The Playgoer: Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children": "Corrie" redux?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children": "Corrie" redux?

So you may have heard Caryl Churchill was unveiling a new short piece in London protesting the Israeli strikes against Gaza. The 10-minute vignette, Seven Jewish Children, is now up and running at the Royal Court and is downloadable (free) from their website.

Well guess who enters the picture now? New York Theatre Workshop--still apparently reeling from the blowback following their 2006 decision to pull the similarly pro-Palestinian My Name is Rachel Corrie from their schedule a month before opening--is putting the feelers out on this one. Aside from repairing the damage from the Corrie fracas, at stake here also is, I assume, an attempt at rapprochement with Ms. Churchill, a playwright they've been proud to produce in the past before she basically broke with them over the Corrie affair. (And subsequently gave her next play, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You to the Public instead, after a string of successful NYTW transfers, including A Number and Far Away.)

What's odd, though, about this story today, as reported by Patrick Healy in the Times, is why would NYTW even want it known they're "considering" producing the play if they're not yet committed to it? If they now decide not to do it, aren't they inviting the same criticism all over again of pulling a play they want to do but can't muster the political courage to see through?

Perhaps they're not the ones feeding the story. (NYTW's AD Jim Nicola is a "no comment.") But then who would be? Is the Times really that interested to initiate this inquiry? (They haven't breathed a word of the London run of the play so far.) The only other force behind this I can imagine is Churchill herself (and/or her agents) who might be pressuring either NYTW or The Public (also identified in the article) into committing.

Aside from the NYTW angle, though, the play itself is worth pondering for a moment.

Having read the script and read some of the London reactions, I can say this has the potential to be even more controversial than Corrie. If only because it is a much less conventional "play." While Corrie lionized a controversial real-life activist figure, the character of Rachel came off as a likeable heroine of a fairly straightforward "monologue play"--complete with classically tragic dramatic ending. Seven Jewish Children is much harder to pigeonhole. It consists of seven scenes/chapters/monologues/what-have-you, without clear indications of who speaks them and even how many actors speak them. (Let alone how it is to be staged.) So one's reading of these speeches (not assigned to any delineated dramatic "character") could depend entirely on the tone, casting, and staging of the speakers.

The segments seem to proceed step-by-step through Israeli history: from the Holocaust through liberation, through the various Arab wars, concluding with the recent Gaza conflict. While it is hard to "sum up" Churchill's elusive prose-poetry in any narrative way (which is why you're better off reading it for yourself), it's fair to say what she's depicting is an increasing hardening of Israeli resolve, a journey from victims to persecutors. The "children" of the title refers to those children to whom we must always decide what to tell when we do things that will affect their future. (As in "what will we tell the children?") In the course of the seven episodes, the "characters" constantly waiver in what to tell their children, or more specifically their daughters (Churchill only refers to "her")--from hopeful visions of protecting them from the genocidal fate of their forebearers to vengeful vows to defeat the Arabs who threaten their future.

In short, I believe this is a complex and poetic, multi-voiced text, not a simply stated op-ed. But knowing Churchill's beliefs--and the context in which she unveiled the play as an "intervention" and is donating proceeds form the Royal Court production to a Palestinian charity--one becomes quite aware that the piece is written in anger and outrage at the Israeli government and, yes, the Israeli citizens who backed its retaliation in Gaza.

Many, many commentators, of many political and religious persuasions (including Jewish) have at least questioned the "proportionality" of the Israelis' military response to those rockets hurled by Hamas into Jewish territory. So it seems to me, such an urge to protest is hardly beyond the pale.

Where Churchill has riled many beyond the reflexive AIPAC right-wing, is in her unflinchingly harsh depiction of Jews' justifications for the recent militancy. The two lines that I've seen get the most attention are "tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen" and "tell her we’re
chosen people" which out of context could strike many as demonizing Jews in general, not just Israelis.

