The Playgoer: Seven Jewish Children: The Reading

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Seven Jewish Children: The Reading

Some belated thoughts on the reading/discussion New York Theatre Workshop held a while back for Caryl Churchill's controversial little piece Seven Jewish Children.

First, there was the play. At the very least we got to hear it. Twice. To my mind, the first version
--directed by Sam Gold with a cast that included George Bartinieff, Michael Christopher, and playwright Jon Robin Baitz--faltered in an overly literal attempt at staging it as what struck me as, if you'll allow me, a Jewish Family Kvetch. (With each line psychologically justified and clearly said to other "characters.") But during the second rendition--which followed the discussion and ended the event--I suddenly felt the loss of not having this work truly produced in NY. The reason was simply Lisa Kron's heartbreaking solo-performance of it and the thought that New York audiences will not get to see it. It was that good a piece of theatre--all 10 minutes of it and probably the best thing I had seen in over a month.

Merely sitting a table, script in hand, clearly separating each of the seven "scenes" with a turn of the page, Kron let us finally hear in the play what most culture-war controversy-debate drowns out: complexity. Yes, I said this incendiary little text was heartbreaking in Kron's delivery because, rather than force a unitary "meaning" out of it, she gave into the massive mood swings and schizoid impulses Churchill is in fact depicting.

Or to put it another way, it became about our own unending struggle with the legacy of modern Israel.

Case in point: the most controversial lines in the play have been these, toward the end:

Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army.
Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn't she know? tell her there's dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she's got nothing to be ashamed of.
Tell her they did it to themselves.
Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I'm not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we're the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can't talk suffering to us.
Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they're animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don't care if the world hates us, tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it's not her.
Without forcing the words in any way, Kron really made us hear the "Tell her" in this, and made us pay attention to it. It's certainly worth the attention since Churchill starts every sentence in the play with it! Yet it's significance has been largely ignored. For you see, in performance, that "tell her" acts as a kind of disavowal. Does the speaker(s) truly believe what he/she/they are saying? Are they just venting their spontaneous emotions--or crafting a response, a response to the questions they will inevitably have to face from their own children when they ask how to explain the brutality on their tv screens. Kron--nearly in tears, by the end--gave a vivid portrait of a woman, a mother, so determined to insure her daughter's survival that she consciously decides to preach hate of the other.

Powerful stuff. But does it let Caryl Churchill ("Fetid Jew Baiter," as columnist Jeffrey Goldberg has dubbed her) off the hook? Well I certainly don't think it makes her appear any less angry or outraged at the events in Gaza. (Events which prompted such a swift and compressed response as this piece, almost demanding a new form of theatre.) And Kron's performance is probably not enough to satisfy those concerned about the text's potential--for some--to echo pre-existing anti-Semitic tropes. (Laughing Jews gloating over the bodies of non-Jewish children, for instance.) But I feel that no matter what Caryl Churchill intended, her text allows for all kinds of complexity.

The night I attended, NYTW asked Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon to lead/moderate the audience discussion, piggybacking on the essay they had just published in The Nation. (An essay which, among other insights, offers the most clear precis and exegesis of just what the play is and is not.) In the course of the discussion, Kushner rightly rejected the label of mere "propaganda" for this play, since there are countless other forms Churchill could have adopted to make a more direct and unambiguous attack on Israeli politics. If it's just propaganda, why veil everything behind "tell her"--and, worse, the constant bickering back and forth in the work between "tell her" and "don't tell her." If you want to send a message, they used to say, get Western Union. Well this play is like sending a message through a the multiple simultaneous "streams" of an online chatroom.

In their essay, Kushner and Solomon enhance this point by reminding us of how incomplete any theatre text is outside of performance. Yes, ok, we usually have some feeling of what's on, say, Arthur Miller's mind no matter who's acting it. But when you think of the vastly different effects actors have had on potentially controversial plays like Merchant of Venice and Othello, just imagine what the impact is in this case of extreme authorial minimalism:
All plays require that directors and actors make considered choices. Performance produces meaning. If an actor stresses "tell" in the line "Don't tell her that," it might suggest, That's true, but don't let her know. But if "that" is emphasized, it might mean, How can you even think such an outrageous thing? And much will depend on how the actor strikes the first word, "Don't"--collegially or adversarially.

