Editor’s Note: This is a book review (of a kind) of Elie Wiesel’s play The Trial of God. Even if you don’t have familiarity with the source material, this should be interesting, although it’s highly recommended to read it in advance.
The characters of The Trial of God are, frankly, confusing to the reader. Their purpose does not seem to be revealed at face value. Every character in the narrative, Sam/Satan included, acts differently than what common perception would suggest. A man who rebels against God believing in him even at the cost of his own life? Satan, the accuser, attempting to defend God; for most readers, such a depiction might come as a surprise. The three minstrels, whose jobs now turn to something entirely professional and authoritarian? Their roles in society are reversed from the norm. One might imagine: why do they change their roles? Supposedly they are playing the parts in a Purimschpiel that they are supposed to play, but are they accepting their true feelings they could not express otherwise, or is the trial against God a kind of joke? That is the real mystery of Elie Wiesel’s play: who is who, what role does each character play, and what are their true beliefs?
Elie Wiesel, in the preface “The Scene”, attempts to describe the setting. In this, we find that “the play should be performed as a tragic farce; a Purimschpiel within a Purimschpiel.”1 A Purimschpiel is a play performed during Purim, a festival that commemorates the story of Esther and her deliverance of the Jewish people.2 To convey this story, the Purimschpiel was performed to reiterate the story, though its usage has gone beyond a simple retelling into a diverse dramatic form with music, dance, and a heaping helping of satire. Esther becomes a pretext to whatever story the actors wish to tell, and it is this form which The Trial of God represents. Wiesel takes the open-ended nature of a Purimschpiel and places a meta-play within a play.
However, Purim alone does not account fully for The Trial of God‘s structure; one must also reckon with the concepts of “tragedy” and farce”. To use two general and succinct definitions, a tragedy is a dramatic form based on the idea of human suffering, while a farce is a comedy that intends to entertain the audience through absurd, face-paced situations involving word-play and creative dialogue. These forms might seem an antithesis, but Wiesel molds the two into a single unit for a specific reason: his embrace of the paradoxical. Wiesel does not intend to simply represent the paradoxical nature of humanity, but to display it within the very structure of The Trial of God as a message.
Contrary to Sam’s logic and rationality, the formulations of reason are never the answer in human experience. Each character represents an archetype, certainly, but within the trial they break free of both society’s roles and their own personality stereotypes when they are transplanted into a new role. In other words, they move from the play itself – The Trial of God – into a meta-play wherein a trial is held against God. In both roles, they are simply themselves, however bizarrely contradictory their actions might seem. Like most humans, their personality does not ossify, but it changes and shifts from experience, even in matters of faith as displayed here. Thus, Wiesel’s continual emphasis on faith over reason, the paradoxical over the rational are found in the oppositional nature of tragedy and farce, a true “game play”, as one might translate Purimschpiel
Firstly, Purim is definitively a non-religious holiday. Certainly, Purim appears and has been respected as part of the Jewish canon of Scripture for over two millenia, but that does not jump over some of the hurdles involved in calling Purim “religious”. The fact that God is not mentioned even once in the book of Esther strikes the reader as an odd occurrence. In terms of religious content, only fasting and vague allusions to the deliverance of Israel are mentioned. Esther 8: 11-12, 17 describe the specific dating of Purim by the Jewish calendar (based on the day of Anaxerxes’ decree for the Jews to defend themselves) as well as a general feast to take place on that day, but nothing points to a specific religious content; that was only added within time and continual reverence by many generations of Jewish tradition. This makes the idea of The Trial of God a shocking one, since it gives a non-religious holiday a deeply religious character. The paradoxical nature of the play begins to take shape in the very nature of Purim.
The primary social custom of Purim is “the sending of portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” as prescribe by Esther 8:17. What might be odd, in this case, is that charity is not limited to the Jews, but non-Jews may participate as well.3 Considering Esther’s story, this does not accord with the Jew-centric focus, but it makes sense of Maria and the Priest’s inclusion within The Trial of God. Maria was the innkeeper’s employee, a Christian woman, and yet she is allowed to fully participate in the Purimschpiel (regardless of how small a role the audience might have in a trial situation). The Priest, on the other hand, exists as a side-lined observer of the Purimschpiel; one might say his reticence to participate as a declaration of Christian faith rather than anything else, but his presence is not rejected due to this characteristic of Purim.
The idea of masquerading plays a prominent role in the Purimschpiel as well. Adopted by Italian Jews, it soon spread to most regions where Jews lived as a form of merrymaking during Purim.4 With the mask on, any actions (except those that harm others or are harmful to one’s self, of course) are allowed; one can act as rowdy or as oddly as you desire, for with the mask, and on Purim, one can adopt whatever personality one wishes.5 The three minstrels of The Trial of God use masks in this way, although the symbolism extends far beyond a mere physical object used during a comic play. In The Trial of God, one must ask: which role is the mask, and which role is the real character?
Of course, Purim must be understood as a celebration of deliverance; the limits of this celebration are few and far between. The license to express one’s joy as rowdily or inappropriately as possible is not frowned upon on Purim, but encouraged. In time, it was understood that everything is allowed on Purim, even transgressions of the law including drunkenness.6 However, the Purim of The Trial of God can be described as a miserable festival, a joyous celebration only understood in the context of imminent catastrophe; Esther, on this Purim, does not redeem her people, as the pogrom blots out the trace of Wiesel’s characters.
1Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Schocken Books, 1979), xxv.
2Stephen M. Wylen, Settings of Silver: An Introduction to Judaism (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 178.
3Kolter Kaufmann and Henry Malter, “Purim,” JewishEncyclopedia.com, The Kopelman Foundation, 2002, 5 Dec. 2010 <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=613&letter=P#2293>.
4Rabbi Yitzchak Sender, Commentators’ Al Hanissim: Purim, Insights of the Sages on Purim and Chanukah (Nanuet, NY: Feldheim Publishers, 2000), 239-241.
5Rabbi Yitzschak Sender, Commentators’ Al Hannisim: Purim, 236.
6Kolter Kaufmann and Henry Malter, “Purim.”