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.
Thus, we arrive at the idea of tragedy. The Trial of God ends on a depressing note, with the victory of Satan and the imminent death of the Jewish characters in a pogrom. In this sense, the Trial of God exists as a tragic drama. However, to identify tragic elements in Wiesel’s narrative, a pure formulation of the tragedy remains a necessary element. Merriam Webster defines the tragedy as either “a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall of a great man” or “a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror.”1 In regards to the first definition, no character in The Trial of God strikes one as a great man, or woman; all of them have faults, failures, and traumatic events in their past. Not one of them remains unscathed, either by European anti-Semitism or by sin in general as Maria’s seduction shows clearly. Thus, Wiesel uses tragedy in the secondary sense of the word. The protagonist would be the initiator of the trial, Berish, a common innkeeper, and the superior force is God, specifically YHWH, the plenipotentiary of the universe. One can say, quite easily, that this drama also elicits pity for most of the main characters, as well as terror with the lack of resolution of the trial and the imminent death of the Jewish characters.
However, to define words by other words alone does not grasp the full story. Tragedy (and the word itself) originates from ancient Greek culture. The performances of Greek tragedies had a specific form and content that defined the tragedy as a dramatic art form to the present day. Firstly, the actors of tragedies all wore masks – for that particular performance, they became the character in question (with a little imagination).2 Secondly, a musical element was involved in the form of a chorus that danced and sang; their role portrayed the reactions of the audience to the events taking place within the tragedy.3 Lastly, two essential words have become part of the tragedy’s form: the ekkyklêma and the mechane. The ekkyklêma was a cart used to display to the audience events that were occurring during the events of the play, such as a brutal murder or sudden disaster.4 Since it would be difficult to portray a murder without betraying the actual emotional impact of a real murder, they were instead shown in pictures as a compromise for the audience and the actors. The mechane was a crane used to drop a god or goddess onto the stage for their appearance in the drama; this device initiated the use of deus ex machina, or “god in the machine”, wherein a surprise factor appears, external to the structure of the play itself, and changes the events that occur within the play (although this has become much more negative in its usage within modern times).5
The Trial of God does follow in the tradition of these ancient tragedies in their characteristics. Again, one sees the form of masks, originally seen simply as a device for Purim, take another facet as a Greek dramatic device. The people inhabiting Wiesel’s play are playing roles, with or without their masks, from which escape, or abandoning their convictions in the case of Berish, is an impossible task. This is why the Jewish characters reject the Priest’s attempt to convert them – they are in the middle of a play, and a trial, and to abandon either would be both a travesty to Purim and to the tragic form. In other words, “the show must go on”.
The idea of the chorus makes Maria’s role as the audience a great deal clearer than it appears in the body of the work as well. As a Christian, she can participate in a Purimschpiel, but she is still an outsider to Judaism and the experience of being Jewish. As an observer, she has the role of reacting to the events of the trial and the imminent pogrom, which are both revelatory and horrific events in turn. How does one react, for instance, to the rape of Berish’s daughter, Hanna? Or to the appearance of Sam, who seduced Maria? Clearly, she represents the audience in both their reactions and confusion to the events that occur. According to Aristotle in his Poetics, the response of the audience in a proper tragedy should elicit both pity and fear, and Maria does both in equal measure (even if pity is rejected by Berish).6
In The Trial of God, the ekkyklêma is the trial itself. How does one portray a trial against the creator of the universe while doing justice to the event in itself? In our case, the trial is not a straightforward trial in itself, but a Purimschpiel. Both owing to the fact that the events take place on Purim, as well as a way for Berish to confront God about the events that have occurred in his life, the dramatic form allows for the intellectual and ideological nature of a trial to occur metaphorically and symbolically without actually summoning God to respond to his own criticisms. If the story of Job was normative to how God acts, simple accusations against God’s inaction in allowing evil things to happen does not mean God is culpable for anything since humans cannot understand God’s thoughts. To expect God to arrive at the trial becomes wishful thinking, as God already answered Job outright about many of the same accusations. However, Wiesel would suggest that Job failed by not continuing to question God – thus, the Purimschphiel becomes a vehicle to enact that trial.
1“Tragedy,” Merriam-Webster Online, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2010, 5 Dec. 2010 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tragedy>.
2Ruth Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 23-24.
3Ruth Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy, 3-4.
4Ruth Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy, 48
5Ruth Scodel, An Introduction to Greek Tragedy, 48.
6Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S. H. Butcher (Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2007), 26