Tragedy, Farce, and a Trial: A Literary Analysis of The Trial of God (Part 9)

Part 8

In the case of The Trial of God, a significant relation with The Sonderberg Case becomes apparent. Yedidyah, in describing Werner Sonderberg, says

“…was he annoyed by the prosecutor’s accusations, as though the magistrate were speaking not about him, Werner, but about someone who had usurped his identity and taken over his entire person? But how could such role substitution be imagined? It is conceivable only in an actor. How would I have done it? Yedidyah wondered. Napoleon, when incarnated onstage, uses the actor just as the actor uses the emperor. Could Descartes be wrong? The ‘I’ who thinks is not necessarily the ‘I’ who is. And then who is Werner Sonderberg?”1

This is the key to The Trial of God, in that the meta-play is not a play at all – it is real life. Yedidyah, in talking to his grandfather while young, is told this about the relation between an actor and his role: “You have to integrate one into the other. The actor who pretends to be weeping today will burst out laughing tomorrow. Just as the philosopher’s truth is tested and created in doubt, the actor finds his truth in metamorphosis.”2

This confusion of identity makes the meta-play of The Trial of God possible. No devout believer should blaspheme or question God. Job’s reaction is called “radical wisdom literature” for a reason, as it significantly departs from orthodoxy. But, what if, for a moment, such restrictions were lifted? Purim becomes a day of freedom for the oppressed to cry out, and though a new Esther may not bring redemption, at least Berish and his trial companions do not go gentle into that good night. They rage against the dying light, for in the role of actors they find truth in the metamorphosis; all their previous concerns and worries can be exposed in real life, rather than repeatedly re-enacted within the mind. Would they act this way otherwise? No, most likely not. Berish is an innkeeper in the 17th century, Maria an under educated helper, and the three minstrels are not in profession known for their academic accomplishment. Yet, and for a brief moment, they become a team of rabbis who speak eloquently and voice judgement upon the God of the universe, or at least participate in the trial.

This very element, in itself, is farcical – how do such people suddenly become eloquent speakers and obtain great knowledge about God and the workings of theological concepts? It is a very odd dichotomy, considering their professions. Wiesel uses each one to represent philosophical ideas within the body of the play, and they speak in language to convey likely debates among those positions (or rejections of any position at all, as the three minstrels might declare as their stance). And, of course, such a situation is a tragedy, not only in that it results in death for the main characters, but that their recovery of human dignity in the face of divine justice is cut short. The Apollonian illusion of an ordered universe and the Dionysian element of human experience are combined in the paradoxical formulation of The Trial of God. The revelations of what the characters think of God and human existence are found when they adopt their roles – even Sam.

Truly, one sees that the very structure of Wiesel’s play shows the paradoxical character of human nature and its rapidly shifting appearance. What is here today may not be here tomorrow, but one will always remain a human being. Pure experience and pure logic have no place; one must become a Kierkegaardian “Knight of Faith” who goes beyond what is moral (in this case, to avoid conflict with God) and acts in the religious mode. That is true human existence. To act as the characters in the play do, with both love and anger towards what God requires and does simultaneously, makes absolutely no sense to the post-Enlightenment Western mindset, yet it is Wiesel’s answer in The Trial of God.


1Elie Wiesel, The Sonderberg Case, 75-76.

2Elie Wiesel, The Sonderberg Case, 17.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.