Duke University’s Department of Theater Studies has joined the growing list of theaters opening their doors and welcoming audiences back to the seats for live performances.
While the department was able to present its three mainstage productions during the pandemic, which was no small task, the actors performed to virtual audiences. But come November 4, theater enthusiasts return to Sheafer Theater to experience the fall mainstage Golem, masked but in-person.
The play takes place in New York City several years after the September 11 attacks and was written by Neal Bell: Theater Studies professor, award-winning playwright, and horror aficionado. In this interview, Bell reveals what went into Golem’s creation.
What inspired you to write Golem?
Golem began 10 years ago, when several NYU graduate students contacted me about writing a play for their senior distinction project. One student had been a neighbor when I lived in Brooklyn, and they were all familiar with my plays, which often dealt with political and societal questions.
Their concerns at the time had to do the questions of ethnic and religious identity. These students were also deeply upset by the fate of the Israeli/Palestinian actor and theater director Juliano Mer Khamis, who'd run a children’s theater in the West Bank refugee camp at Jenin—and had recently been gunned down outside the theater.
Hovering over all was the shadow of the September 11 terrorist attacks and reports of atrocities committed by Americans after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, including the infamous photos of torture by smiling U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison complex.
In the summer of 2011, the students came down to Durham, where we enjoyed a week of improvisations and some wonderful conversation. And then they gave me free rein to write whatever I wanted, using as much or as little of the material that had been discussed while they were here in residence. What I came up with was Golem, which they performed at NYU in the spring of 2012.
Why did you decide on a golem for your “creature?”
I teach a class on the history of the horror film and have written a book on how to write a horror movie. One of the early silent horror films I've found most fascinating is the 1920 movie The Golem: How He Came into the World.
This movie has haunted me since I first saw it. Apparently, the subject haunted the movie's director, Paul Wegener, too, as he made three different films based on the golem legend, only one of which survives.
I began to wonder what would happen to a group of young people, like the ones who visited me in Durham, if their unacknowledged fears and longings started to activate a dormant golem. And if I could pull it off, the play would keep getting scarier as the characters came closer to encountering the being they had unconsciously conjured. Terror is hard to pull off on stage, but I thought it was worth a shot.
It's based on a Jewish legend about the 16th-century Rabbi Löew, who tried to avert a pogrom by creating a golem, a giant creature made of clay who would defend the Jews of the Prague ghetto. Following the familiar pattern of the creator losing control of his creation, like Frankenstein, Rabbi Löew's “savior” finally becomes too human and, after wreaking havoc, has to be destroyed.
I first discovered the movie when I was preparing to teach my first class on the history of the horror film, and it had a particular resonance for me because I've always been attracted to stories about creators and their complicated relationship to their creations. This attraction led me some years earlier to do Monster, a stage adaptation of Frankenstein.
The Golem film is fascinating in and of itself, with dazzling special effects and amazing sets that connect it to other German-expressionist visions like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. But most importantly, to me anyway, it dramatizes the classic tension between the Creator and the Created—which has obvious religious implications, as well as social and political ones.
Has the play changed from what you wrote in 2011 to what audiences will see in November?
When the play was first performed in 2012, I was able to fly to New York to see it. But because I hadn't been able to be there for rehearsals, there were loose ends and unanswered questions in the script as it was performed back then. As the play concluded, there were characters whose stories seemed incomplete to me.
What's been great about having the play as the department’s fall mainstage is that I've been able to do rewriting based on conversations with the director, Professor Jody McAuliffe. We work well together, and she’s directed six of my plays, including Golem, over the years.
She asks specific and helpful questions about those unfinished characters from the 2012 production, and I've been “finishing” them in the rewrites without giving away the final mysteries that make up the heart of the play.
Despite the rework, the play hasn't changed drastically from initial conception to current draft, but I hope it's clearer and that it still retains a sense of mystery in both the common and the religious sense.
You hold back on the reveal of the golem. Is this deliberate?
Horror fans seem to be divided pretty evenly into two camps: those who want to see the “horrible thing” close up and as graphically as possible and those who think “the horrible” is more frightening when it's suggested, but not necessarily shown, allowing the audience to imagine much worse things out there in the dark.
I'm pretty firmly in the latter camp, and some of my favorite horror films are the Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur collaborations of the 1940s, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, in which the terror is almost always just off-screen—and more frightening for that reason, as my imagination runs wild.
In my version of the golem story, the eerie and uncanny begins to seep into the everyday world, but the characters don't recognize what's happening until it's (almost) too late. By then, the golem is right outside the door, and the door is opening. I don’t want to give the ending away, but if people gasp or jump at what they see, I’d feel like we’d done our job.