(Laureate of the Margalit Prize, 1977)
The Jerusalm Khan Theatre, 1976
Directed and translated by: Michal Govrin
Music: Joseph Tal
Costume and set: Moshe Sternfeld
Lighting: Ben-Zion Monitz
Motion: Rut Ziv-Eyal
The time is the end of the Sixties, the beginning of the Seventies. Millions of workers are drawn to the West to serve its booming economy: Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Yugoslavs, Turks, Poles, Greeks, Arabs. They live in cheap housing, where up to eighteen men sleep in one room; when morning comes, eighteen night workers take their places and sleep in the same beds during the day. They are unskilled manual laborers with no social security, even in the most enlightened of democratic states. At the same time a wave of artists, intellectuals and scientists from Eastern Europe arrives in the West, including Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, Jan Kott, Milan Kundera, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mstislav Rostropovich and many others. Slawomir Mrozek is among them.
This period serves as the backdrop of The Emigrants. In the play, two emigrants from the same country spend New Year’s Eve together. Their country of origin could be any one of many. At present they are living in one of the West’s big capital cities, in the basement of a large apartment building. One of them, ZZ, is a peasant who has come to the West to make money, the other, AA, is an intellectual and writer. One is slave to his own materialistic desires, the other apparently motivated by a sense of vocation to write a book on the slavery of man, a book that will become a key to liberty.
In the polar conflict between these two characters, each one is exposed layer by layer, until the moment at which they stand denuded of all their masks of pretence and of castles in the air, in the full presence of their insoluble problems: rootlessness, the impossibility of communication between classes, and the question of success and failure that is, momentarily, placed starkly before them.
Which of the two will prevail?
While the play has certain autobiographical elements, which could have led us towards an answer to this question, it transpires that these elements exist in each of the polar human extremes. They may be seen in the intellectual, but no less in the farm laborer, caught up in the moments in which unchallenged values of humanism and earthiness become unbearably oppressive.
The human tragedy of exile is presented here in the gloomy corner of a dank basement. Each of the characters has his own reason for leaving his homeland. The farm laborer came to make money; he is wily and practical, and exploits the dreaminess of the intellectual to eat, drink and smoke away his possessions. He is in no way capable of grasping the intellectual’s world; he doesn’t understand why this man would go to such pains to write about the world of filth. “What’s it good for?” he asks. The laborer refuses to be convinced by the writer’s catechisms; “People need truth,” claims the author. “Not a disgusting one like yours,” he replies.
Both actors excel in their acting, both in their isolation and in their subjugation, each to his respective social class. Avinoam Mor-Chaim plays the laborer with all his idiocy and cunning, all within the narrow and intimate frame of two roommates living together in a basement. He is prepared to defend the property he has gathered to the death. Yet when his enslavement is made clear to him in words – “The more money you have, the more you will want. The years will go by and you will still postpone the moment of your return, you will carry on working and saving…” – at that moment he almost loses his mind, and then from some place his yearning for rootedness is kindled and rises up.
Shabtai Konorti, who plays the intellectual, manages to roll with utterly convincing ease into the part he is representing. He knows in overwhelming detail the anatomy of loneliness; he knows how to speak himself. At first glance he appears to be motivated by a sense of vocation to write a book about the enslaved state of man, but in reality he himself is captive, within a magic circle of his own creation. In his flight from his communist homeland he has ceased to be a slave, but in the land of freedom he has lost the ideal of liberty: the subject has lost its importance.
(Extract from Shimon Kanz, “The Emigrants in the Jerusalem Khan”, Letzte Nayes, 6/3/1977)
A chamber play, involving only two actors […] is difficult by its very nature to decode onto the stage. In this too, Michal has succeeded – more so perhaps than she expected. This was also the impression received by one of the judges of the Margalit Prize, who laid down in his notes that “Michal Govrin’s preparatory work, and her devotion to the aim in view – have brought about a contribution of the first class to the work of a fascinating theatre, rich in colors and subtle shades.”
(From: Amalya Argaman, “The greatest pleasure in working in the theatre – is involvement with human beings…”, Yediot Acharonot, 7/6/1977)