Stones or ideas?

Submitted by Matthew on 23 February, 2011 - 3:00

In the dark of the Crucible Theatre’s studio, a light is cast on a tall, middle-aged, middle-class Englishman. He is benign, slim, the curve of his spine slightly hunched, hair longish and auburn, dressed in understated shirt and navy blue trousers, his glasses large and round. His voice chants a Received Pronunciation through the room, artful and perfectly suited to the stage. He is David Hare; and he is performing a reading of “Via Dolorosa”, a monologue on Israel and Palestine, something between play, political essay and poetry.

“Via Dolorosa” is about Hare’s visit to Israel and Palestine in 1997 but is still utterly — and unfortunately — relevant to today.

The passage of Hare’s speech moves from the ailing West where no one believes in anything anymore, to what is described by an Israeli he meets as the “fucking capital of the world”. This is Tel Aviv. But it is not the epicentre for human life but a modern cosmopolitan city where sex and “the buzz” are king.

In Jerusalem he meets arty drama types, who are putting on a production of “Romeo and Juliet”, which casts Israelis as Montagues and Palestinians as Capulets; He interviews people still demoralised and disorientated by Rabin’s untimely assassination.

He meets the lunatics of the settlements, who believe that same assassination was staged to damage the Israeli right-wing.

He meets Palestinian politicians and academics in Gaza and the West Bank who seek to create a civil society in Palestine, and who at once denounce Israel and Arafat.

And he walks the Via Dolorosa until he reaches his homeland, in Hampstead, where he repeatedly conjures the question “stones or ideas”?

It is hard to isolate any one meaning in this refrain. I think it serves to emphasise how for the religious zealots of the region ideas are set in stone, and how immovable ideas have become the opportune justification for the seizure of the minerals underfoot, on the battleground, and as the prize.

While secular Israelis declare the 1967 victory to have set Israel on a course that is very “un-Jewish”, because of the new obsession with expansion and property, the settlers declare it the greatest victory in history. They proclaim the myth that the Jews have religious and hereditary right to the Palestinian territory. With the madness of biblical dogmatism in mind, Hare considers how ideas are formed by preconception, how changeable and yet cemented they are. He finds himself struck at once by the fluidity of belief and its bias.

I think it a shame that this is essentially Hare’s conclusion, for while he gives relative explanation of different ideas, he does not always consider why they are so. For instance, while the settlers are ideological, many move to the West Bank because they are given financial incentive to do so by the government. In retrospect, ideas are often the product of material circumstance and necessity.

Hare’s reading is incredibly moving, and the power with which he interprets his piece breathes the chaos of Middle-Eastern life into it, his voice delivering both tragedy and humour. So let him ask us, if he likes, “stones or ideas”? I would answer ideas are the product of stone and stone the invention of ideas.

A workers’ revolution will be fought for in stone and maybe even sometimes with them, yet ideas make up the real theatre of war and the real prize.

• Extracts of “Via Dolorosa”:

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