'The Rich Jew in Manhattan'
by Rainer Weber
Translated by Katerina Beltig
Antisemitism? "Well, okay, that's part of it," says Nick Fracaro. But to him the fierce dispute going on in Frankfurt rather proves the complexity (and confusion) of the German psyche. And if Fassbinder's "Trash, the City, and Death" dealt only with antisemitism then he would not (bother to) put it on stage. But this is exactly what he is doing.
"Trash, the City, and Death" is scheduled to be released on April 16 in New York's one hundred seat Noho Theater. Previews, open to the public the week before last, were in a studio theater a few blocks further south. Up to now the shows have been undisturbed; they are shown in an environment that suits Fassbinder's Frankfurt play, dealing with urban destruction and speculation extremely well.
Only two years ago Rivington Street was a shabby street east of the depraved Bowery, uninhabitable as the moon. "Sometimes," says a good-humoured cop, standing in the flashing blue light of his squad car east of the Bowery, "dealers and clients stood here shoulder to shoulder." Meanwhile, it doesn't take much more than "not looking like a victim" for strangers to be able to walk around unmolested.
The sudden improvement was pushed through by the city which owns most of the real estate in this area. A massive police force "Operation Pressure Point" brought tolerable peace to the area. The chic Greenwich Village is close and so is the Financial District (Wall Street) with its hundreds of thousands of well-to-do Yuppies.
Building owners were granted tax abatements, compulsory evacuations took place, dwelling space was torn down. The Lower East Side became the hottest area of speculation in New York: the Frankfurtization [Mainhattanization] of Manhattan on the East River.
Immigrants have always been living here. Up until World War II Jews were coming from Europe. Now the population is mainly hispanic and/or black. At 124 Rivington Street Shapiro's kosher wines are still being sold; at 128 Rivington Street Geller and Breier are running their Hebrew book store. At 156 Rivington Street ABC No Rio art space shares a fire protection wall with a Matzo factory.
The previews of the Fassbinder play branded as antisemitic are taking place at ABC No Rio, performed by the "Thieves Theater Company." The place is already legendary in the underground for its avant garde music sessions and its wild performances.
From the first floor pop music is roaring; upstairs is a "shooting gallery," and what they shoot is drugs. Downstairs, in the middle of all the decorations which, according to the title "Trash," consists of broken glass and furniture. A basemball bat is hooked to the wall. Not there as a set element, but ready to use to drive away undesired intruders.
Director Fracaro named his company "Thieves Theater" after the "Diary of a Thief" by Jean Genet, the gay ex-convict writer. The 28 "theater thieves" are all professionals but they cannot live on their acting. Fracaro is a furniture mover. His business card says "Man With Van." His life companion, Gabriele Schafer, who did the new translation of Fassbinder's "Trash, the City, and Death" earns her living with word processing. Last week she worked for the Rothschild firm. From time to time she works as a synchronizer. The last time was for a commercial in a German dialect (Ms. Schafer comes from Odenwald).
Some actors of the company think that maybe after "Trash" the hard times will come to an end, hoping they might finally be noticed by the theater world. They feel this way because Fassbinder's melodrama dealing with urban destruction and speculation, a wealthy Jew, and a poor whore, which is set in the Frankfurter West End has already drawn much attention.
Because of antisemitic passages the original publishers broke with the text. According to the will of the author, who died in 1982, the play can only be staged at a muncipal theater in Frankfurt or in New York. However, this is not recorded and thus doubted every so often. In 1984 the city of Frankfurt prohibited "Trash" to be dumped on a subway construction site next to the "Alte Oper." The General Manager was fired. In 1985 members of the Jewish community in Frankfurt stopped the premier by occupying the stage and arranging sit-ins, bringing world-wide publicity.
The "Thieves Theater" payed only $500 to the author's publishing company in Frankfurt for the performance rights. The poor "theater thieves" of the Lower East Side couldn't afford to pay more, says Elizabeth Marton. In case the company achieves higher profits, about 6% commission will be discharged. Nobody else in New York was seriously interested in "Trash" by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, says Marton.
In the long run that makes no difference to the publishing company. Once "Trash" is brought on stage, provided the premier is in New York, the play is open to the world. Then the artistic value of the hastily recorded melodrama of the urban jungle can be judged. But then it is also possible that confirmed antisemites start to dig through Fassbinder's "Trash."
However, this is exactly the barbed hook concerning the Manhattan "Trash." Fracaro and his friends see Fassbinder's piece above all as a melancholy and also devastating drama dealing with violent behaviour and love between outcasts of the bourgeois society like whores, gays, and dwarves. On the contrary, the Jewish community sees itself confronted with a discouraging perspective for the future: the eternal guerrilla fight against a never-changing antisemitism ("He sucks the past out of us, this Jew.") Inevitably, this will sooner or later be presented with demogogic purpose.
Ten days before the scheduled premier of the play the Anti-Defamation League of the very influential Jewish B'nai B'rith organization spread warnings against the stage play; they designated it as "seething with hatred" and as having served as a "catalyst for antisemitic and racist reactions." Moreover, they made clear that they were conscious of their responsibility to spare the Jewish community from defamation. Does this mean there will be a stage occupation in New York too?
In March Anti-Defamation League investigators swarmed out to find out about the background of the "Thieves Theater." A routine check and mere "precaution," as they put it, to search for possible cross-connections with rightist and antisemitic circles. Reports were written, archives examined, and cultural authorities interviewed.
The result was the following: the autonomous theater company had originated in a prison cell. In 1981 director Fracaro, a comparative literature scholar, directed Genet's "Deathwatch" with the prisoners of the Illinois State Prison as actors. A scene of this performance still decorates the black magic doodles like flashing witch stars, etc.
With former patients of a mental hospital he performed "Marat/Sade" by Peter Weiss to the sounds of punk music composed by a musician named Paul Nightmare on a New York off-Broadway stage. In "An Autobiography of Jesus Christ" Fracaro, 35, a gentle person with macho looks and a crew cut, transferred the resurrection myth of the phoenix to southwestern cowboy lands.
After that he delved into Cocteau and Rimbaud. "Many evolutionary steps later" his company is willing to lend their collective theater voice to the "stigmatized, the people in quarantine and the outcasts" of this planet. Out of this, "reconciliation shall arise."
Their statement is still far away from sounding as pedantic and instructive as what Guenther Ruehle, director of the Frankfurter Schauspielhaus, said: in the name of historical necessity he intends to show "the Jew" the right way in approaching normality in Jewish/German relations.
The New York Company, unaffected as they are, were not forced to send their audience to the "Frankfurt torture chamber of well-meant intentions." Thus, at certain strong moments, the "Thieves Theater" was able to impart the explosive force of the uncontrollable and highly impulsive piece about coldness, love (being inseparable from violence) and death.
Over a million Jews live in New York City, more than in any other city in the world, including ones in Israel. Compared to that the surviving Shoah in Germany are almost an invisible minority. That clearly shows the advantage the New York Jews have over their German fellow believers. Thus the system of impediments works as follows: a widely known manager of a nightclub who prefers to be called by his first name, Rudolf, notorious to be the son of an accomplice of Nazi regime war criminals, and who most likely grew up in Argentina, graciously intended to donate the net profits from one night in his club to the "Thieves Theater." He refrained from doing so. The discotheque belongs to Eli Dayan, son of Moshe Dayan.
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