Dybbuks: A Held Breath

Photo credit: Pia Johnson

A response to Dybbuks
by John Bailey

On the stage the Yiddish notion of the dybbuk finds its most famous incarnation in S. Ansky’s play of the same name, which premiered in Warsaw in 1920. The play presents the story of a young woman haunted and eventually possessed by the spirit of a dead lover. Samara Hersch’s Dybbuks draws on this work, but it is not a retelling. It might be more appropriate to say that Ansky’s play haunts Hersch’s stage, and is just one of many spectres that hover over it like a held breath.

On a visual level alone, Dybbuks is striking in a rare way. It offers a series of arresting tableaux whose power taps into unconscious energies. Tomb-like statue figures lurch into motion; a faceless creature prepares a pristine white bath for a cleansing ritual; a naked woman’s death throes are equal parts torment and ecstasy. These scenes are unnerving not because of what they show, but because of what they represent.

The writer Sean T. Collins has dubbed this the ‘monumental horror-image’: “The things you see in images like these aren’t brandishing a chainsaw or baring a mouthful of fangs, but something about them feels completely terrifying anyway. It’s not just scary, it’s wrong, like you’re seeing something that should not be.”

Mausoleums and statuary commemorate the past. The monumental horror-image is that past spilling over into the present, the dead refusing to remain dead. In Dybbuks, the boundary between life and death, the present and the absent, is one that is transgressed freely.

The title is drawn from Yiddish lore. A dybbuk is an unquiet spirit that seeks to possess the body of someone still alive. In some ways the dybbuk is the mirror of another figure from Jewish mythology, the golem: where the golem is a creature fashioned from mud or clay, inextricably bound to the material world, the dybbuk is a soul in need of a form, an essence just short of being.

For all of its monumental imagery, then, Hersch’s Dybbuks is just as concerned with what cannot be shown. The work’s visuals embed themselves in the mind, but its aural elements are where it finds life.

In ancient times life was synonymous with breath. The term ‘to animate’ itself stems from the Latin animare, to give life to. That word in turn bears etiological links to anima (breath, soul) as well as the Greek animos (wind) and Sanskrit aniti (he breathes). Animation, traditionally, was not linked with movement or motion but with more abstract qualities of life, soul and, suggestively, breath.

Dybbuks is a work that breathes. It begins with two bodies under a single shroud, their forms hard to differentiate, as a voice from nowhere describes their erotic embrace. What we see is abstract, amorphous, dumb meat writhing on a funeral slab, but what we hear is an intimate whisper freed of the flesh it describes. The forms we see are all surface, but these disembodied words give us access to an interior.

Another surface: the scrubbed porcelain of a mikveh, or communal bath used by Jewish women for ritual cleansing. It is traditionally a place of purification, particularly after menstruation, but that custom could itself be seen as the imposition of an ‘impurity’ rather than a ridding of it.

A woman silently prepares for immersion assisted by an attendant with a blank face (literally). The first shows no concern at the disturbing visage of the second – the strictures of ritual do not admit themselves to questioning, after all. But though the central figure remains silent, this scene is full of sound. A clarinet screams and hisses, human breath causing it to rile and spit like a demon preparing to pounce. A violin becomes a proxy for the spirit seeking corporeal form, too – a reminder of Baroque musician Francesco Geminiani’s suggestion that the secret of the violin is in its ability to “rival the most perfect human voice”.

And of course the human voice itself is the ghost that fills the space of Dybbuks, invisible but undeniable. In a particularly unsettling moment, a demonic figure murmurs words into a microphone, but when the device drops the speaking continues unabated.

The third and final sequence of Dybbuks is where breath reaches its crescendo. An ensemble of black clad women unite in song to mourn the dead, placing stones on the surface of a grave as they file past. Once they are done the same space is invaded by a howling figure in black, whose guttural cries transform the stately, sombre scene into a churning hellscape through sound alone. The dead, here, seem more present than the living.

The Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza often argued that the body and mind were one and the same thing; that is, that both referred to the same substance viewed from a different perspective. It’s a useful way to approach Dybbuks. From one angle we might be watching a sex scene, from another a corpse being laid to rest. A mikveh can at the same time be a site of oppression and community. Mourning is at once a reminder of what is lost and a way of keeping it close.

Perhaps even death and life are the same thing seen from a different perspective. Dybbuks allows for the possibility, which might be where it ultimately finds such great power. It is a work of grief – of grief as a form of possession, invasion, contagion – but despite its terrifying embrace of death it is also a work teeming with life, confronting yet exhilarating. After it is done, the audience takes a breath.