‘If there ever was a right time for a play, this is it,” David Mandelbaum, the artistic director of the New Yiddish Rep, said about his company’s new production of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” The absurdist dark comedy, written in 1959, is generally read as a biting satire of the rise of Fascism and Nazism in France in the interwar years. (The NYR’s staging will be the first time the play is produced in Yiddish.) With neo-Nazis and white supremacists on the march in the America of 2017, and with a president who has waffled on condemning them full-throatedly, Mandelbaum believes the timing of the play is in sync with the national mood.
“The play is a reaction to totalitarianism of all kinds,” he said. “The political element today is so strikingly similar to what Ionesco is dealing with in the play.” Asked if he had in mind parallels to the Trump era, Mandelbaum said, “That’s exactly what I’m thinking of — the notion of the big lie, the strategy of propaganda, the fanatical adherence to his so-called base.”
The New Yiddish Rep is no stranger to the Theatre of the Absurd. In 2013, it staged Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” In Ionesco’s play, an Everyman named Berenger (played by Luzer Twersky) and his love interest Daisy (played by Malky Goldman) watch as everyone around them is transformed into rhinoceroses — monsters, if you will.
Writing in The Guardian in 2007, theater critic Joe Penhall characterized the play this way: “It has been compared to George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm,’ but ‘Animal Farm’ is about power corrupting Russian communists. ‘Rhinoceros’ is allegedly a parable about French collaboration with the Nazis. A comparison to Albert Camus’ ‘The Plague’ is perhaps more appropriate. Both ‘The Plague’ and ‘Rhinoceros’ evoke the French response to the Nazis, but more interestingly today, they describe a human response to creeping transmogrification. Both seem rooted in an existentialist tradition, which is as much about the futility and absurdity of the human condition as it is about our historical capacity for cruelty.”
For Mandelbaum, the play illuminates the current political moment — in much the same way that “Hamilton” speaks to the bitter debate in the country over immigration policy and “outsiders.”
“It only took 36 percent of the German population to bring Hitler to power,” he said. “There’s a striking resemblance here — the xenophobia, the stupidity, the ignorance. … Ionesco is obviously commenting on the mass psychosis that takes over people, and it’s similar to what Beckett saw as the complacency of people, their willingness to accept something.
“I heard a pundit say recently that it’s not the fascist right we should be afraid of — it’s all of those who don’t stand up. Silence is what killed six million Jews, and silence let Rwanda and the Belgian Congo happen.”
Mandelbaum’s interest in the play isn’t solely political, however. There is something in the essence of the Yiddish language itself, he said, that makes it particularly attuned to playwrights like Ionesco and Beckett.
“The play is so suitable to Yiddish,” Mandelbaum said about his current production — “the dialogue, the language, the themes. When we did ‘Godot’ in Yiddish, Edward Beckett [the playwright’s nephew] saw the production and told us how strikingly well the language fits the play. Some of the absurdist works can be dry. But in Yiddish the humor and the pathos of the plays come through so much more strongly — they come to life. In that way, the plays become accessible in a way people haven’t experienced.”
Mandelbaum relates a story from the play’s director, Moshe Yassur, who worked with Ionesco in Paris, about the tragic and comic strains in the Romanian playwright’s work. “My work isn’t absurd,” Ionesco told Issur, “life is absurd.” Ionesco, Mandelbaum said, “saw the keen sense of pain of life, but he expresses it in a way that’s humorous and engaging and penetrating.”
Despite successful productions of Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Mandelbaum is loath to talk about a “Yiddish revival — it’s a delusion,” he said. But he is encouraged by the new Yiddish film “Menashe” and the fact that his company is putting on four mainstage productions in the 2017-18 season (“Look back 70 years and I don’t think you’ll find a Yiddish company putting on four mainstage productions in a season,” Mandelbaum said.)
“I think film and theater are the two main ways to make people aware of a connection to Yiddish, more so than in libraries or Yiddish classes. Hearing the living language onstage — that’s the connection we hope to make for people.” ♥
The New Yiddish Rep’s production of “Rhinoceros” begins performances Sept. 7 (the opening is Sept. 14), through Oct. 8, at the Castillo Theatre, 543 W. 42nd St. (between 10th and 11th avenues). The play, translated from the Yiddish by Eli Rosen, will be performed in Yiddish with English supertitles.