I don't doubt that Churchill herself may feel that angry at Israeli defenders--and Jewish defenders worldwide--of the attacks. But taken in context, these lines are clearly outbursts resulting from tortured soul-wrestling of these disembodied voices. Take the opening of Part 6, for instance:

Don’t tell her
Don’t tell her the trouble about the swimming pool
Tell her it’s our water, we have the right
Tell her it’s not the water for their fields
Don’t tell her anything about water.
Don’t tell her about the bulldozer
Don’t tell her not to look at the bulldozer
Don’t tell her it was knocking the house down
Tell her it’s a building site
Don’t tell her anything about bulldozers.
Don’t tell her about the queues at the checkpoint
Tell her we’ll be there in no time
Don’t tell her anything she doesn’t ask
Don’t tell her the boy was shot
Don’t tell her anything.
Again, if you believe Israel is justified in its recent actions, then you'll have many arguments to pick with these points. (Like insisting the checkpoints and bulldozers are needed for security.) But for myself I can say there are no implied charged here I haven't read in, say, The Nation. My point is I find nothing in Churchill's text that isn't already hotly debated on both sides of "the Israel question." The objections seem to be to her unashamedly judgmental tone.

I will say this, for what it's worth: I do believe a Jewish writer probably would not have written this text. Some of the language, and the unrelenting cataloguing of offenses without mitigation probably goes further than most Jewish writers would feel comfortable with. There is not much empathy expressed (unironically, at least) for Jews who might still instinctively sympathize with the Zionist project in the abstract. Indeed Zionism itself seems to be the focus of Churchill's invective here. To her, it has gone horribly horribly wrong.

But to this I say, so what? Should only Jewish writers be permitted to write about Israel? Sensitivity is one thing, but I also understand why Churchill is angry. You can argue all you want how the images on TV and in the papers of dead Palestinian children are somehow staged and selective...but that doesn't lessen the horror. Seven Jewish Children seems to me a completely understandable response of a non-Israeli partisan, to these unfolding images of unnecessary death. And living in a free society means having to allow and listen to those kinds of perspectives, at least occasionally.

But back to theatre.

If anyone out there in the New York theatre truly wants to do this play and is ready to support it through whatever controversy ensues, I say more power to them. I don't think a producer presenting it is required to "endorse" all of Churchill's beliefs. But they better be prepared to defend why we need freedom of speech on this issue, even if people hate the play--which they will.

In other words, I don't recommend embarking on this project lightly. Or assuming you can hide behind the cover of: "Oh look! We've got the new Caryl Churchill play! Didn't you love Cloud 9!"

For one's not really even a "play." How do you go about staging a 10-minute seven-voiced prose-poem? It kind of ups the stakes if you invite ticket buyers to show up and pay for that. (People grumbled enough over having to pay full price for Churchill's Drunk Enough at the Public, all 45 minutes of it.) And if you don't make people pay for it and you go the Royal Court route by having them donate to charity, are you going to go with the "Palestinian" charity? Or something more "balanced"?

The Royal Court decided to stage it as an "afterpiece" following select performances of their current mainstage offering The Stone a new German play by Marius von Mayenburg which seems to be about what happens to a piece of Jewish-owned property in Germany through World War II and after. So perhaps this pairing made sense in addressing Jewish themes yet offering requisite balance (in reminding audiences of crimes against Jews).

So that's their solution. I have no idea what NYTW or the Public could offer at this point. The former has no play schedule till May: Naomi Wallace's "Things of Dry Hours" and it's about Depression-era Alabama. The new Craig Lucas play coming to the Public, The Singing Forest , appears to have a Holocaust tie-in, so we'll see. But if either theatre waited till, say, the fall, wouldn't the whole point of immediacy be lost? And the play could seem all the more harsh and inflammatory so long after the events.

Personally I can't help wondering whether such a piece would be better off not in a "legitimate" theatre, but at a rally, or a "slam", or on a bill for a "benefit" along with other allied causes. Because, frankly, as "drama" I'm not sure it deserves to be staged as one. At the very least, doing so could really, really confuse audiences about what to expect. Which would only make controversy worse.