Churchill ups the interpretive ante by leaving everything, beyond the lines themselves, to her interpreters. The monologue and the lines that follow it will carry different meanings if spoken, say, by a grandmother with a Yiddish accent or by a young man in an Israeli army uniform. Or by, say, a Korean-American man or a Chicana. Or, since the play is so short and could be watched three or four times in a row, with the lines spoken each time by different actors. Any director and company approaching the play will have to decide whether and how the audience will be made aware of the radical degree to which the written text has insisted, through its lack of character identification or stage action, on collaboration. Surely it's essential to understanding Seven Jewish Children that against the specifics of the script, the playwright, relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control, engineers a far-greater-than-usual slippage among text and performance and audience reception, producing an unusually large amount of room for variant readings.

And it is perhaps only on stage that the central characters of the play come into their own: the eponymous seven Jewish children who are its heroines. We never see them. Our empathic imaginations are enlisted by the playwright. We have to conjure them.
Again, I think few people in the room doubted Churchill's opposition to Israeli actions in Gaza, her support of Palestinian rights, and her less than likely chance of being invited to many seder tables this week. But theatre, thankfully, can take on a life of its own.

All in all, the event was a sober and civil way to engage with the play. I myself was surprised at how un-heated things got and at the lack of any outbursts of argument. (Perhaps the play's most agitated opponents all went to the first night.) Solomon and Kushner offered welcomingly calm leadership and protection, and invited truly open comment from the floor (without any pre-screened note cards). But as they themselves write in their article, "Any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn't arouse anger and distress has missed the point." So I was just surprised there was not more anger and distress voiced. (The most angry was a self-professed Wall St Journal writer who took his time at the mic as an opportunity to grill Kushner on why he would support Arabs who are so bad to gays. I'm glad the WSJ suddenly cares about that issue.)

The prevalent sense in the room seemed that expressed by Todd Gitlin, who as a former SDS leader, considered Seven Jewish Children a compelling work of art, yet downright tame as agitprop. He basically was saying what many said about "Rachel Corrie" when people finally got to see that play: all this mishigas over this???

Another thing "Children" and "Corrie" have in common, of course, is that neither is actually written by a Palestinian nor does either take on even a Palestinian perspective. Imagine, just imagine, what the NY theatre would do with an Arab Amiri Baraka, working not through oblique Beckettian free verse, not through the amiable conventions of the autobiographical confessional monologue...but by dropping heated racial conflict directly into the audience's lap in order to discomfort the dominant and rile up the subordinate.

Would such a play even get a reading?

Finally, let me propose this as another solution to the problem of the unproducibly offensive play. Especially when in this case, the sheer form of a 10-minute work precludes normal avenues of production. If I were running a theatre and Seven Jewish Children landed on my desk, I'd immediately issue commissions to 5 or 6 other playwrights I admired and tell them to write me their own 10-minute play on any subject they wish as long as it's something so unbearable that you're convinced no theatre company would ever do it. So the result would be an evening, hopefully, of the most offensive, morally troubling, personally insulting theatre around. No talkbacks, no panels. Just buy a ticket and go see what some really interesting playwrights can do when there are truly no holds barred. I think the effect of entering such an extreme "free speech zone" for a night would be as exhilerating as it would be infuriating.

And it probably would sell a lot of tickets, too.


sarah said...

Again, I think few people in the room doubted Churchill's opposition to Israeli actions in Gaza, her support of Palestinian rights, and her less than likely chance of being invited to many seder tables this week. But theatre, thankfully, can take on a life of its own.

Funny you should mention this: after reading the Kushner/Salomon piece, and subsequently downloading and reading the play, my mother has proposed reading parts of Churchill's play at our seder this year, in place of the traditional "wise child/wicked child" readings. I think it's a great idea.

mack11211 said...

I attended the final, Friday, reading. One side point is the aesthetic one that you note but don't force: some works really need a second hearing to make solid sense. In the past I had this debate with people about to or newly coming to Foreman, Wooster Group, etc. But the format of the evening with group reading followed by solo reading (my night, it was Wallace Shawn)made it easier for me to persuade people to go to 'dense' works in the future.

Playgoer said...

Man, I would have loved to hear Wallace Shawn read that...

cgeye said...

One question: Are these shorter Churchill works considered plays?

Because I attended one of her early works this week, and the program said her last play was A NUMBER, ignoring her Blair/Bush play and this one. Was A NUMBER her last full-length work, or the last moderately political one?