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‘golda’ on Broadway: the Original is Better

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After a great deal of fanfare, advance publicity and out-of-town tryouts, “Golda,” a play by William Gibson and directed by Arthur Penn, starring Anne Bancroft as Golda Meir, opened tonight at the Morosco Theater. From the onset, it must be stated that the original is far more vital, powerful and exuberant than its Broadway copy.

After the decision was made to try to create a Broadway-framed play based on the life of Mrs. Meir, and the further decision made to cast Miss Bancroft in the role of Golda, one problem which must have arisen immediately was the degree to which the physical appearance of Miss Bancroft should be made, by the legerdemain of make-up, as much as possible like that of Mrs. Meir.

The basic problem of the attempt to dramatize Mrs. Meir’s life by the vehicle of a stage surrogate becomes stunningly evident on Miss Bancroft’s initial appearance as Golda. She is a physical and psychological wisp. Mrs. Meir is a physical and psychological block of granite. Sympathetic as the viewer may be, there is no intellectual and emotional way to reconcile such polar differences.

Moreover, Miss Bancroft-as-Golda rarely projects the power which Mrs. Meir projected to the world, particularly as Premier, in scores of interviews, print and TV media reports, particularly TV, and in comments by seasoned observers of the wielders of power.

The fact is that Golda Meir has started to become a legend in her own lifetime, one of the few women to head the government of a modern country, the only woman to direct the affairs of that fascinating-more-than-a-country called Israel, and one of the few to lead her country in war.

GAP BETWEEN REALITY AND PORTRAYAL

Bridging the gap between Miss Bancroft–first-rate actress that she is–and the larger-than-life personality she seeks to project across the footlights is clearly beyond Miss Bancroft’s considerable acting skills. It is impossible to believe that Miss Bancroft, looking slightly like Golda Meir, ever comes to represent at any time during the two hours, even in theater terms, the unique totality of mind, spirit and intelligence that is Golda Meir.

The reviewer assumes that Mrs. Meir checked every word of the script and one accordingly must accept as valid what are otherwise some puzzling items. For example, Miss Bancroft once in a while sounds like Tevye’s wife, Golde.

There are two scenes in which the illusion of reality does come through. In one, Mrs. Meir visits a DP camp, presumably for the Jewish Agency, with several hundred exit permits. It has been decided that all of the permits should be used for children, a revelation which provokes an outcry. Mrs. Meir asks for a chance to talk to all the inmates; it must be their decision. She makes a little talk, deeply moving, that “some day we will have a state and no Jew will have to wait.” The DPs agree to priority for the children.

The other involves Mrs. Meir’s determination to let nothing–including her marriage and her children–stop her from carrying out her commitment to the Zionist movement as her determination pulls her into ever-wider reaches of responsibility. Her husband emerges as a weakling, given to philosophical comment, with neither fire nor anguish.

Possibly no man, however dominating and powerful, could have deflected Golda Meir from her passionate “yes” to destiny. But her husband’s challenge is in toto a submissive acceptance of what he comes to understand must be. The tragedy takes its force not from his portrayal but from Golda, reminiscing on the price she has paid as a wife and mother to serve Zionism, and her understanding of the price that her husband and children also paid.

TOO MANY PLASTIC CHARACTERIZATIONS

The other characters apparently are sacrificed in the script to keep the spotlight on Golda. Her generals are men of cardboard. Sometimes they discuss the fearful events of the days immediately after Yom Kippur, 1973, in tones of appropriate gravity but they also frequently fire off one and two sentence speeches. From time to time, in the terrible days of the early reverses on the Golan Heights and at the Suez Canal, they turn to her, as to a teacher in a class, and declaim, “You must act, Golda.”

There is a Cabinet meeting in the same mold. The ministers argue, gesticulate, wring their hands, dart in and out of the spotlight, and rarely offer helpful suggestions. They, too, are largely plastic figures.

The larger-than-life living legend which Golda Meir is becoming, if she has not already achieved that eminence at 79, may be beyond pinning down in the limited arena of a Broadway stage, even by so gifted an actress as Miss Bancroft. She is intriguing to watch, she is clearly someone representing a person of authority, she projects a sense of history. Unfortunately, what she does not project is the extraordinary personality character of Golda Meir. The play is subtitled “a partial portrait.” That’s all it is.

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