The Playwright’s Purpose

Motti Lerner


Editor’s’ Introduction:

AIA’s first multimedia article is a commissioned work by Motti Lerner, an Israeli playwright whose oeuvre often explores the cultural and political stakes surrounding the Israeli-Arab conflict. Lerner’s plays include Pangs of the Messiah, Exile in Jerusalem, The Murder of Isaac, The Admission, Paulus and After the War. The first section, “Epilogue”, is an adapted excerpt from Lerner’s book The Playwright’s Purpose. In the article’s second section, Lerner’s “Artist’sic Statement,” Lerner expands on the role of the playwright specifically to the case of Israel.



DOI: 10.18278/aia.1.1.2


I suppose that, like myself, many playwrights wonder about the efficacy of their work in bringing about the change they strive to inspire. In the world we live in, a single gunshot from the hand of a fool can ruin socio-political reality for generations, and dozens of devoted playwrights, no matter their talent, will not be able to repair it. There is some comfort in the thought that, although the playwright may not be able to affect the immediate socio-political reality, his influence may become apparent in the deeper layers of socio-political discourse. Then again, this might be merely an illusion. After 30 years of writing plays, I find it hard to estimate the measure of my contribution to the society in which I live.

However, despite all of the above, I’m still inclined to believe that writing a play with purpose is not only a duty, it is inevitable. This belief stems from the fact that I find it difficult to imagine a profound dramatic play without a protagonist, and I most certainly cannot imagine a protagonist without a strong, rectifying primary internal action. As we have seen, the protagonist’s failure to realize his primary internal action reinforces the spectator’s desire to realize that very same impulse in his own life—and this reinforcement of the spectator’s desires for self-realization is the purpose of most playwrights with purpose.

Lerner often writes plays that challenged religious identity and politics. In a promotional video for Paulus, Lerner discusses his own atheism to introduce the work.

I want to believe that since the earliest expressions of theatre there has been a hidden alliance between the playwright and his audience, regarding this purpose. According to this alliance, audiences have come to see plays, not only to be entertained, but to receive answers about the essence of their lives. The burden of providing these answers rests on the shoulders of the playwright. He is the one who must supply his audience with answers to the tough questions that they themselves may sometimes be afraid to ask. I want to believe that this alliance still exists and that we, the playwrights, have yet to betray it, even when we surrendered to the zeitgeist and distracted our audiences with “entertainment” instead of strengthening their yearning for change. I want to believe that theatergoers are deep, intelligent people in need of inspiration and they are willing and able to internalize it and develop through it. I want to believe that despite the many temptations that distract them from the struggles they face in their own lives, they realize that these distractions will not solve their personal, social, or political conflicts. I want to believe that there are theatergoers who strive for rectification and are even willing to take action for it.

I want to believe these things, despite the deep-seated fear that they are nothing but an illusion. Illusory or not, however, I know for certain that without them, a playwright cannot overcome the immense challenge of writing a play. I believe that the hope of rectification, of remedy, though faint and imperceptible, has always been a driving force in the development of our civilization.

Figure 1: Photograph of a scene from The Admission

The fear that politically purposed writing may push the playwright to the fringes of the theatre world is well-founded. I’ve experienced it myself many times and have observed other playwrights whose work has suffered because of it. I’m aware of the playwright’s urgency to have his plays produced, but I think that in the long run, the immediate satisfaction of putting on plays that do not reflect his purpose might work against even the most talented of playwrights. The analysis of the dramatic mechanisms in this monograph clearly suggests a necessary connection between the playwright’s purpose and the depth of the play. The depth of the protagonist’s primary internal action determines the depth of his character and the depth of his character determines the depth of his conflicts with the other characters, and these, in turn, determine the depth of the play. But as we have seen, the protagonist’s primary internal action is, in fact, a reflection of the purpose of the playwright. To refrain from striving for a deep and meaningful purpose weakens the protagonist’s primary internal action and that may ultimately produce a shallow play.

Figure 2: Photograph of a scene from Benedictus
Figure 2: Photograph of a scene from Benedictus

This distinction is not surprising in the least. Since the earliest manifestations of theater, the great playwrights have been aware of their purpose and their plays have been subversive in every sense of the word. We’ve mentioned a few examples: Oedipus Rex strengthens the spectator in his struggle to reclaim the sovereignty of his life from the gods. Macbeth strengthens him in his struggle to reclaim his fate from destiny. Antigone strengthens the spectator to follow the promptings of his heart rather than the dictates of the establishment, and Romeo and Juliet strengthens him to follow his heart over society’s rule. Writing these plays under socio-political circumstances so different from our own was very risky; however, many playwrights decided to follow their conscience and write purpose-full plays, and their subversiveness allowed their genius to flourish.

