Steve McNicholas is not only a director of STOMP and The Old Market… he’s a bit of a film buff too. Here’s his introduction to the history of the myth that forms the basis of our upcoming show GOLEM, and how the golem myth still makes itself felt to this day. Take it away, Steve…
We’re extremely excited to be hosting 1927’s amazing new production, GOLEM, at The Old Market, just after Christmas and into the new year. It’s an utterly mesmerising, thought-provoking show that features a groundbreaking combination of live performance and projected elements, including a stop-motion plasticine character, the Golem himself.
It’s a completely new take on the Golem myth, which becomes a reflection on the way our lives are constantly changing, as we harness new technologies. Yet it is by no means the first reinterpretation of the legend of the man of clay. Today, young children are more likely to recognise the word Golem as a character in Minecraft, Pokemon or Clash of Clans. Try searching for Golems on YouTube, and you’ll find most of them are pixelated!
A golem character created in Minecraft: minecraft.gamepedia.com
But the Golem myth goes back a long way, and has spawned a lot more than video game sprites over the last couple of thousand years. In fact, Golem may be one of the oldest tales of all in that Adam was created as a Golem: made of dust, made of earth, before being given the gift of speech and knowledge.
The word golem occurs once in the Bible in Psalm 139:16, which uses the word גלמי (galmi; my golem), meaning “my unshaped form”, connoting the unfinished human being before God’s eyes.
By the middle ages, Hebrew myths of golems being created out of dust and clay and then animated to do their masters’ bidding had spread across Europe. As the tales would have it, the Golems were mystically activated by writing a ‘shem’ (one of the many Hebrew names of God) and inserting it into the lifeless Golem’s mouth. These tales generally became object lessons in hubris: the Golem would do its master’s bidding or serve the village, but one day would run amok, out of control, and have to be stopped or destroyed.
Painting of Rabbi Loew and his Golem, actually a prop from the 1951 film: Císařův pekař a pekařův císař
The story that established Golem’s place in European folklore were the tales of the Golems of Chelm and Prague. The Golem of Chelm grew and grew until his Rabbi feared he would destroy the universe. The Golem of Prague had it’s ‘shem’ removed for the sabbath, so it would be inactive, but one sabbath, the rabbi forgot, and Golem had to be destroyed. Another story has Golem falling in love and going on a rampage when, obviously, its love was spurned.
It’s not a great leap to see the Frankenstein story as an extension or elaboration of the Golem legend, or the notion of rebelling robots in science fiction; man’s misguided attempt to play god and create a creature in his own image, is generally doomed to failure. We can thank the Golem myth for that archetype!
As a result, Golem has cropped up throughout 20th Century culture in all sorts of guises: in cinema, in television, even in opera. When I was around 11 years old, I saw the silent movie The Golem: How He Came Into The World and it scared me easily as much as the Daleks. There was something fundamentally terrifying about an unthinking statue springing to life and taking every command much too literally. Since then, Golems have been turning up in everything from The Simpsons, to The X-Files, from Yu Gi Oh! to Dungeons and Dragons.
The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror XVII ‘You’ve gotta know when to Golem’
Some stories bring Golem into the 2nd World War: since Golem was created as a protector of Jewish villagers, it has been envisaged as a secret weapon against the Nazis. Quentin Tarantino even mentions Golem in Inglorious Basterds. One of my favourites is the unintentionally hilarious 1967 movie: It! Curse of the Golem. Not even a nuclear bomb can stop the Golem in its tracks!
Poster for It! (aka Anger of the Golem, Curse of the Golem) 1967
Which brings me to 1927’s Golem, who is altogether a different character. The starting point may be the ‘clay automaton’ mythology, but this Golem is possibly the most interesting of all, since he is the first Golem with a backward perspective on the 20th Century in full and the way human technology has affected all of us. He’s funny, charming and persuasive in ways no Golem has ever been before and he is media savvy. He is true to the mythology but is very much a Golem for our times.Steve McNicholas