‘But Separate How Can we Live?’: David Martin’s The Shepherd and the Hunter 

Max Kaiser & Lisa Milner

The play The Shepherd and the Hunter written by David Martin in 1946 addresses complex issues around Zionism, anti-imperialism and racism. The play is an excellent example of the links between left-wing theatre movements in London and in Australia, as it was first produced by the Unity Theatre in London in 1946 and then by the New Theatre in Sydney in 1947. David Martin had an international life that brought him face-to-face with fascism, imperialism, anti-colonial movements and transnational communist politics in a variety of situations. He was born into a Jewish family in Hungary, and grew up and was educated in Germany. He joined the Communist League of Youth when he was 17 and handed out leaflets under the noses of the Brownshirts. He left Germany in 1934, living variously in Holland, back in Hungary and in Palestine. He volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, then spent time in both London and India before arriving in Australia in 1949. The Shepherd and the Hunter reflected Martin’s time in Palestine and his somewhat fraught relationship with Zionism and left-wing political movements there.

The play is a politically complicated and somewhat confused work, one that Martin described as ‘a call for Jewish-Arab friendship,’ though this is not always obvious from the text. The main characters are: Jakov Koenig, a member of the right-wing Jewish terrorist group the Irgun; Jakov’s wife Malke, a recent arrival and Holocaust survivor; Shura Kutzman, the de facto leader of the right wing Zionist terrorist cell; and his father Berl Kutzman, an orange grower. Jakov is blackmailed by the British to become an informant on his cousin-in-law, Shura Kutzman, and the rest of the group. The play reflected a number of themes of contemporary concern for the Jewish left and a wider audience about how to grapple with the political consequences of the Holocaust and the choices available to Jews in the pre-state Jewish settlement in Palestine.

Jakov is portrayed as a broken man who used to have dreams of a bettered humanity but now says ‘we have been betrayed too often…hope has become a delusion more deadly than hopelessness.’ In a similar vein Shura, the hard man leader, is said by another character to be trying to be ‘as cruel as history.’ Martin’s depiction of Shura paints a romantic portrait of a hard and determined resistance leader whilst also condemning his extreme right wing Zionist political ideology. This is clearest in the scene where Shura interrupts a moment between Malke and Leila, a local Arab Palestinian woman. Shura tries to prevent their friendship and yells at Leila, calling her ‘vermin.’ Shura says, ‘our hearts have been open too long. For hundreds of years they were open for sorrow and persecution. It is time to close our hearts and answer bullet with bullet, blood with blood, terror with terror.’ 

In the play Martin is suggesting that it is not only the extremist right wing that is in the wrong but that Zionism as a whole has led to conflict and dispossession in Palestine. We know from Martin’s other texts, written contemporaneously, that the dialogue given to the foreman character in his critique of separate Arab and Jewish plantations, for instance, accorded with Martin’s own politics. This line of criticism is also voiced by Malke, Jakov’s newly arrived wife, who is sceptical of Shura’s over-the-top masculinist posturing. She also questions Berl’s recitation of the zero-sum separatist Zionist dogma of ‘Hebrew Labour’: ‘Every Arab keeps a Jew out. Every Jew saves another Jew.’ She asks, ‘[b]ut separate, how can we live? Such a small country and each by himself?’

The political priorities of the play broadly reflect the international Jewish left and the international Communist movement’s then current views on the Palestine situation, which were heavily determined by the foreign policy imperatives of the Soviet Union. While being disdainful of Zionism, they were supportive of the Jewish settlement in Palestine and their battle for independence from the British. The struggle was framed within internationalist anti-imperialist terms. In The Shepherd and the Hunter this is most obvious in the opening scene where the British soldiers compare the Arabs to the Indians and the Jews to the Irish. However this anti-imperialist message is somewhat lost in the closing scenes where the British commander appears as a wise figure of dramatic reconciliation.

It seems that some of the play’s more subtle politics was lost in its two productions. This was also to do with faults in the script, particularly its ending in the somewhat overwrought death of the anti-hero-cum-hero Shura. The Shepherd and the Hunter’s internal confusions were the cause of much angst, both in London and Sydney. In London there were troubles about the politics of the play, even though it ended up making a healthy income for the Unity Theatre. David Martin notes that the producer, Ted Willis, who was himself a prominent left-wing playwright, wanted to re-write whole scenes. Martin could only prevent this by threatening to leaflet the audience on the first night with handbills proclaiming that the play they were about to see was not his. Martin was successful, but he still had issues with the British Communist Party (CPGB), which was worried that the play could be seen as too Zionist, without a clear positive message.

Prior to the Soviet Union’s announcement of support for the establishment of a Jewish state in May 1947, the CPGB’s line on Palestine was inconsistent and heavily contested by Jewish and non-Jewish members. East End party branch meetings, as well as the Daily Worker, criticised the play for being pro-Zionist, and Irgun supporters visited the theatre during the play’s run. The Times however described it, somewhat cautiously, as a play which, while ‘set against the tragic background of Palestine,’ was ‘no more political than Sean O’Casey’s plays.’ Martin wrote, in response to a British Daily Worker review, that ‘my play is anything but Zionist,’ accusing the reviewer of libelling both himself and the Unity Theatre cast. The controversy was made all the hotter when, just a couple of weeks after the play’s run at Unity, Irgun terrorists blew up the British military headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. In Sydney, the play was directed by Jock Levy, who also starred as Shura. The New Theatre had its own reservations about Martin’s play; the program included the note that ‘the value of the work, however, would have been enhanced had the author indicated a way out of the conflict to a peaceful and constructive future.’

The Shepherd and the Hunter was an incredibly politically fraught play. Its ambiguities and contradictions meant its production could take very different turns. It represents a rare instance of a sophisticated (if confused) theatrical treatment of the politics around Israel/Palestine in the late 1940s; and how these issues were refracted through the international Communist movement, its cultural infrastructure, and the transnational Jewish left. 

Max Kaiser completed his PhD at the University of Melbourne. Lisa Milner is a Senior Lecturer at Southern Cross University. This piece is drawn from their article in Labour History, No. 1, 2021.

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 27-28.