The correspondence between the purpose of a play and its depth is an important principle, especially in a time when the democratization of public discourse has turned most of it common and shallow. In fact, in a culture where the flattening of public discourse is a tool in the hands of the government, on the one hand, and a convenient refuge for the passive citizen, on the other, striving for depth has become a subversive action against the forces that use flat discourse as a tool to enforce their authority. Plays with purpose are a potent means in the struggle to achieve an open, free society where a true, deep public discourse can take place. That struggle is so vital that, even if it takes place on the fringe of the theater, it is still worthy and necessary.

One final thought: we have spoken of the hubris of the playwright, who hopes to make a change through the hubris of his protagonist, who is fighting to realize an enormous internal action, which by nature is unrealizable. More than anything, my purpose is to make clear that this hubris is advantageous and right because of the recognition that at its base lies the undeniable awareness of its ultimate impossibility. This duality is similar to that of the mythological Sisyphus: knowing that the heavy rock he pushes to the top of the mountain will fall right back to the abyss, he nonetheless wipes the sweat from his brow, descends the mountain and, with whatever strength he has left, rolls that same rock back up to the top. So, too, the playwright, who toils diligently and fearlessly to develop his craft, writing his plays with his life’s blood, must recognize the intolerable duality between the nobility of his purpose and the slim chances of its realization.

Gordon Joseph Weiss, Dan Manning, and Jeffrey Ware (foreground) in CENTERSTAGE’s American premiere of Motti Lerner’s The Murder of Isaac, directed by Irene Lewis. Photo by Richard Anderson. The Murder of Issac by Motti Lerner Directed by Irene Lewis Center Stage The Head Theater Feb. 3-March 12, 2006
Gordon Joseph Weiss, Dan Manning, and Jeffrey Ware (foreground) in CENTERSTAGE’s American premiere of Motti Lerner’s The Murder of Isaac, directed by Irene Lewis. Photo by Richard Anderson. The Murder of Issac by Motti Lerner Directed by Irene Lewis Center Stage The Head Theater Feb. 3-March 12, 2006

Artistic Artist’s Statement

From the dawn of history human beings have fought each other, and despite the social, cultural and scientific progress they have made with the development of human civilization, they still go on fighting. For reasons that so far have not been thoroughly investigated, human beings have not managed to develop the skills that will enable them to resolve conflicts by peaceful means and they continue fighting, despite their knowing that the majority of wars have not resulted in stable political solutions. Quite the reverse: most wars only created the conditions for the wars that followed. Even when wars ended in political agreements, in most cases similar agreements could have been reached before their outbreak, and undoubtedly without them. The Yom Kippur War is but one example illustrating this paradox: in the course of 1972 representatives of Israel and Egypt conducted a political dialogue in Washington with American mediation. The dialogue was halted when Israel refused to accept the Egyptian demand of a complete withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. On Yom Kippur 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel and despite Israel’s gains in the war, it withdrew from the whole of the Sinai Peninsula, just as Egypt had demanded before the war. But in the meantime more than 2,700 Israeli and over 10,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed. Were their deaths necessary? Apparently not. Could they have been avoided? Evidently, they could. A multi-tiered, complex and in-depth study of the human, social, and national needs of both sides could have produced other possibilities of resolving the conflict, possibilities that were not so lethal.

Lerner engages both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives in his works on conflict in the Middle East. Here, actors from a production of The Admission explain why Lerner’s approach attracted them to the play.

The playwright examining the environment in which he lives can suggest these possibilities. He can discover them through a precise, sensitive, and in-depth examination of the human processes taking place around him. Examining these processes and finding alternatives to war must be done before we open fire. I am not suggesting that playwrights engage in political negotiations, but rather that playwrights engage in investigation of the psychological, ideological, mythical, and political infrastructure of their society, in order to prove that these other possibilities indeed exist.

True, many of us are convinced that man is no more than a bloodthirsty predator, fanatical about his tribe, his people, and his race. He will neither flinch from massacring millions for their sake nor from spilling his own blood. Yet I cannot live my life without the hope that human beings are capable of change, that their thirst for blood can be allayed, that they can be wiser, more tolerant, more understanding, and more forgiving.

Conflict and violence in Lerner’s work is not always physical. In Hard Love, a divorced couple’s tumultuous relationship portrays the deep cultural divide between secular and religious Jews.

What can playwrights do to make us all wiser, more tolerant, more understanding, and more forgiving? They can create characters that contend with the reasons for war. They can focus on their plots, their relationships, and on the catastrophes they go through in the course of their struggles to fulfill their desires against the background of this causal infrastructure of the war. They can examine the flow of events in their characters’ conscious and subconscious minds. In the deepest emotional strata of their characters they will reveal the fear, despair, hatred, evil, and fanaticism whose collective accumulation causes the war. As we know, the protagonists of the tragedy always fail in fulfilling their desires and they end their lives in a catastrophe. The protagonists of our plays, too, will probably fail in their endeavors to counteract the reasons for war. They, too, will probably fail to prevent the titanic clashes in whose shadow we live. But their failure is a warning signal to the audience. Their failure on stage strengthens the spectators to contend with the reasons for war existing in their own political reality, and encourages them to join the struggle to eliminate them.