Savyon Liebrecht in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Savyon Liebrecht (in Hebrew סביון ליברכט) is a celebrated Israeli short story writer and playwright who has achieved international acclaim. Her elegance, warmth and charm fused with enthusiasm are inspiring. We met for morning coffee in Tel Aviv.

Rivka Jacobson: Are you primarily a short story writer or playwright?

Savyon Liebrecht: I am mostly a short story writer; I have published ten books, eight of which are short story collections, and two are novels. For the last few years I have been devoting my time to theatre; I have written six plays which have been produced, and for four of them I won Playwright of the Year Award (not very modest to tell about it, but there is nobody else to tell it for me). Most of the plays are based on my own short stories, which I develop and add to. The only one which is not based on one of my stories, is called The Banality of Love, which deals with the encounter between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, exploring the relationship between German Jews and German culture.

RJ: ‘The Banality of Love’ – where and when was that performed?

SL: In 2009 it was performed in Israel, and I won three awards for it: Playwright of the Year, Play of the Year, and one of my actors won Actor of the Year aword for it. And in 2007 it was produced at the Bonn theatre. Actually it is a European play; the two main characters were German.

RJ: Did you find the German audience’s responds very different to the Israeli audience?

SL: It’s very funny – one of the German productions came over here, and in their production, when Heidegger addresses the students at the University of Freiburg and he is wearing a Swastika, it was a tiny thing on his arm. But in the Israeli production, it was huge! So if you want the difference, symbolically this is the difference. But I think the response from the audience was the same. I don’t know what was said when I couldn’t hear – but the applause sounded the same.

RJ: How many productions of The Banality of Love have there been?

SL: There have been a number of productions: in Sweden, Finland, Turkey, Poland, a number of productions in Germany. The production in Poland was at the Dramatyczny in Warsaw, and it was wonderful, the stage was full of books for the scenery – it’s an interesting theatre, and the actors are wonderful.

RJ: Have you had anything else put on in Poland?

SL: Yes, there was also Rochaleh’s Wedding, which was performed in the Jewish theatre which is situated in what was the Jewish Ghetto. The theatre is just across from a church, at the door of which many Jewish babies were left during the time of the ghetto so that the church should save them. And two years ago, when my play was staged there, I found myself standing there, staring at the steps of the church.

RJ: Were those plays translated into Polish?

SL: Yes, all my plays have been translated into Polish, but only those two have been performed there. Michael Soberman decided to translate them without me even knowing about it. Then he found a publisher, and they came out in a book. They were very warmly received in Poland.

RJ: Do you think Israeli plays are generally well received in Poland?

SL: Well, the playwright who is most well-known is Hanoch Leven – there is something Polish in him, something they can easily relate to. My parents were Polish Holocaust survivors – but I myself don’t speak Polish.

RJ: What was it like to watch your plays performed in a language you don’t speak?

SL: It’s stranfe because, even though I don’t understand the language, I know what they are saying – I recognise the music of the words , somehow. I wish my parents had still been alive to see it.

RJ: Does it feel different in different languages?

SL: Yes, it is not only in different languages but each production is different – the scenery, the directing – it’s very interesting to see my baby taking on different shapes. I think it sounds best in German, because that is the original language – when I quoted a poem by Heidegger, those are the very words that he himself put down.

RJ: What are some of your other plays?

SL: Yevgeny Aryeh asked me for an appointment and said, “I have a dream, a play about Freud.” But I said, “no, it’s too much” – I would have to spend years just reading Freud! And he said, “OK, choose whatever subject you want,” I started reading about Freud, and I found out this story about his sister-in-law. She lived with the Freud family for fifty years. It was said that Freud and his sister-in-law had an affair – I found out that they didn’t, but they were very close and she supported him in his work. So I started writing this and I had some appointments with Yevgeny. But at some point he said, “I don’t know how to do it,” and I understood that what he wanted was something about Freud’s professional life, not his personal life. But at that time I have already been deeply involved with Freud . So far I have written three plays about Freud. One, called ‘Freud’s Women’, is about his wife, his sister-in-law, and his daughter Anna – it is based on true facts. The play starts off with the two elderly sisters sorting out papers, and his wife finds a receip, from when Freud and his sister-in-law had stayed a night in the same bedroom at a hotel. And then it opens a whole thing into the past, and Anna is involved, too. I think he and Anna had something incestuous – not physically, but mentally. They were very close, and he analysed her when she was in her twenties, they talked about her sex life and her fantasies and so on, so I think there was something odd about their relationship. It was amazing to see how blind he was to all three of them – he loved them dearly, all of them, but even though he had great insight into other minds, he was blind to these women. This is one of the plays.

RJ: What’s the second one?

