Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel (Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel Vom Leiden Israels)

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ELI: A MYSTERY PLAY OF THE SUFFERINGS OF ISRAEL (Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels)

Play by Nelly Sachs, 1951

Among the plays of Leonie (Nelly) Sachs, Eli, first produced and published in the early 1950s as Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels and published in English translation in the collection O the Chimneys in 1967, is the one that deals most directly with the Holocaust. The play concerns the murder of Eli, an eight-year-old boy, a God child, as indicated by his name in Hebrew. The action takes place in a small town in Poland where Jewish mysticism was prevalent. The time of the play is defined symbolically rather than historically as the period after martyrdom. Eli was killed by a soldier when his parents were led through the streets of their town to be deported to an extermination camp. Trying to follow them, Eli blew his shepherd's pipe as a call to God for help. In a postscript to the play Sachs interprets the shepherd's pipe with which the boy, in his despair, called to God as an "attempted outbreak of the human in the face of horror." At that moment, as Eli called to God, one of the soldiers turned around and, assuming the pipe to be a secret signal, killed the boy with his rifle butt. The soldier's fear of a secret signal is explained by the playwright as a symbol of unbelief.

After the war a new city is being built outside the gates of the old town. But the townspeople continue to grieve over the murder of their loved ones, especially over Eli, the God child. Michael, a shoemaker who has the eyes of the Baal Shem, the saint-mystic of eastern European Jewish mysticism (Hasidism), cannot find peace. Shoemaking traditionally is a mystic trade. Sachs was aware that Jakob Böhme, for instance, the German mystic of the early seventeenth century who was strongly influenced by Jewish cabalism, was a shoemaker. It was Böhme who became a source of inspiration for Sachs, in whose works the parallel strands of Jewish and German mysticism are united. Michael is also one of the Thirty-Six Pious, or Just, Men for whose sake, according to Jewish legend, the world was saved. As one of these men, Michael takes his people's grief into his own heart so that they are relieved of the burden of their sorrow and thus able to build the new town without grief.

Taking with him Eli's pipe, the instrument for invoking God, Michael leaves the town and goes into the world in search of Eli's murderer. Wherever he meets people, he takes their sorrows unto himself so that they can live or die in peace. Finally Michael finds work in a village in the west, where Eli's murderer lives. Again the locale is indicated symbolically rather than geographically or politically. Michael works at his shoemaker's trade, but he cannot mend the murderer's shoes. It is impossible for Michael to connect the "lower" sole to the "upper" leather, because the murderer has split the "lower world" into two pieces. When the murderer's child comes to Michael's shop with his father, he wants to play Eli's pipe, but the father will not permit it. Denied the pipe, the child is overcome by a strange, powerful yearning for the instrument the father tries to ridicule. In his harshness the murderer prevents his child from establishing a relationship with God through the instrument that gives voice to religious longing. Instead, he promises the child the flute of the Pied Piper, expressing world domination and demagoguery. He does not allow his child to play the shepherd's pipe whose sound reaches God. The child dies, not because of the sins of his father, but because of the denial of his religious yearning. The former soldier thus repeats his murderous act of the past. In his innocence his own child dies as did Eli, both victims of the same evil.

Confronting the murderer, Michael now becomes the guardian angel of Israel. A primordial light shines from a symbolic embryo in the sky, representing the original God child. The murderer crumbles into dust before the divine light, a picture of remorse, as Sachs explains the scene in her postscript. The murderer is destroyed by his sense of guilt, not by the revenge of the survivors. With the primordial light now shining from his brow, Michael is taken to God. His mission as one of the Thirty-Six Pious Men is fulfilled, and as the anguish and fear of the past are lifted, the town can be rebuilt.

The Jewish New Year's liturgy that forms the central part of the play, promising the Lord's return, is fulfilled in the last scene. Jewish religion and Hasidic mysticism merge to provide Sachs with objective correlatives to present the mystery of religious promise and redemption. Employing the figure of the mystic shoemaker, Sachs believed that she was able to "raise the unutterable to a transcendental level, so as to make it bearable," as she says in the postscript.

Sachs's other plays, or "scenic poetry" as she preferred to call them, deal with similar topics of persecution and collaboration and of guilt and redemption on a symbolic level, using mysticism and religious ritual as means to express the ineffable. They have nothing in common either with lyrical drama, contemporary social drama, or the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht . Yet they are characterized by bold experimentation with music, dance, and even film projections. It is not surprising that several of her plays have been produced as radio dramas, while others, including Eli, have been set to music. It provided the libretto for two operas, one by Moses Pergament (1959) and the other by Walter Steffens (1967).

—Ehrhard Bahr