There is much talk within film scholarship about the complicit passivity of audiences… Complicit in that the audience’s eyes aligns with the camera’s gaze, and passive in that the alignment (the images on the screen) and its direction doesn’t at all care for the audience’s agency. In a sense, watching a film is like stepping into a different world -or better yet, like taking a guided tour of another world. Stanley Cavell talks about how there is a moment of awakening after a movie ends, the audiences realigns with reality. Walter Benjamin likens the aesthetic experience of film to that of architecture. While it seems that film theorists like to talk about the passive audience as if it’s a “film thing”, something similar can be said about audiences at a classical music concert (just try coughing during one!) or even at a play. The big danger with this whole logic, is when it begins assuming that observers are essentially passive. Such an assumption belies a Eurocentric tradition of a non-participatory audience, where they can aspire to be, at most, loud tomato-throwing critics without any bearing on the course of what they are observing. In all this, different traditions are obscured. A notable exception to this entire passive audience talk is “the Maccabean Theater”.
The Maccabees were a Jewish fundamentalist terrorist organization seeking to liberate the holy land from the foreign occupation of the Greek empire-state (well, the Seleucid Dynasty). They were ultimately successful and today they are mostly known for two Apocryphal books and a surprisingly effective energy sustainability policy (even though they blew all the energy saved on a party). Little is known about “the Maccabean Theater”, probably because it wasn’t an actual theater. The Maccabean Revolt was as much of a struggle against an occupying empire as it was a civil war between Jewish Nationalist and Jewish Hellenists. Violence against the Hellenists was widespread, it was so common that it gave birth to a curious tradition. Maccabean fighters began rounding up Hellenists on an elevated platform, forcing them to act out their profane gentile rituals, utter prayers, and prepare offerings. As the captive Hellenists acted as they were told to, the Maccabees would shoot arrows and throw spears at the actors. Some would even rush up to the platform, bloodthirsty sword in hand. These performance ritual were also cleansing rituals, fervent homages to the High Priest Phineas (Pinchas). They grew in popularity and became more and more elaborate. The forced reenactment of rituals evolved into the forced reenactment of histories and mythologies. Thus was the “Maccabean Theater” born, a theater of sentencing, a theater of judgment and execution.
Unlike the Roman gladiators, who were mere spectacles, the Maccabean Theater reached a brief peak before the newly liberated Jewish theocracy ushered its decline. None exemplified the apex of the Maccabean Theater better than Zedekiah the Danite. While many question the historicity of Zedekiah, reasoning that he represented a small amorphous collective movement, his projects sought to elevate the performance purges to a different level. Zedekiah often crafted his own reenactments, binary morality tales based on Jewish struggles. He created a reenactment of Book of Esther where all the captives played Haman. There’s evidence that suggests that Zedekiah even trained some captives to act, as the more capable actors were often killed last to greater general enthusiasm. Zedekiah reasoned, that if the audience were to play G-d’s will and punishment, the reenactments shouldn’t simply be some glorified shooting gallery. There must be a dynamic between the audience and the actors. So Zedekiah the Danite began toying with sympathetic gentile characters (how much longer will the divine arm let this sinner live?), but then he wanted to take a step further. He imagined an opulent Passover pageant, in which the story would change according to the death of each captive. This task was harder than imagined, since a vast array of plot permutations had to be planned and rehearsed. Zedekiah would have also required captives with significant acting experiences, capable of memorizing all possible outcomes and improvising smooth transitions, as a captive never really knew when the “Will of G-d” would smite again. The historical record doesn’t indicate whether Zedekiah’s plans ever came to fruition, although it’s said that one time, as a big finger to Hellenic culture, Zedekiah staged a minor comedy by Menander.
With the liberated Jewish state and the decline of heretical crimes, the Maccabean Theater became less about killing the actors and more about letting the better actors live. Crowds began sparing the better performers before killing off the inferior ones. Once the Romans took over, even the hands-on killing started to cease, as the Roman state usurped the state’s judicial power of execution, and death by stoning made a rollicking comeback among smaller religious courts. By then, the performance rituals forsook plots and stories, to become a kind of holiday variety show, where the most popular captive criminal act would be spared execution. Such was the case when Jesus Christ competed against Barabbas one Passover morning (a detail the gospels poorly address). By choosing a majestic silence over the actor’s craft, Jesus was promptly dispatched to the nailing yard, while the thief Barabbas was set free (according to Luke, Barabbas beat out not only Jesus but two others).
While largely forgotten, the Maccabean Theater of Judgment does have some spiritual children of sorts. The concept of torture as theater is probably more common than it’s been in awhile, thanks mostly to the Bush administration, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. It’s in no way limited to post-9/11 politics. Take, for example, the shitty Korean movie Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, or Jean-Pierre Meville’s 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows. But I think what best inherits the tradition of the Maccabean God-audience is the current fad of judge based reality TV shows, such as American Idol, or the one with the fashion designing cooks. The audience retains a faint semblance of Maccabean empowerment. The leap from Zedekiah the Danite to American Idol is certainly long, but as any good Czarist would attest: the Jews own the media.