A quote from Golda Meir has returned to me often over the last four years: "We can forgive you for killing our sons, but we will never forgive you for making us kill yours." Golda apparently said that to Anwar Saddat midway through her term as Prime Minister of Israel, and I think it's the most wonderful thing I've ever heard. It's the kind of quote you can carry through your day in an America at war, and get gradually convinced that, just maybe, you are on the side of history; that maybe there is some kind of overriding, benevolent morality that can survive the endless barrage of bad news of needless deaths and military fuckups and thirteenth-century minds wielding 21st-century weapons. When your allies can say things of such bottomless humanity, and when you know your opponents cannot, it calms the nerves even as everything else conspires to break the heart.
That quote is nowhere to be found in Golda's Balcony, though many like it are. I cannot honestly say whether they always resonate with the same weird power they carry at GableStage this is a notable week for raw nerves and pain junkies, and objectivity is proving elusive. Get somebody talking about kids mowed down for no good reason and there will be tears. Get somebody waxing poetic about peace and we'll go all gooey. Give us a person who's seen her share of blood and guts and evil who can still envision some happy resolution just ahead, and we'll trample each other to death lining up to cast the first ballot. It's just one of those weeks.
But it's also one of those decades, coming on the heels of one of those centuries if only because, for the first time in history, we all had front-row seats to the spectacle of nations chewing on each other, over and over again, in black and white and then in bleeding Technicolor. You could easily compose a list of people who most personified those heady hundred years, their best intentions and toughest choices. If you did, Golda Meir would be near the top.
Written by William Morris. Directed by Joe Adler.
With Lisa Morgan. Through May 20 at GableStage, the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables, 33134. Call 305-446-1116, or visit www.gablestage.com.
Whoops. I can feel the bile rising in a thousand liberal gullets as I write this. Shalom, brethren! You should love Israel. Israel is friendly to women, tolerant of homos, and less racist than France and the kibbutz is the only successful communist experiment ever, to boot! Maybe Israel is a little grumpy from time to time, but man just look at their neighbors. My neighbors play rap too loudly on Sunday afternoons, and it puts me in a vicious mood. I mean, I can't even imagine living next door to Palestine. Christ! I'd have to join the Mossad just to let off some steam.
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That's not the point, though. If you're an inveterate Meir-hater, the last few paragraphs won't change your mind, and neither will Golda's Balcony. This is for everybody else.
Golda's Balcony is a one-woman show, a monologue from Meir in the late autumn of her life. In exposition and brief reenactments, we are offered a complete, though economical, vision of her life before she moved to Palestine in 1921 her birth in Minsk, her family's flight to the United States when pogrom loomed, her pedestrian beginnings as a streetcorner Zionist rabble-rouser in Milwaukee. There is a great deal of humor in the beginning of the play, especially when Golda talks about her husband, Morris. This is good: It keeps the play grounded in the ordinary world of people, places, and things. Later, when she recounts the way her blossoming career in politics tore apart her family, and then later still, when she is a prime minister presiding over the deaths of boys from five countries in the Yom Kippur War, the humor that came before keeps us aware that this is an actual person, instead of a soulless ideologue or superhuman icon. From the play's opening moments Golda's reminiscences are woven together by the slow explication of a cogent philosophy something about peace, about needing a place to be, about self-assertion and being pushed too far that makes room for all of the gradations of human emotion and experience playwright William Gibson ascribed to Golda Meir: humor, responsibility, war, and the longing for lasting, fraternal love when and if the wars are ever over.
It is beyond question that the factual Golda Meir was a complete person as described above, but you'd never have known it from looking at her. On the charisma continuum she'd fall somewhere between Richard Nixon and a Chia Pet. Happily actress Lisa Morgan is not too exacting in her portrayal. She's got that same slow, steely resolve, but Morgan allows it some transparency. Facing a showdown with Egypt and Syria, watching her air force disintegrate, needing military backup from the United States and receiving none, Morgan shows Meir shaking apart as her hand is forced toward the nuclear option, emotion shooting out wildly in all directions. Until Henry Kissinger promises reinforcements, it's like the air has been sucked out of the room. When Kissinger comes through, Morgan's great, tear-filled, shuddering sigh of relief lets it back in. Watching this is to know with unsettling certainty what it feels like to be a person of peace, dragged by hideous happenstance to the brink of wholesale slaughter. The factual Meir would never have shown so much.
Inescapably the politics of Golda's Balcony are one-sided, and one-sided politics are doomed to oversimplicity. Too often in the play Golda mouths lines that would seem to most ears like common sense, but would sound to Israel's enemies like sugar-coated demands for capitulation. "There will be peace when the Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate the Jews." It's seductive as all hell, but what insidious subtext lurks therein? The implicit assumption that all people, both the subjects of governments as well as states themselves, have the right to exist? That the disregard for that assumption is a valid pretext for war? Obviously the politics of warfare are vastly more complicated than that, and Meir, Morris, Morgan, and GableStage are fools for suggesting otherwise, even for a moment. Aren't they?