So my suggestion to the Public, for instance, would be to put it in Joe's Pub, and turn that cozy cabaret for one evening into a real hotbed of political dissent. Or for NYTW, rent the KGB bar next door.

I have to say in this case, though, that just because something is written by a playwright doesn't make it a play. And theatres are not necessarily obligated to give an open mic to all playwrights if they can't get behind the project in good faith.

For London reax to Seven Jewish Children, there's this overview from the Guardian, also Billington's rave review, and a sampling of political criticism from a columnist for the Spectator.


Playgoer said...

As an addendum let me add some remarks by Churchill herself which have no little bearing on the Times story today.

From an interview published on the Royal Court site:

"Anyone can perform [Seven Jewish Children] without acquiring the rights, as long as they do a collection for people in Gaza at the end of it."

"It's only a small play, 10 minutes long, but it's a way of looking at what's happened and to raise money for the people who've suffered there."

"It came out of feeling strongly about what's happening in Gaza - it's a way of helping the people there. Everyone knows about Gaza, everyone is upset about it, and this play is something they could come to. It's a political event, not just a theatre event."

So note: if you do the play, you have to raise money for Gaza. That is, the Palestinians in Gaza. That's not going to go over well at NYTW & The Public, methinks.

But also note: Churchill conceives the play as "a political event." I'm afraid we don't know what that is in the NY theatre yet.

Anonymous said...

Look at the licensing agreement at the end of the script: Churchill requires that the play be presented FOR FREE (hence your lengthy ruminations on whether people would pay for this are beside the point) and that a hat be passed for Palestinian medical relief (in fact, for a specific group based on London.) Guess what, LOTS of money is raised for Palestinian medical relief in the US -- including from Jews.

Second, why do you smell a conspiracy of coverage? If you were Patrick Healy (or any other journalist) who heard about this play in London (which you would have done if you are doing your homework as a journalist), you would pick up the phone and call the NY theaters that often do Churchill's work -- esp NYTW given the Corrie fiasco.

Do you know for a fact that Churchill gave her last play to the Public BECAUSE she was made at NYTW over the Corrie business - or are you just (irresponsibly) surmising?

Finally: Yes, this is very much a play. And a good one.

Anonymous said...

I think PG says smart things about the complications that this kind of piece presents.

But even given those complications, we all know that if this play was about the plight of pretty much anyone but Palestinians, a certain subset of NYC theatres would be tripping over each other to associate themselves with Churchill and the play.

Companies like NYTW and the Public would be blasting out press releases about their (royalty-free!) "collaboration" with Churchill, and boasting of their close relationships with the world-renowned playwright.

Unfortunately, it seems like all the usual expectations fall aside when the Israel-Palestine issue enters the equation.

It would be nice if people like Nicola and Eustis would talk candidly about why that's the case.

Playgoer said...

To respond to Anon's challenges...

1) Yes, I did miss that info about the conditions for rights and donations in the original post. Sorry about that. But I did add that in my comment above, or at least most of what you say.

2) No, I do not "smell" any "conspiracy" today. I simply aired a genuine question I don't know the answer to: where did the impetus for this story come from? True, I could have called Patrick Healy. But a) I don't know him, b) I'm a blogger so I doubt he'd return my call, and c) all the reasons I suspect would probably be off the record anyway.

Also, your scenario suggesting the FIRST move of a journalist interested in the Churchill play would be to call NYTW & the Public makes little sense to me. Again, seems to me the first step would be to do a story simply informing NYT readers the play exists in the first place and to cover the London reactions. Perhaps somewhere in Paragraph 5 I might open the question of any prospective NY productions.

Hey, I know I'm not a NYT journalist. But that just seems plain logical to me.

3) As a matter of fact--yes. I have heard from two different sources off the record that one of Churchill's responses to NYTW's handling of the Corrie business was to not offer then "Drunk Enough." Sorry I didn't put it that way in the post, but trust me, when I do indulge in rampant speculation I at least label it so.

