The Playgoer: Antecedents

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Thursday, March 09, 2006


The veteran theatre critic/reporter Jeremy Gerard has done an excellent piece for Bloomberg on the Corrie controversy. Of the most service is reminding us of yet another precedent of the radioactivity of the Palestinian cause on New York stages--in this case at the House of Papp:

In the summer of 1989, [The Public's Joseph] Papp abruptly canceled an appearance by a touring Palestinian theater troupe. El-Hakawati (``The Storytellers'') was slated to perform ``The Story of Kufur Shamma,'' the tale of a Palestinian refugee's return to his long-deserted village 40 years after the birth of the modern state of Israel.

As with ``Rachel Corrie,'' protests erupted. Somewhat more transparent than Nicola, Papp simply announced that he'd had second thoughts. Since he had never presented a pro-Israeli play, he told the press, ``it just seemed inappropriate'' to produce ``Kufur Shamma'' as his first statement on such a hand grenade of an issue. Thinking he could buy time as well as support, he promised to present the play within a year. In fact, Papp, already dying from cancer, never did produce ``Kufur Shamma.''

I have already mentioned Joanne Akalaitis's problems in staging Genet's Palestinian piece, but I forget whether that was when she was running the Public. (I also forget the name of the play. Or perhaps it was an adaptation?)

Gerard also rightly interrogates this vague term "contextualization" Nicola keeps calling for. He taces its cachet to PBS, sure enough, and reminds of the many CYA "panels" they'll do (like the recent Armenian Genocide program) to avoid any impression of a stand on an issue--and avoid funding cuts.
Whether we are smart enough to know the difference between life and art --between the facts of the Civil War and ``Gone With the Wind''; between the Anne Frank of her diary and the Anne Frank of the diary that Otto Frank published after the war; between J.F.K. and ``JFK'' -- art has no responsibility to literal truth.
Of course, such an argument is safe only in an intellectually vigorous and well-informed society, in which ``contextualization'' is a natural consequence of education, and in which a hundred counterarguments will sprout up around an unsound idea. When, instead, popular culture substitutes for history, all art is dangerous because its relationship to truth has shifted. It has become propaganda. But that's not, in the end, art's fault.
Amen. I'm sorry, but if the audience is too lazy to go out and learn something on their own about the Gaza strip, if they rely only on a 90-minute one-woman show on East 4th Street... then God, Jehova, or Allah help us all in this democracy of ours.


Anonymous said...

Genet wrote an essay in 1982/1983 based on his experiences in Beirut, describing what he found in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila. The essay is caled "Four Hours at Shatila" and appears in the Journal of Palestinian Studies.

Maybe the play is "The Screens," set in the Algerian War.

Anonymous said...

Ah--thank you.