In Israel today, the informal ban on playing Wagner’s music at live performances still stands, although occasional exposure on radio and TV has become acceptable. The interrupted performance by Zubin Mehta of a Wagner work in 1981, as well as Daniel Barenboim’s ill-fated attempt with a German orchestra in 2001, are two examples of what is still a general antipathy.

It would seem, however, that with Israel’s diminishing numbers of Holocaust survivors and with subsequent generations whose connections to the Holocaust are not as direct, issues of this nature are no longer of primary concern. The youth in Israel have other pressing matters to occupy their attention. My new play, You Will Not Play Wagner, reflects the debate within a microcosm – a debate between two characters with opposing viewpoints who focus on the fact that not only does this dilemma still survive, it can still arouse passions whenever it comes to the fore.

Annie Byron and Benedict Wall in You Will Not Play WagnerAnnie Byron and Benedict Wall in You Will Not Play Wagner

It’s obviously an anomaly that exists in Israel alone. Barenboim’s choice of orchestra could only rub salt into some very raw wounds. It seems to reflect a certain ill-considered and thoughtless arrogance. Whether he would have experienced greater accommodation with an Israeli orchestra, would have, I think, depended on the tact and sympathy inherent in the approach. In this case it was extremely heavy-handed, with seemingly little thought given to those most affected by their association with Wagner’s music. Instead, the emphasis lay with what Barenboim wanted. The reaction was, I’m afraid, predictable.

I don’t believe that it’s a question of conditions under which performing Wagner might be more acceptable but rather the simple passage of time. In time, Israel accepted VW and Mercedes Benz on their roads as well as German reparations which were vehemently opposed by some and regarded as just by others. There are now probably as large a variety of German goods on the Israeli market as anywhere else and diplomatic relations are strong. Wagner is an anomaly with no direct bearing on anything tangible like the economy, security, inter-state cooperation, diplomatic contact etc. It’s simply “there”, an emotionally driven throwback from the past which comes to light now and again
to remind us that evil can be couched within what would otherwise be a benign culture, and what its terrible consequences can be.

Curiosity, and a desire to seek drama within everyday situations drew me to this debate as material for the theatre. The essence of drama is conflict, and confrontation can naturally lead to debate in one form or another. The conflict within this argument offered some interesting possibilities which I felt the need to explore.

Some of the challenges of dramatising the issue included placing it within a plot that provided a platform for debate while being entertaining and not degenerating into a docudrama or lecture. Also, trying to achieve a balance between the issues presented by both parties while pushing the plot to its conclusion.

The young conductor Ya’akov (Benedict Wall) is motivated to choose a Wagner work for his performance in the finals of a conducting competition both for the shock value and a genuine love of the music. But there’s a third element as well – a genuine desire to rid himself and the nation (as he sees it) of the albatross of the Holocaust. The need to move past the ‘elephant in the room’.

As a Holocaust survivor opposed to the performance of Wagner – and a patron of the competition – I have tried to portray some understanding by the character of Esther (Annie Byron), if not outright sympathy. This only comes to the fore towards the final moments of the play when she accepts that the world has moved on and other points of view have started to emerge. It’s not any easy transition.

As the writer, I have from the beginning, taken no position in the debate. If I did, my concern was it might be reflected within the script. I think I now have a greater understanding of both viewpoints. My greatest reward would come from knowing audiences discuss these issues having seen the play.

Victor Gordon’s You Will Not Play Wagner is at Eternity Playhouse, Sydney May 4 – 28