Anonymous said...

PG -- Glad you are raising all this here and don't mean to pick on you, but are you kidding me? The NYT journalist -- recalling the fiasco and ALWAYS, necessarily, looking for the local angle, would most definitely call those theaters and play that up.

On point 3: So you think it's okay to broadcast info you hear off the record? Honest question here to you and other bloggers-- not a berating: is anything anyone says to you even in a private conversation, or even as gossip, fair game for posting?

Theater of Ideas said...

Some thoughts:

It didn't seem to be that NYTW was trying to publicize they were considering the play. It seemed as if the reporter had information (off the record, like the info you referred to about Churchill and the Public?) that they had been given the script to consider.

I strongly disagree that someone Jewish might not have written a play of this sort. I know that, both within Israel and outside of Israel (though perhaps even more strongly in Israel) there is a large variety of Jewish voices and opinions, and Jews are capable of being extremely critical in their writing about Israel or any other topic.

Yet, upon consideration, maybe I should mitigate my statement a bit. Because I do think that a Jewish writer would not call the play "Seven Jewish Characters," which strongly implies that the evolving voice of the Jewish people is just a single voice.

You mention that out of context the play may seem to speak about all Jews. But the titled clearly puts that in context. And nothing in the script makes me feel like the play is about one specific Jew or set of Jews. It is presented as the voice of a people

Can a non-Jewish writer write about Israel? Of course. Discussion of any country, positive or negative, is not restricted by religion.

I think the question is more whether a writer should be writing a play in the voice of a religious/ethnic group whose intent is mainly to criticize that religious/ethnic group.

Let me take an example: suppose I were to write a play called "Seven Islamic Children", with a set of monologues showing statements that change from horror at the crimes of the Inquisition to pure rationalization about terror and hatred, justifying any crime. "Tell them that there will be forty virgins waiting for you. Tell them that they are dirty infidels and all deserve to die. Don't tell them about the World Trade Center. Tell them about the World Trade Center and how many we killed." Suppose this was from abstracted, non-specific Muslims.

Suppose these monologues were accompanied by a (required) fundraiser for the children of the victims of 9/11.

I think that piece would rightly be called a piece of racist hate mongering.

Now, I love much of what Churchill has written, but when you consider the rising tide of anti-semitism in England, is this a responsible piece writing? Is it a bold statement to play to the prevailing opinions of her audience? Or is it an irresponsible polemic, condemning Jews as a whole as a result of disagreement with the way the Israeli government has responded to Gaza?

Is this a play that moves the world towards peace, or deeper into hatred?

Anonymous said...

Picking up on something Theater of Ideas wrote, I too disagree with the notion that a Jewish writer would not or could not have written this play. I think non-Jewish intellectuals like Churchill (and, to risk a stereotype, particularly those of the European left) tend to underestimate or ignore the degree of dissent within Jewish communities. They think Jews are more politically monolithic than they are. In other words, they stereotype Jews, and getting them to understand that the terms "Jews" and "Israelis" are not interchangeable can be a frustrating uphill climb.

Having read this play (and having seen Drunk Enough To Say I Love You) I have to say that I think Churchill in her later years remains a great artist but has become an unsophisticated and rage-driven political thinker with a distressing taste for leaden analogy. In Drunk Enough, U.S.-British relations were clumsily and inaptly turned into an abusive gay affair; in this play, a really interesting artistic form is used to delineate a fairly dull line of political thinking (the oppressed have become the oppressors! Jews are like Nazis! They think they can do this because they're chosen! They'll say anything to justify themselves! and so forth).

There are countless ways for a dramatist to try to grapple with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I wish more of them would But a ten-minute play that overdetermines the issue as a question entirely to do with historical Jewishness (there are no characters--why should there be, because the only thing you need to know is, they're all Jews) does not, in my opinion, represent the kind of rigorous, challenging dramatic thinking that the subject demands.

