Theater troupe 1927 takes a Jewish legend and retools it for the 21st century 

The Good, the Bad, and the Golem

click to enlarge gol.jpg

Bernhard Mueller

When it comes to theater troupe 1927's latest product, the name Golem will, unfortunately, make most readers think of Andy Serkis' interpretation of Tolkien's "Gollum." Forgive me LOTR fans, but this Spoleto production will surely make you decide that the Golem of legend comes out of a far more interesting milieu than Middle Earth.

The story of Golem has no single origin. It emerged from Jewish life in Eastern Europe with at least 500 years of history behind it. Golem the character is central to the folklore of Prague's Jewish quarter where Christian rulers ghettoized their Jewish subjects for centuries by literally walling their winding streets, shops, and ancient synagogues off from the rest of the city.

In the simplest version of the story, the Golem is a figure of clay brought to life through supernatural means, usually effected by a rabbi. When animated, the Golem is powerful, a bit stubborn, and eventually uncontrollable. Comparisons to Frankenstein's monster are somewhat apt but the culture that created the Golem, and the writers, artists, and filmmakers who have expanded the legend, tell a more complicated story.

The most popular version of the tale, the basis for a 1915 novel as well as a series of films, features Rabbi Jehuda Loew, an actual historical leader of Prague's Jewish community, who created the creature to save his people from a round of persecution from Christian Prague and the Emperor Rudolph II in 1580. Rabbi Loew molded the creature from the clay and silt from the Vltava River that runs through Prague. He then placed a small strip of paper in the mud puppet's mouth, parchment on which he'd written the shem or the name of God. This act brought life into the out-sized creature and, for a time, he obeyed the rabbi's commands.

What happened next depends on which legend you like best. In one story, Rabbi Loew must remember to take the shem from the creature's mouth every Friday so it can rest on the Sabbath. He forgets one time and Golem goes on a rampage, destroying the Jewish Quarter and, it's suggested, he would have destroyed the cosmos itself if not stopped. Rabbi Loew somehow (it's really not clear how since Golem's in full Hulk-rage mode at this point) removes the shem from his creation's mouth. The destructive marvel slackens into a kind of marionette without a handler.

Storytellers' ambitions to mold the mud monster in line with their own needs are as interesting as the story itself. In a different version of the story, Rabbi Loew should never have created the creature at all. It represents an act of pride, an attempt to usurp God, the true Creator. This version makes the good Rabbi into a sort of mad scientist who uses his knowledge of the Jewish supernatural tradition to make a slave, a new Adam who's a terror to his own people from the beginning.

History and myth part ways time and again in the evolution of the tale. Although Rabbi Loew did lead the Jewish community of Prague in the 16th century and gained much renown as a scholar of the Torah and Talmud, no one connected him to the legend of the Golem for hundreds of years. Nor does he seem to have had any knowledge of alchemy and of Kabbalah, a system of Jewish mysticism much outside the mainstream of Orthodox practice.

In fact, most of the Golem stories — although they do have older precedent — only became a prominent part of Jewish folklore after political and social change destroyed their original context. In 1852, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Joseph liberalized imperial policy toward the Jews. The walls of the ghetto came down and many Jews, at least those who had attained middle class status, moved to other parts of Prague. The Jewish Quarter, the ghetto, ceased to exist and became known as "Josefov" in the Emperor's honor.

Soon, the Jewish quarter, increasingly inhabited by non-Jews, became the focus of nostalgia. The publication of Joseph Meyrink's The Golem in 1915 tells its story of a ghetto that has ceased to exist and contains passages that suggest that the Jewish Quarter was a run-down tumble of rookeries, a state of affairs that only emerged after many Jews had left the section and moved to new parts of the city.

So, bizarrely, this version of the Golem, a creature meant to protect the precarious life of the Jewish community, became a vehicle of anti-Semitism. This was a particular problem in Prague as the independent republic of Czechoslovakia emerged from the ruins of World War I.

The German film Der Golem by director Paul Wegener first appeared in 1915 and came to the United States under the title The Monster of Fate in the same year. Wegener made a trilogy of Golem films. His 1920 version is the only one to physically survive as a much beloved classic among horror and silent film fans today. This film rather than the centuries of folklore behind it mostly influences those who know the story today and will almost certainly influence the new production for Spoleto.

Suzanne Andrade says that the combination of the creature's "innocence and neutrality" drew her to this project. I asked her why 1927 had chosen to take the tale out of its eastern European setting. She says this allowed the story to become "about us, about technology, about market forces, about control." She added that when Spoleto-goers see this performance, you'll see the Golem "in a mad, collaged chaotic world." As with all the company's work, she says that the audience will experience, "Not film, not theatre, but something else."

1927 is, in other words, following an ancient tradition. The story of the Golem, like the nature of the creature itself, has always been shaped by its makers.

I was in Prague earlier this year and visited the medieval synagogue where, according to yet another version of the story, Rabbi Loew left the lifeless lump that had almost destroyed the universe in a barred upper room. The attic remains locked to this day as the story insists that the Golem waits there, ready to spring to unnatural life when the forbidden name of God is placed between his lips. Legend has it that one person has ventured into that attic after the Golem's maker closed it shut many centuries ago. Accounts of what became of him vary, but none of them are good.

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