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The Necessary and the Possible

THE NECESSARY AND THE POSSIBLE: Rehearsing Goldberg in The Birthday Party at New Fortune Theatre Company, July-August, 2015

When New Fortune began rehearsals for Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party towards the end of July this year, Artistic Director Richard Baird—directing and playing McCann—was the only member of the cast who had performed in a play by Pinter. In fact McCann would be his 5th Pinter role. The rest of us had seen productions of Pinter’s work, read one or more of his plays, but as far as embodying the characters, speaking the language, we were a company of Pinter rookies. Almost.

Back in 1991, I was a first year graduate student at the American Repertory Theatre’s Professional Actors Training Program. Graduates of the two year program received a certificate (no MFA at that time) and an Equity card. Class size ranged from six to eight, and students took classes, performed in productions directed by directing students or faculty, and understudied and played roles (anything from lineless soldier in King Lear to Masha in The Sea Gull) on ART’s main stage with a resident company. I would last only a single year in the program, but one of my first assignments was to understudy an actor named William Young, some thirty years older than I was at the time, as Sam in David Wheeler’s production of The Homecoming.

I have few positive memories of my ART experience, but in all fairness, I do recall that Homecoming as a pretty solid production. I can’t believe the powers that be would have allowed either me or the only slightly older second year understudying Max to perform in front of a paying audience, but perhaps I’m being unjust. In any case the question never came up. I was allowed to attend technical rehearsals and previews, and I have a memory of a single understudy rehearsal. So I’d certainly said Pinter’s words, but my understanding of his dramaturgy didn’t extend much beyond a general wash of Cockney nastiness.

Flash forward some 24 years, and I am now an experienced character actor a few years away from my 50th birthday. I have a graduate degree from UCSD and an Equity card from the San Diego Rep; also a wife, a daughter, a SAG card, and AFTRA card, (then, a few years ago a SAG-AFTRA card), and a resume that includes Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, Moliere, Shaw, Williams, Mamet, Korder, musicals, new plays, children’s theatre, film, television, even a piece of re-imagined performance art. I’d directed, taught college and high school, coached, but I still hadn’t done Pinter, when Richard called to offer me Goldberg in The Birthday Party.

In retrospect, I’m glad I waited. One of the few benefits of aging is that you’re given the chance to move past the conviction that you know everything, and on to the humbling—if somewhat more relaxing—conviction that, no matter how smart you are, you don’t really know much of anything. Spend a few weeks rehearsing and performing Shakespeare, and see how clever you feel; lucky, yes; elevated, perhaps; breathless, terrified, ecstatic, check; but clever, alongside one of the greatest minds in the history of the written word? Give me a break. All of which is to say that I knew enough to expect a playwright as brilliant, as savage, and as off-beat as Pinter to require a different approach. I just had no idea how different the approach would be.

Preparation for any role begins with the text of the play. Even if you’re playing an historical character, you start with the text you’ll be saying, so you’ll know what particular aspects of your fellow’s personality will best serve the story being told. That Thomas Jefferson fathered a child on an under-aged slave named Sally Hemings is of primary concern to Nick Nolte, playing Jefferson in Jefferson in Paris, and of no particular use to Ken Howard, playing the same man in 1776. But Pinter’s characters are not historical, so off to the script I went, to gleam what information I could from what Goldberg says about himself and what other characters say about him.

And almost immediately a problem arises; or perhaps I should say an “intriguing situation” arises, since to call it a problem is to suggest that Pinter’s dramaturgy is unhelpful, when it’s actually tremendously freeing. The intriguing situation in question is that there is almost no reliable information about Goldberg, or about anybody else, for that matter. Goldberg won’t even cop to a first name. His colleague McCann calls him Nat, and he introduces himself to Lulu as Nat, although he insists that both his mother and his wife called him Simey, while his dying father called him Benny. He interrogates Stanley about “that young lady” before he meets Lulu. He watches McCann break Stanley’s glasses, and then questions him about how they were broken not twelve hours later. He tells virtually identical stories to Petey and Lulu; except that in the first instance his mother is serving him gefiltefish, and in the second his wife plates up some rollmop. McCann insists, and Goldberg avers, that he has a “position” in some nameless organization, and both men seem to answer to a superior called Monty, although only Goldberg mentions Monty by name. Meg, Petey and Goldberg seem to agree that Goldberg has the use of a car, but even the damn car appears a day or more after Goldberg and McCann are first reported in the area. So what do we make of all this non-information. Is the man demented, a pathological liar? Where am I supposed to start building this guy?

