Through an exploration of the Messenger’s role in Ansky’s The Dybbuk, one may gain insight into the theatrical and ideological motivations of the play. The Messenger’s mysterious guidance through the drama shapes the audience’s understanding of, reactions to and philosophical conception of The Dybbuk’s political and cultural statements. The Messenger’s actions as a guide, a commenter, a predictor and an explainer shape his necessary contributions to the reception of the play’s overarching themes. As a character that personifies a transitional world between the living and the dead, between reason and mysticism, and between an origin and a destination, the Messenger embodies and encourages the historical revolution of the Jewish world that took place at the time when The Dybbuk was written and performed.
As a vital role in the production, the Messenger guides the audience through the plot, emphasizing the important narrative elements without contributing to the advancement of plot action. In his writing about HaBimah theater, Mendel Kohansky describes the Messenger as “the play’s one-man Greek chorus” (38). Just as a Greek chorus provides necessary information to follow the storyline and presents the appropriate reactions of an ideal audience, so too does the Messenger escort us through the abstract world of The Dybbuk. In the first few moments of the script, when the audience is learning to decipher between the various idlers and gain understanding about the new setting and characters, the Messenger discretely orients the spectators even without speaking. After Khonen enters, the playwright reports, “The Messenger gazes at Khonen, never once removing his eyes” (8). From this action, and from the Messenger’s words, “Who is that boy?” after Khonen’s exit, the audience understands the importance and intriguing nature of Khonen’s character, which continues to drive the storyline until the end of the production (8). While his guidance is necessary to follow the action, the Messenger remains outside of the plot itself.
The credibility of the Messenger as an escort through the performance is a result of the audience identifying with him as an outsider from the play’s unique reality, since the Messenger exists separately from the plot advancement. Even as his character role, The Messenger does not belong to the created world of The Dybbuk—he is passing through the town as a carrier on duty. The other actors recognize that the Messenger is foreign to the town. In one example of this, Meyer greets him, “Peace be with you! So you’re back in our town?” (23) Meyer unifies the rest of the characters in belonging to the setting, but the Messenger remains to be an outsider. Understanding that the Messenger is similar to them as a stranger to the world in this play, the audience learns to trust his perception of the occurring events and relies on his guidance.
The Messenger varnishes his narration with commentary that is pregnant with significance, implicating his own biased conceptual point of view. His statements are colored with moral judgment that influences the audience’s reaction to the play. For example, the Messenger argues with the idlers, asserting, “True greatness doesn’t need a lovely wardrobe” (6). The audience receives the story through a moral and conceptual filter of the Messenger’s point of view, which transcends the influence of other characters due to his respected role as a one-man Greek chorus. Another important moment when the judgment of the Messenger underlines the script’s ideological motivations occurs as the final spoken line of the production. After Leah’s death, the Messenger utters, “Blessed be the true judge. May they rest in peace” (52). With these sentences, the Messenger fulfills two of his vital roles as both guide and commentator. As an escort through the plot, the Messenger confirms Leah’s death and signifies that her passing is a method for uniting with Khonen, which is implicit in his use of the phrase “May they rest in peace,” instead of simply referring to Leah. His words also act as a commentary in his judgment that this reunion of souls through Leah’s death is both religiously and legally superior to the men’s proposed solution in their trial with Sender and the dybbuk. Recognizing that only God can truly enforce justice, the Messenger implies that man’s power over the spiritual world is futile, while legitimizing Khonen and Leah as the story’s heroes.
An additional, unique and necessary function of the Messenger is his role as a mysterious predictor. While his knowledge of the future is unexplainable, his predictions help to shape the overlaying mystical atmosphere of The Dybbuk. The Messenger predicts that Khonen was meant to be Leah’s future husband with his comment, “He might also find the right husband in this yeshiva” (10). Khonen is indeed the right match for Leah, and the Messenger’s seemingly ominous prediction is fulfilled despite the complicated turn of events. Another incidence of this prediction happens before the wedding, when the Messenger asserts, “The groom will arrive on time,” which, again, does occur later in the plot (23). The audience is constantly wondering how the Messenger is so transcendently knowledgeable of the future, and the playwright never explains who sent the Messenger or what his given task is. Since the audience receives so much of their understanding from him, the mysteries surrounding the Messenger compile to create the mystical feeling of the entire play. The motivation for this mystical feeling is to articulate the unique atmosphere of The Dybbuk as a clear removal from ordinary reality. The audience is meant to realize that the world of The Dybbuk differs from real life. This distinction makes it possible for the play’s deeper political and social commentary to be understood.
The Dybbuk takes place in a transitional world, where the boundaries separating superstitions and reality are blurred. The realms of the dead and the living collide. In the trial scene, the characters from the afterlife and the men of the tangible world converse and argue from an intermediate, indefinable reality. The Messenger embodies this in between state as well. He resides outside of the plot’s action, yet his guidance, moral commentary and prediction are vital to the plot’s advancement. He straddles the line of the material world as an existing character and the spiritual sphere beyond human limits with his knowledge of the future. The Messenger is also responsible for important explanations throughout the script. As an explainer, the Messenger’s motivated stresses point the audience toward understanding this playwright’s thesis. The Messenger exemplifies this role of explainer when he clarifies the phenomenon of dybbukim. He does so in a way that emphasizes the hopelessly transitional condition of the soul. This idea is stressed by his words, “There are souls that transmigrate through several bodies, trying to purify themselves” (27). Just as the Messenger is constantly in movement between origins and destinations, dybbukim are also continually traveling. The Messenger describes a dybbuk as a “homeless soul,” expounding upon the concept of an intangible location (28). A dybbuk cannot settle in the world of life or the world after life—he is in the uncomfortable condition of in between. With the job of explaining these concepts, the Messenger furthers the overarching important themes of the play, like that of a transitional, indefinable reality.
The significance of this mystically transitional situation of The Dybbuk is to personify the challenging condition of the Jewish people at this time. With goals to create a new Jewish cultural revival, Jews were stuck in between their old traditions and their seemingly unreachable aspirations for the future. In a rebellion against the conventional narrative custom, The Dybbuk ends with the victory of Leah and Khonen as a heroic revolution against the typical exorcism finale. The play makes a strong social statement, encouraging a cultural reinvention of Judaism through creativity, an innovative foundation in Jewish roots, and a rebellion against the expired conventions of an outdated Jewish peoplehood.
The Messenger’s embodiment of unrelieved transition articulates the themes and motivations of The Dybbuk in its revolutionary attitude toward a new Judaism. With the character’s guidance through the plot, moral commentary, mysterious predictions and motivated explanations, the Messenger is an essential element in the successful audience reception of tone and content in The Dybbuk. We will never know who sent him on his task through this town, but the Messenger indeed delivers The Dybbuk’s critical cultural message to the audience.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Israeli Theater and Drama with Professor Edna Nahshon at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Kohansky, Mendel. The Hebrew Theatre. Jerusalem: Israel Digest, 1970. Print.
Neugroschel, Joachim, and S. ,. An-Ski. The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination: A Haunted Reader. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse, 2000. Print.