SL: The second one, called ‘Dear Sigmund and Carl’, is a shorter play with just three characters. After Freud and Jung’s deaths, there was a suggestion that their correspondence should be published with an introduction by people who knew them and their work. In 1970, Jung’s son flew over to London to meet Freud’s son – they were both architects – and they signed the agreement, and exchanged the letters, so each got his father’s letters back. The play is about this meeting. Freud treated Jung like a son, so I thought that the theme of fatherhood and inheritance was interesting. And then – in the play – they get drunk and each one defends his father’s legacy, and they both write a letter to their fathers when they are drunk, telling them what they really felt about them.

RJ: And the third one?

SL: This one is heavier. It’s about an encounter between Freud and the Nazi who was appointed to look after Freud’s possessions after the annexation of Austria in March 1938 – it takes place in Vienna, obviously, for three months, because in June Freud left Vienna for London. The main character is actually the Nazi, because Freud was 83 then, and the one who undergoes changes of consciousness is the Nazi. It’s called ‘A Case Named Freud’.

RJ: How many characters are in this one?

SL: It has seven characters: Freud, the Nazi, his wife, Anna, her brother Martin, a concierge and Harry Freud, Freud’s American nephew. It takes place over March to June 1938. It is going to be performed in the Cameri theatre to be directed by Oded Kotler, an Israeli actor and director. He has directed two of my plays, ‘Apples from the Desert’ – which is one of my books too, I think it is the most taught book in high schools in Israel. It also became a TV series and a movie. It is about a religious woman from Jerusalem, a Sephardic woman, who has one daughter, an eighteen-year-old. The woman finds out that her daughter is living in a kibbutz with a man, and travels a long way to bring her back – but when she arrives, she understands that this is the right place for her daughter, and the right man. She realises the mistake she made when she did not marry the boy she loved, and instead married someone to please her father. She comes back home with a sack of apples that the man grows in the desert, and a new understanding of her life – she will stay with her husband and her life will seem unchanged, but her inner life has changed because of the experience she underwent. It became a comedy, it ran 650 times as a play in Bet Lessin in Tel Aviv, in 2006. I got an award for it as a playwright, the play got an award, one of the actresses got an award.

RJ: Has it been translated into English?

SL: Yes, it has even been performed in English, in the United States – but not in England, nothing has been done in England.

RJ: Why do you think that is?

SL: It is very difficult to break into the English theatre, this is not because of any boycott against Israelis, it is just a challenge. The first plays I saw were in London, back in the early seventies – I stayed there for a year and a half, studying English and German and journalism. I couldn’t afford buying tickets then, so we – we were students, a group of theatre lovers who waited for the intermission and went in then, so I saw lots of half-plays! I think it’s good if you want to write plays – you have to reconstruct the first half, so it’s a good exercise.

RJ: When did you start writing plays?

SL: Forty years ago, but the short stories found a home immediately. My first book, ‘Apples from the Desert’, won the Alterman Prize, which is a very important prize – A. B. Joshuah won it the year before me, so even though the book was only four months old and I was completely unknown, it suddenly opened all the doors for me.

RJ: But writing short stories is so different to writing plays..

SL: Yes, very different – it’s a completely different approach, a different kind of creativity. When I write a story, I begin without knowing the end – you cannot write a play like this, you have to have a structure and know how it will go from beginning to end. This is why it helps to build on my stories, so I already have a structure. There are certain things you cannot do without when you write a play: you must be able to write dialogues, and create distinct voices for each character. If you have this, then you can start writing a play.

RJ: Do you listen to other people’s conversations and draw on their distinct voices?

SL:  No. I have them all within me. Sometimes I think I have come up with something individual and then I hear someone say it, and I realise I must have picked it up somewhere. You have to find a way to the consciousness of the character and speak from within it.

RJ: What is your next project?

SL: An opera!

בראיון שקיימתי עם הסופרת והמחזאית סביון ליברכט בתל אביב היא מדברת על היותה סופרת של סיפורים קצרים וגם מחזאית. למעשה, רוב המחזות שלה מתבססים על סיפוריה. המחזה היחיד שאינו מתבסס על סיפור שכתבה אלא על תחקיר הוא “הבנאליות של האהבה” המתארת את הקשר בין חנה ארנדט ומרטין היידגר כמעין מטפורה לקשר שבין יהודי גרמניה לתרבות הגרמנית. בשיחתנו היא הרחיבה על שלושה מחזות שכתבה על פרויד: “הנשים של פרויד” מתאר את הקשר שבין פרויד לבין שלוש הנשים היקרות ללבו: אשתו, גיסתו וביתו אנה ועל העוורון שלקה בו לגבי כל אחת מהן. המחזה השני “זיגמונד וקארל היקרים” מתארת פגישה שהתקיימה בשנת 1970 בין בו של פרויד לבנו של יונג. והמחזה “מקרה ושמו פרויד” מתאר את מערכת היחסים שבין פרויד לנאצי שמונה כאחראי על נכסיו עם סיפוח אוסטריה במרץ 1938. מחזה זה יוצג בקאמרי בבימויו של עודד קוטלר.