As I read the play I became intrigued by a couple of ideas. The first grew from the closest thing to a fact which Pinter provides about Goldberg: his Judaism. His last name to one side, Goldberg refers to Shabbus—a Yiddish variation on the Hebrew “Shabbat”, meaning the Sabbath, as well as to the afore-mentioned gefiltefish. His toast contains the phrases “Mazel tov”—Hebrew for “good luck”—and “May we only meet at simchas”, a traditional greeting at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs; “simchas” being happy occasions. Further, his syntax has a specifically Ashkenazic (Eastern European Jewish) lilt to it: “What’s your opinion of such a prospect?” “Top in all subjects, and for why?” “On a lovely sunny day like this, he shouldn’t come down?”

Might these elements of a Jewish identity be assumed by a deceitful, intelligent, paranoid man—and Goldberg is certainly all these things? Of course they might. But to quote the man himself: “And for why?” Aside from the Kafkaesque joke of imagining, in 1957, a Jewish character whose behavior recalls the institutional savagery of the Gestapo, Goldberg’s Judaism has no immediate relevance to the narrative of the play. And yet, as we rehearsed, I became more and more convinced not only that Goldberg was, in fact, Jewish, but that a Jewish cultural identity—Goldberg seems to have no use for religion—is central to the character’s conception of self. During the rehearsal process, Richard spoke more than once about “lost Edens.” Many of Pinter’s characters hearken back to them, and Goldberg seems taken with the urban, working-class Jewish childhood Pinter himself experienced in Hackney in the years before and leading up to the Second World War.

Now I am myself Jewish: Ashkenazic (Ukrainian and Polish) on my father’s side, and Sephardic (Spanish and Turkish) on my mother’s. So it will surprise no one to learn that I am professionally and personally interested in depictions of Judaism in the theatre, or that I’ve sought out and played a number of iconic Jewish roles (Shylock, Tevye, Zimmer in Margules’ Brooklyn Boy) myself. If a character is positively identified as Jewish in a play, it is almost invariably done to explore that character’s response to a non-Jewish context. Thus the Jewish character is often isolated from and/or in conflict with others: Shylock driven first to contemplate and then to attempt judicial murder in response to repeated public humiliation and abuse at the hands of Venetian gentiles, Eddie in Conversations with my Father in violent denial of his cultural identity in an attempt to conform to ephemeral notions of American toughness, even Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: imaginative and politically aware, alone among his fellow villagers in the knowledge of the impermanence of his family’s situation, and ultimately forced out into a hostile world with no more specific plan than to start again somewhere else. The stage-Jew is restless, displaced, often stateless, sometimes bitter, sometimes angry, sometimes philosophical; rarely at peace.

Harold Pinter, also an Ashkenazic Jew, was born in 1930, so he was nine or ten years old when his family was evacuated at the height of the London blitz. Before his eighteenth birthday, he—like the rest of the world—would have learned of the fate of European Jewry at the hands of Hitler’s Third Reich. And before his twentieth, he would have watched as a small collection of soldiers and statesmen, having grown impatient waiting for the Jewish Messiah, carved the State of Israel out of an almost resource-less strip of sand surrounded by more than half-a-dozen hostile and powerful neighbors. Like Pinter himself, Goldberg is a child of the savage and secular mid-twentieth century, and the circumstances surrounding his “birth,” the equivocal nature of his “position”, and his creator’s refusal to anchor either his circumstances or his motivations to anything more concrete than his actions make him into one of the most compelling and disturbing roles a Jewish actor can undertake.

Describing the acting process is almost invariably a disappointing exercise for both writer and reader, so I won’t do much of it here. But I will say a little about where I began, and how, with the help of Richard’s excellent direction, the performance evolved. The organization for which Goldberg and McCann work may be—I’m paraphrasing one review here—governmental, corporate, or criminal, but the means they use to achieve their ends are demonstrably brutal. Therefore I began with the idea of Goldberg as a thug—a thug with a badge, perhaps (or perhaps not)—but a thug nevertheless. And his language at first seemed to me the euphemistic, non-specific language of the noir mobster taken to an absurd extreme. “I’ve got a business proposition.” “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” “We’re going to go for a little ride.” Only because Goldberg is such a gasbag, in his mouth these pithy little phrases seemed to me arias of covert menace, a kind of linguistic water torture: talking about nothing at all while a victim waits and wonders when and if the sound will ever end and the blow will ever come. And this approach did have some validity: the “Getting up in the morning…” speech, while it would change in intonation over the course of the rehearsal process, would never come across as anything other than a gentle, insidious and sadistic little game. However…

