Interview with playwright William Gibson on May 28, 2002, recorded at Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, MA, by Dave Conlin Read
DCR: Did “Golda’s Balcony” evolve from your earlier play entitled “Golda?”
WG: I wrote a play called “Golda” 25 years ago, and this is a different work. That was a big cast play, a very expensive production, and I was not very happy with it. I always felt that there was something about the theme of that play which I didn’t see clearly. I knew I had left alot of things unsaid that were important, but I didn’t know what they were.
This play, I knew what they were. I was much sharper. A lot of the experience I had in the writing of the other play…You know, I was in Israel two or three times, for weeks at a time, a lot of that remained unarticulated in me.
This play speaks much more articulately about what I should have know or seen back then, 25 years ago. I’m glad I saw it now and that it’d be enough to write it down.
DCR: Was there something in particular that brought it to the fore?
WG: Well, the whole question of nuclear armaments was unknown and unspoken of 25 years ago. It was known of course to the leaders of Israel, but it was not acknowledged publicly, and indeed it is still not acknowledged publicly. Everybody knows about it now because a guy who worked at Dimona for many years, and was taking photographs, left the country and sold the photographs to some english publication.
They were printed and nuclear experts in England and America looked at these photographs and said “absolutely, thery’re authentic.” From then on it became world-wide knowledge that Israel had a bomb. It had always been surreptitious knowledge, now it became public knowledge.
I saw that was really what I was after the first time, was What was the experience of having power? and nuclear power is the supreme form of power. So that is what animated me and the whole subject matter would turn on that.
DCR: On what it is to command that power?
WG: Yeah. Most of our lives – we don’t get on to a nuclear level – but the same question arises. We’re all interested in acheiving power, even in our family set-ups and so on. In the case of political leaders and in the case of the nuclear age, these questions are enormous. Why is everybody so concerned about India and Pakistan now? It’s because of the nuclear thing. If they just had conventional armies and conventional weapons, we would say “Oh that’s too bad, but it’s not going to involve the rest of the world.” But with this nuclear stuff, it’s a different kind of political consciousness.
DCR: Except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they’ve never been used…
WG: They’ve never been used, only by us. I want to keep it that way.
DCR: Do you think Golda Meir would’ve used them; does that question need to be asked?
WG: I think that if the Arabs were pouring across the border and into Tel Aviv and into Jerusalem…She says in the play, “You know, we’ve been building these for twenty years and it was only – the first bomb has written on it in Hebrew “Never Again,” it was the intent that they should be used if ‘need be’. And certainly, at that time, it seemed like ‘need be’ was here.
DCR: Would they be able to use them without realizing that it could spell the end of civilisation?
WG: Well, Golda says that one thing leads to another, you might end up with Russia against the United States after an initial exchange. Everybody is concerned about it still. The whole concern about Iraq now is what if they develop nuclear weapons? If they do you’ve got Israel and Iraq both nuclear-armed and there’s another India-Pakistan confrontation.
We’re scared to death, but we don’t talk much about nuclear weapons. Now everybody talks about weapons of mass destruction because we have these delivery systems and they can deliver anything. The world is in a dangerous state now because the new power has become so tremendous. Nobody a hundred years ago foresaw this kind of power, that human intelligence would have opened up the accessibility of nuclear power.
It became scientifically known to geniuses only a few years before we built the bomb. And the first fruits of that knowledge was to build the bomb. They were afraid that Hitler was going to build it too, so all these German-Jewish scientists that Hitler couldn’t stand and threw out of the country, built the bomb here! It’s an entirely new era.
DCR: The recollection in the refugee camp of the mother who smothered her baby to save the group hiding from the Nazis is one of the most moving passages in the play. Could that be extended metaphorically so that Gold Meir would make a similar kind of sacrifice that would lead her not to use nuclear weapons.
WG: Well, it’s one thing to smother your baby and it’s another thing to set off a nucler bomb and to have nuclear bombs set off against you, which are certain death sentences. Nobody escapes a nuclear bomb and that, I suppose, is the horror.
The 80,000 people who were killed at Hiroshima were not any more nunmerous than the 80,000 people who were killed in the fire-bombing of Tokyo or Dresden. And yet, they are regarded as unique and different from the fire-bombing deaths. You know, we wreaked an immense havoc on Germany toward the end of the war.
So, I think it is the potential threat – that stuff (fire-bombing) is limited, this stuff is limitless – they could render the planet uninhabitable.
DCR: So that is the central question in Golda’s Balcony, the horror of nuclear weapons?
WG: It’s the central trigger of the play. The real theme is what happened to Golda’s idealism? We all start with such noble ideals. The plays say, What happens when idealism becomes power? Ask that question of the Puritan revolution of 1642, which is infamous because they closed the theatres. Well, they thought they would reform the political society of England so it would be in conformity with primitive Christianity, they didn’t want all the folderol of high church, so they had a revolution, which John Milton was part of.
They showed their noble content by cutting of King Charles I’s head. What happened in the French revolution, also idealism revolting against the oppression of the nobility and so on? They ended up by cutting off the king’s and queen’s heads. What happened in the Russian revolution, another noble thing? They ended up by machine-gunning the entire royal family in a cellar. And they went on to institute a regime of tyranny that people say was worse than the Hitlerian tyranny. All these people were marvelous idealists, Hitler was one of the great idealists of the 20th century.
So that’s the thing, why does it happen all the time? Because, you have to think, that’s what we are. What happens is also what we are. What we protest against, when we protest, the protest is what we are. But the corruption is what we are too. You have to have a realistic vision of what human character is capable of and then, perhaps, you can come to terms with these big political decisions, which are not my area, but maybe with less naivete and less capacity for shocking surprises.
DCR: At the end of the play, does Kissinger say, You blackmailed us?
DCR: Do you think the US was unaware of Israel’s nuclear capability?
WG: Oh I think they knew it. It must have been built with our consent and our desire, to our benefit, that we should have a nuclear outpost. The question really was, would they use it? It wasn’t was it there? They knew perfectly well it was there, the question was, how do we keep them from using it? Because you can’t tell the end of that story.