One more thing: I'm not sure any theater should accede to the demands of a playwright about staging something for free and giving the money to a charity of the playwright's choice. It feels wrong to me on some level that I'm having trouble pinpointing. I'd love to hear other opinions on this.

(For the record, since maybe it helps to say where we're all coming from on this, I'm a politically progressive American Jew who is outraged and repelled by what Israel has done in Gaza and by Israel's overall Palestinian policy. And I would love to see a play that made the case I believe in more effectively and intelligently than this one does. It's probably because I'm in political sympathy with Churchill that I'm so disappointed by the whiff of something unseemly in her play. I don't think it sheds light on anything. And that saddens me.)

For the record

Anonymous said...

"It feels wrong to me on some level that I'm having trouble pinpointing."

I like this statement. Conscientiously humble. There's something sweet about it's honesty, and I wish I heard it more often.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure any theater should accede to the demands of a playwright about staging something for free and giving the money to a charity of the playwright's choice. It feels wrong to me on some level that I'm having trouble pinpointing. I'd love to hear other opinions on this."

My opinion is that no theatre needs to; Churchill is not demanding performance of her play from anyone. They simply do not produce the play given that stricture.

Churchill's requirement has two purposes: to more readily disseminate her play and to raise money for a charity she clearly finds deserving. (I note too that these requests still have to go through her agent at Casarotto Ramsay, for whatever reason.) Because we do not know the details of the negotiations between Churchill's representatives and these American theatres, we're only assuming, first, that an NYTW or Public Theatre performance would be offered free of charge, and second, that the same necessity of charitable donation would apply. I'm guessing that licensing in these cases would be rather more complicated than that.

Theater of Ideas said...

I am torn on the concept of having a required fundraiser with each performance (though I'm sure that requirement would apply to the Public and NYTW, since the Royal Court is going along with it). On the one hand, if there were a play about the plight of the Lost Boys of Sudan with a required fundraiser to help them, I would be sympathetic with that.

On the other, when the subject and the charity are in some way innately political (And though helping those in Gaza may or may not be innately political, I would say the play plus the charity politicizes the charity), it also requires the audience member to participate in a political act. That seems like a sort of coercion that is antithetical to any true debate.

Suppose a play about, er, Bristol Palin were followed by a pro-life fundraiser--specifically, helping teenagers who have chosen to keep their child. Wouldn't you feel like you had been inadvertently led to a rally, not a true piece of theater at all?

Another brief thought on Churchill's piece - what I think theater does best, when combating hate, is create empathy for people you would not expect to have empathy for. The recent movie about the two Palestinian suicide bombers ("Paradise Now") did just that, and it was very effective for that reason.

What Churchill's piece is create characters only identified as a nameless Jews as straw men and villains. It is not about empathy and sympathy, it is an imagining of people she disagrees with in her own, unsympathetic terms.

It is an easy and dishonest rhetorical device to put on stage a character that says and does unpleasant things and then say, see, that's what they're all like. Aren't they awful?

In that regard, her Jew as much of (or perhaps even more of) a caricature as Shylock.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that happens here, Edward. As I mentioned in the comments section at my own blog here (since Garrett didn't link to it), the voices in Churchill's play are multiple and even contradictory in many cases.

The issue of the play that rises over the immediate issue is that of eminent domain, not an unfamiliar idea to American ears, and which similarly led to a slaughter. Certainly we should be aware that, when John Winthrop borrowed a phrase from Matthew to characterize the Puritan colonies here as a "city on a hill," he too was characterizing those Puritans as a "chosen people."

As to the first issue, there are many instances of plays being offered to benefit one cause or another, perhaps most recently here The Vagina Monologues. But there was little or no outcry; and giving money to causes like "Take Back the Night" is also very much a political act. Are we then to criticise Eve Ensler and those who produce her monologues?

Anonymous said...

Sorry; wrong link. The correct one is here.

Theater of Ideas said...

As I said, George, I'm torn on the issue of using the play to raise money for a charity. But I think there is an important distinction between the way Eve Ensler uses Vagina Monologues and what happens here.

