Zalmen or the madness of God


A play by Elie Wiesel

Directed by Guila Clara Kessous

Director’s Note

Zalmen, the madman, physically intervenes very little throughout the play. However, he incarnates the very presence of God: he is at the same time the Rabbi’s conscience and the underground voice of an entire population: the voice of God that someone hears at the exact moment when they cover their ears.(1)

“Zalmen or the Madness of God” is Elie Wiesel’s only play that does not directly deal with the Shoah. Written after a trip to Moscow in 1968, the play brings to life the celebration of Kippur―the Jewish holiday of Atonement―by the great Rabbi Yehuda-Leib Levine in which Elie Wiesel participated in 1965. Wiesel had been struck by the terror of the Russian Jews, a group of people who, twelve years after the death of Stalin, still remained powerless in their isolation from the rest of the world and were subjected to perpetual surveillance by the Russian authorities.

Elie Wiesel had already done his “duty” as a witness writing about this subject in novel form in The Jews of Silence in 1966. However to “more effectively” testify to courage of Russian Jews he decided to stage it for the theater in 1968 on the advice of his friend, the director, Hy Kalus. In “All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs”, Wiesel describes his meeting with the great Rabbi Yehuda-Leib Levine:

During our first meeting – the evening of Kippur 1965 --, I was seated to the left of the platform (the bima), with the Israeli diplomats and foreigners. I didn’t dare speak to him: twenty years before the hesitant beginnings of the perestroika, it was too dangerous for him; there were too many spies in the audience. […]

While I was studying him, I suddenly had a brilliant idea: the silence had to be broken, a silence which for decades had suffocated his community; his will had to be liberated, his anger had to erupt […]

It was while thinking about the play that I was going to write that the tormented and resigned face of the great rabbi reappeared in my mind. If Malraux was right, it was literature’s responsibility to correct, to repair injustice: so, on the stage, I will attempt to correct the injustice that the Rabbi Lévine faced; he would accomplish on stage what he never dared to undertake in the synagogue in Moscow. Such would be the theme of the play. (2)

The writing of Zalmen or the Madness of God was thus another way for E. Wiesel to bear witness, making use of the stage as a new method of communication to “repair” and “correct” reality…

Therefore, my own work with the actors has been focused on their acceptance of Zalmen’s madness which erupts onto the stage and has no boundaries. An infinite number of actions are at Zalmen’s disposal even if he maintains a course of action that leaves him able to invent and reinvent the role at any moment. The actors must accept the element of surprise and remain ignorant as to what awaits them from Zalmen, who leaps up from out of nowhere and is capable of the most ridiculous reactions. In the story, it is he who guides the plot; because he is the one telling the story, he is the Witness.

I also wanted the dramatic intensity centered on the character of Misha, who for me is at the heart of Elie Wiesel’s play. What will become of the new generation? What will become of the young Misha torn between his father who refuses to instill in him even the most rudimentary Judaism and his grandfather, the Rabbi, keeper of the Jewish tradition, towards whom he feels inexorably drawn? In order to better understand this dilemma, I chose to make Misha a puppet… so as to better show the manipulation at play.

    “To correct reality” …to end the cycle of productions of Elie Wiesel’s plays with Zalmen or the Madness of God carries a certain amount of symbolism for me… it is in line with the idea of “Tikkun Olam”, the desire to “repair” the world, to redefine it, to make it better…through the duty of testimony via the stage.

Guila Clara Kessous, PhD


  1. (1)Article Elie Wiesel on France culture by André Alter in Télérama n°1594, July 30, 1980, p. 68, Radio France archive.

  2. (2)Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs, Schocken, 1996, p. 591.