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 herAgain, 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.
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.
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 reason....it'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.