Vagina Monologues are monologues from specific characters, that is to say women, who are presented so that you can feel empathy with their various dilemmas.

The charity, supporting abused women, is not part and parcel of condemning the people you just saw onstage. It is a gesture of support for those people we just felt empathy with.

I'm not saying it's not political. In some ways, everything is political. It's the way the politics is approached.

In this case, the charity is used as a conscious rebuke of the Jews portrayed. Which, to my mind, turns this more into a rally.

Anonymous said...

Requiring fundraising will be off-putting to some producers and observers, and that's obviously a legitimate point of view.

But I think it will be very difficult--if not impossible--to craft a neutral, coherent definition of "innately political" such that a fundraiser for a Gaza charity counts, but one for the Lost Boys of Sudan is exempt.

I'm also finding it difficult to see a deep, meaningful distinction between the ways in which The Vagina Monologues and the Churchill play are political...other than that the politics of one are "acceptable" and the politics of the other aren't.

Theater of Ideas said...

I recognize all your points. Which is why I am torn, as I said from the beginning. Perhaps one could make the argument that any time one adds the element of charity to a play one is moving it away from pure theater into a rally.

But I do think, in this case, and in this context, attaching the charity is an act of condemnation, just as if attaching a fundraiser for the Children of the Victims of 9/11 would be an act of condemnation when attached to a play called "Seven Islamic Children."

I am not saying raising money for either charity cannot be a worthy endeavor. I am asking what it is saying, dramaturgically, in this case.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, all of this debate is a lot of apologizing for a nasty, thinly-veiled anti-semitic polemic from yet another British "lefty." Does it matter that the subject at issue is "Gaza"? Doesn't it seem that if the event of the moment were different, the point of view and attitude toward "the Jews" would be the same? British people may be comfortable with the thick vein of anti-semitism that runs through their culture, but that doesn't mean we have to be. Racist views, whether they are espoused by members of a discredited political party, an ignorant, right-wing newspaper, or a celebrated theater personality should be called out for what they are: racist, intolerant, and unsupportable points of view, and treated as such. Who died and made Caryl Churchill God? If people don't want to put on her play and give money to her pet charity, that's their right in a free country. If that's not a popular point of view, let the market, and the people decide. But don't apologize for anti-semitism, no matter who's mouth it comes out of.

Anonymous said...

I am a proud Jew, a very community-engaged Jew. A Jew who is highly sensitive to anti-Semitism. I have read the Churchill play. I find it heartbreaking and powerful. I do not think it is in the least anti-Semitic. No one has an obligation to produce it or to go see it, of course. But I reject as a given in some of the comments here that the play is trying to speak for or about Jews in general. Others may read it differently. I'm just saying: it is not a fact that the play is anti-Semitic.

Anonymous said...

I can't say with any kind of certain belief that the play is anti-Semitic, which is a term designed to end discussion, not foster it. But I do think that the play speaks about "Jews in general" in a very unfortunate and somewhat suspect way. Since Churchill has deliberately declined to differentiate any of the speakers as characters or even to assign particular lines, what we're left with is a deliberate decision to portray Jews as a kind of collective cacaphony of advising voices that builds to a final monologue expressing some of the piece's ugliest sentiments.

It seems to me that what Churchill is doing is, in fact, to create a kind of generalized voice of Jewish self-explanation that becomes self-justification. And that's, at best, problematic. As is the attempt to suggest that Israeli Jews by definition must have some kind of carry-over consciousness from the Holocaust that they're debasing by their current actions. This sort of "Don't they remember what they went through?" polemic isn't very dramatically or psychologically sophisticated, and it's also ignorant of the great fissures and arguments within contemporary Jewish political thought when it comes to these policies. To Churchill, Jewish historical identity stretching back to the Holocaust must be the defining element of the way Jews think about all this--because she's transfixed by this as an act of Jewish--not Israeli--moral transgression. That's a problem.