"The current crisis in the Middle East only enhances the meaning of 'The Golem.' It becomes the play for the millennium." So asserts veteran actor Robert Prosky, who plays The Maharal (Rabbi Yehudah Loew) in "The Golem," which opened Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, April 11.
Prosky is the story's central figure, a tormented 16th-century rabbi—a real-life figure awash in myth and legend—who defies God to create a creature (talk about early bioethics) to fight anti-Semitism in Prague. In the end, the man-made being turns on the Jews and destroys the rabbi's family. (Interestingly, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" was inspired by the Golem, a figure out of Jewish mysticism.)
" 'The Golem' explores the idea that if you employ violence, it will only come back to you. It solves nothing. Still, the Golem himself is an innocent, an empathic figure," continues Prosky, a pleasant 71-year-old Philadelphia native, who is chatting with us on the phone.
Prosky, who is best known to New York audiences for his Tony-nominated performances in "Glengarry Glen Ross," and "A Walk in the Woods," is aware that the pre-Holocaust pacifist views voiced in 'The Golem' may appeal to anti-Israeli sensibilities today; although he insists the play's vision has application to any war-torn region, from Northern Ireland to Bosnia to Afghanistan to the Middle East.
"The fact is religion—whatever the religion—has led to atrocities," he asserts. "If anything, this play could be seen as anti-Catholic. But, no, I don't think it is. Some of the anti-Semitic views expressed by the priests here were believed by many Christians and could easily be voiced by Osama Bin Laden today."
Prosky is specifically talking about the long held anti-Semitic myth that Jews killed Christian children for their blood, which they (Jews) allegedly baked into their Passover matzos.
In "The Golem," priests of the Grand Guignol variety are seen brutally killing an infant in order to confirm the myth and frame Jews. Indeed, in a particularly graphic scene, the priests are shown tilting the dead baby over—it's their freshly killed prey—and pouring the toddler's blood into small vials for the purpose of planting them in the homes of Jews shortly before Passover.
"The Golem" was written as a dramatic poem in the '20s by H. Levick and translated from the Yiddish in the late '60s by Joseph C. Landis. Manhattan Ensemble Theater Artistic Director David Fishelson, who describes himself as an ardent Zionist, adapted the work and includes a personal essay in the program, suggesting that "The Golem" testifies to the notion that retaliation to evil is the only option, however unthinkable. With or without retribution, he writes, innocence has been lost.
Identified with Jewish Roles
Prosky comes to this controversial, complex work armed with an unusual background. As he tells it, he is descended from Polish Catholics, although his grandfather left the church. "He believed that if the priests were speaking in Latin, they were trying to keep things from him. So he created his own church where the mass was spoken in Polish. Later, that church was incorporated into what was then called the Polish National Church."
Prosky was, however, baptized an Episcopalian, his wife is Catholic, and he is identified with Jewish roles. "The Dybbuk," "Tenth Man," "Zalmen, or the Madness of God," "The Wall," and "The Price" are only a few of the works where his onstage alter ego was Jewish.
"I suppose the role that most prepared me for this one was starring in 'The Dybbuk.' I was fascinated by the era and sensibility and did a lot of reading on the subject," he recalls. "I've studied the Jewish classics and have always been interested in Yiddish theatre. After all, the Group Theatre came out of the Yiddish theatre, and The Actors Studio came out of the Group Theatre. So the Yiddish theatre has had a long influence."
He adds, "The big challenge in playing the Rabbi of Prague is not the fact that he is Jewish or even a rabbi. It is exhaustion," Prosky chortles. "I'm not a youngster, and this is a physically and mentally strenuous role. There are 50-odd pages here of blank verse, and the words have to come trippingly off your tongue. Memorization is a bit of a challenge."
Prosky is the consummate actor's actor, a triple threat who has appeared in 35 feature films, series television ("Hill Street Blues" and "Cheers"), on Broadway, and in regional theatre. He lives in Washington, D.C. and has been a member of the Arena Stage Company since 1957, where he has been featured in over 150 productions, from Brecht to Miller to Kaufman and Hart. In addition to his two Tony nominations, he is the recipient of the Helen Hayes, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards.
An Economics Major
The only son of a butcher, Prosky recalls an interest in acting from the outset. "I did lots of amateur theatre, but it never occurred to me that I might do it professionally." Indeed, Prosky majored in economics at the Philadelphia-based Temple University.
"My father, who only had a seventh-grade education, was determined that I go to college," says Prosky. "I ended up majoring in economics because, in my freshman year, that was the course of study that seemed most interesting."
At the same time, Prosky was regularly appearing in a local and ongoing televised talent contest. Although he did it as a lark, he scored in every round and eventually went on to win the whole series, which, in turn, led to a part in a professional summer stock production at the Bucks County Playhouse. In that first gig, which also featured a youthful Walter Matthau, director Ezra Stone urged the young Prosky to study acting in earnest.
After graduating from Temple University, Prosky did just that, earning a New York Drama League scholarship to train at the American Theatre Wing's school. His career path was interrupted briefly; there was the Korean War, in which he served, and his father's sudden death. For a time, Prosky ran the family grocery.
Still, once he decided to pursue acting full-time, his career took off. The turning point was his audition for the Arena's production of "The Front Page," under the auspices of Zelda Fichandler, whom Prosky describes as a "brilliant director" and profoundly instrumental in launching his career. The Arena—in addition to other major Washington-based theatres—has served as a home for Prosky for more than 40 years.
"I've always made a living as an actor; not always a plush living, but a living all the same. I have a wife, three sons, and own a home in Washington, D.C.," Prosky notes. "And most of my work has been in theatre, although the most money I earned for any given performance was in movies. I carried many plays; I never carried a movie." He chortles. "I used to say, 'The less work I do, the more money they pay me.' "
Looking back, Prosky suggests that the opportunities he had—especially in theatre—simply do not exist today for the newcomer. "There are many more theatres out there, but fewer that pay anything. And there are more hurdles to getting a job," he continues.
"Years ago, your agent would send you out on an audition and if the director liked you that was that. Now you have to go through casting directors, who have a lot of power. With TV commercials, as an example, they will often tape your audition and then have the actor return for a callback. If they already have the tape, why the callback?"
Prosky cites a curious cultural trend among young actors; he believes it emerges, at least in part, from both the added obstacles and fewer acting opportunities today. "When I was a young actor, we'd get excited only if we got the job following an audition. Now young actors are bragging if they get a callback or even just make it through the audition."
Two of Prosky's three sons (Andrew and John Patrick) are actors. His third son, Stefan, a former microbiologist, is now a painter. And, Prosky concedes, their having followed in his footsteps places him in an oddball position.
"More than any other father, I probably know how difficult the arts—most especially, acting—are," he reflects. "But how can I say, 'Don't do this,' when I have? I try not to give advice. And as a successful actor, if I go backstage to see one of my sons after a performance, I arrive like the hammer of God. I've got to be very careful in what I say. You want to be honest, but not devastating. Instead of being critical, you want to be constructive, but not too constructive. Because that can quickly become destructive."
Prosky acknowledges that he is slowing down now and increasingly selective in what he'll do. "There was a time I grabbed whatever was offered me. Now I'll consider a role—a lot of people have said I should do Lear or Prospero—if I think it'll be a good production and if I like the people behind the scenes."
Prospero might be a logical next step, Prosky observes. That God-like figure, after all, is not that far removed from the rabbi in "The Golem," a work that is fully occupying Prosky's thoughts.
Asked what he'd like audiences to think and feel leaving the theatre after seeing the play, Prosky doesn't miss a beat.
"That's it," he quips. "Think and feel."