarks in Aloni's name or whether it is her interpretation. Be that as it may, it is a persuasive interpretation (it certainly persuades me) in the sense that it suggests that I hurt Aloni far more than I could have imagined or known, and for reasons that were not related only to that particular play or that particular review. As I see it, "against his will" was not too clever by half; I meant it literally. Aloni found himself in those creative straits not because of himself but because of the circumstances. He apparently suspected, understood or wanted to understand that I was aiming the accusation at him. And, by the way, it was not about his knowledgeability at all.

But these are minor matters. This is a riveting book, about a riveting, unfortunate man, about scenes from the life of the Israeli theater. It contains abundant facts and abundant information about the period and about Aloni's creative output, which may contain some keys to a renewed confrontation with his work. And it contains copious love for the man, for the creative artist and for the theater, too.