1927 • Golem
Created by 1927
Based on motives by Gustav Meyrink
A 1927, Salzburg Festival Théâtre de la Ville / Paris and Young Vic / London co-production
In English with German surtitles
Print programme (PDF)
Suzanne Andrade, Director and Text
Paul Barritt, Film, Animation and Design
Lillian Henley, Music
Laurence Owen, Sound Design
Sarah Munro, Costumes
Ben Francombe, Dramaturgy
Esme Appleton, Associate Direction and Design
Derek Andrade, Associate Animation
Jo Crowley, Production Manager
With Esme Appelton, Will Close, Lillian Henley, Rose Robinson
Voice of Golem: Ben Whitehead
1927 have found a kindred spirit in the mystery author Gustav Meyrink.
Meyrink’s Golem, serialised in magazine form in 1913–14 and published as a single volume in 1915, was a bestseller in an age before the term became common. At first sight, it seems an unlikely example of war literature. It is a work of fantasy, shifting between a number of different genres, which contains no soldiers and no guns. Yet on closer inspection it is very much of its time. It presents reality as something alarmingly unstable, based on ever-shifting foundations and consistently capable of yielding up new horrors. Life is a state where nothing can be taken for granted, where the oldest and most traditional forms of knowledge have the most radical and disturbing implications.
‘Isn’t it strange the way the wind makes inanimate objects move? Doesn’t it look odd when things which just lie there lifeless suddenly start fluttering. Don’t you agree? I remember once looking out onto an empty square, watching huge scraps of paper whirling angrily round and round, chasing one another as if each had sworn to kill the others; and I couldn’t feel the wind at all since I was standing in the lee of a house. A moment later they seemed to have calmed down, but then they were seized once more with an insane fury and raced all over the square in a mindless rage, crowding into a corner then scattering again as some new madness came over them, until they finally disappeared round a corner. There was just one thick newspaper that couldn’t keep up with the rest. It lay there on the cobbles, full of spite and flapping spasmodically, as if it were out of breath and gasping for air.
As I watched I was filled with an ominous foreboding. What if, after all, we living beings were nothing more than such scraps of paper? Could there not be a similar unseeable, unfathomable “wind” blowing us from place to place and determining our actions, whilst we, in our simplicity, believe we are driven by our own free will?
What if the life within us were nothing other than some mysterious whirlwind?’
The Golem is a legendary figure of Jewish folklore, a human form made out of a base substance, clay. It becomes animate when a specific mystic text is placed between its teeth. Intended as a labour-saving device to relieve its human master of menial tasks, it discharges these duties faithfully until one day it suddenly acquires a will of its own. This emancipated creature strikes fear into the hearts of the human population.
Meyrink’s readers encountered his version of the Golem story against the background of a conflict which was becoming ever more mechanized in nature with the invention of the machine gun, the tank and the aeroplane and whose ultimate victors were the companies which profited from the manufacture of the machines and equipment necessary for the practice of war.
1927 locate their Golem in a world where this process has accelerated further, where technology and the market economy have evolved to the point of transcending the boundaries of human control. In such a situation the Golem becomes a much more sophisticated creature than anything envisaged in Meyrink’s novel or the silent film he helped to inspire by Paul Wegener (1920). It is a successful product, a must-have, an indispensable ingredient of a better life. And its very success poses a threat much more alarming than that of physical violence: the prospect of making human beings the objects of unfavourable comparison, so they appear to be no more than less efficient, more expensive and error-prone versions of golems, outdated prototypes of something better. In the words of one nineteenth century philosopher who lived in London, a certain Karl Marx: ‘The danger lies not in machine becoming more like man but in man becoming more like machine.’ What happens when mankind and machines become inextricably intertwined?