A little more than a week into rehearsals, Richard began encouraging me to dial back the gangster. To a certain extent, McCann’s presence made relentless menace from Goldberg unnecessary. Paraphrasing on of Richard’s note: “Goldberg is the stiletto; let McCann be the bludgeon.” Moreover, he encouraged me/Goldberg to enjoy, lose himself in, and perhaps even believe in parts of his anecdotes. If this sounds like a rudimentary adjustment, that’s because it is. Why would a playwright as deliberate and compact with his language as Pinter allow a character as dangerous as Goldberg to rely on a single method of linguistic intimidation? Why write those long speeches if the words themselves were essentially meaningless? Further, while Goldberg may well be a sadist, he’s not a sociopath. In some twisted and terrifying way, he’s a people person. He genuinely enjoys flattering Meg, chatting with Petey, flirting with—and ultimately seducing—Lulu, even giving self-help tips to McCann. Richard was encouraging me to lighten up, and play the content of what Pinter had written, rather than leaning so heavily on a self-generated subtext. I made the technical adjustment as quickly as I could, but it took me a few rehearsals to understand how much more of Goldberg I could get at this way.

The idea of a lost Eden began to bulk large for me at this point. In speech after speech Goldberg insisted upon some quasi-idyllic urban Jewish upbringing, and I began to wonder if his investment in it was based less on experience than on longing. Perhaps Uncle Barney had taken him to the seaside, not to sit in deck chairs and watch the sunset, but to shill for monte-players, pick pockets, collect from prostitutes, run numbers. To my personal way of thinking, anybody who romanticizes gefiltefish has never eaten it. I also began to remember the murderous and frustrated fury of Jews from my grandparent’s generation. My Sephardic grandmother, who feared and distrusted Catholics based on a conflation of mid 20th century fascist atrocities with the savagery with which the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. My Ashkenasic great-aunt, who dismissed a friend’s new Volkswagen by spitting on the ground and swearing she would never ride in a “Hitler-car.” Hard as it may be for people to accept, not everybody—indeed not most people—who died in the camps were saints. Surely there were those who fantasized about what they would do if their positions were reversed: if they found themselves up in the towers holding machine guns, while the SS guards who had tormented them were gathered helpless and weaponless in the yard below. Surely some might have been tempted to pull the trigger; particularly if they had been told to, if they themselves could hide behind the meaningless bromide bleated over and over again at Nuremberg, if they could say that they were “just following orders.”

Nobody likes to think this way about their people, their relatives, or themselves. Those of us who have never had our humanity tested don’t like to contemplate our potential for failure. So what of Goldberg? An oppressor from an oppressed people, a soldier in some shadow army, who gives and takes orders under the threat of…what? Monty’s car, perhaps? Judaism is a skeptical religion; investigation and inquiry are privileged over faith. I’m proud of and secure in both my cultural and my religious identity, and yet I envy the certainty of some of my Catholic friends, convinced as they are that they will see, speak and co-exist with dead friends and relations in an after-life largely absent from the belief system in which I was raised. To play Goldberg, or to play Shylock, or Iago, or Hitler, or Satan for that matter you are not required to approve of them, but you are required to advocate for them; to see the world from their point of view. So Goldberg: how tempting might it be, for a young, tough Jewish kid, growing up with not much in the way of love or resources to forgo the skeptical imagination which is his cultural birthright and to ally himself with an organization which promises power and position in exchange for unquestioning loyalty and faith in the system? How much of himself must he suppress to sleep at night? Perhaps very little: there are vicious, damaged people in the world, so it follows there are vicious damaged Jews; Roy Cohn comes immediately to mind, also Jerome Robbins. But in Goldberg’s case, it must cost him something, and on some level he knows it. That third act breakdown? “For some people, it’s a foregone conclusion.”

A coda? Such a coda! Such a playwright! An audience member seeing me play Goldberg might read what I’ve written here and say: “Nope, didn’t get any of that, but I loved the performance.” Another might say: “What an interesting justification for that pathetic excuse for a performance that hack put across.” An actor preparing top play Goldberg might read this and say: “Interesting; I can use a lot of that.” and give a totally different performance. Another might read and say: “What a pretentious load of garbage; none of its true, and none of it helps.” And that guy might do some stuff similar to what I’ve done, without knowing it, of course. That’s a little piece of the glory of Pinter’s writing. By leaving specific decisions to his actors, he allows for endless variations played on the themes dictated by the action of the plays. He is, in his way, almost as collaborative a playwright as Shakespeare. Embrace his language, respect his rhythms, and the strange, savage little story of The Birthday Party might just be around for another 400 years.

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