Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seven Jewish Children at NYTW

I was in attendance last night at an invitation only premiere of Caryl Churchill's latest show at New York Theater Workshop...unfortunately, that play was Seven Jewish Children.

For those of you not up to date on the hubbub about this 10 minute play, Churchill wrote this piece in response to the recent events at Gaza. It's written as just lines, with no assignment to character, but the implication is that the character or characters are Jews speaking to their children at different points in history, spanning from the Holocaust to the recent Israeli conflict. The play may be done for free by anyone, as long as they also raise funds for a Gazan charity at the same point.

My feeling about the play, which I have written about on other blogs, is that the play implicitly tries to stereotype and even demonize Jews as a whole because of Churchill's anger about Israel. It has the "Jew" who is talking to his/her child say things like "Tell her we're the chosen people" and gleefully talk about Palestinian "dead babies" and "children covered in blood". By calling it seven Jewish children, not seven Israeli children, Churchill has chosen a dangerous tactic. Not that the title is inappropriate for the play. Unfortunately.

When talking about the play with an Israeli playwright, interestingly, he told me that he thought the play should be played every day. Much of his work as a writer has protested the policies of the Israeli government, and I immediately understood why in that context he might feel that the play was important to hear.

Churchill, however, wrote this play in England, where it first played at the Royal Court (it preceded a play about the Holocaust - a disturbing choice, I find). In England, she is not voicing an unheard opinion about Gaza. She is reinforcing the prejudices of the great majority of the audience. It is no act of bravery to tell the audience exactly what they want to believe. And at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in England (never a comfortable place to be Jewish), I would argue that that these are unfortunate passions to flame.

After writing about my thoughts about the piece on some blogs, I got a couple of emails from Jewish theater practitioners in England. One was a professor. They thanked me for daring to criticize the piece, which they were afraid to openly speak out against in England, because of the wave of anger their objections would be met with. Churchill's play stokes that anger, making it harder for anyone to listen to a dissenting voice.

New York is a wholly different place altogether. The number of Jews here makes the city very complex in its attitudes about Israel, although if there is any place where there is a large number of critics of Israeli policy, it is in the theater. The Rachel Corrie incident demonstrated that the New York theater community is just as capable of knee jerk reactions on the subject as people are anywhere else.

Those critics were definitely the majority in the theater last night, though there was a vocal minority expressing support for Israel, and I'm sure a less vocal minority that are somewhere in the middle (as I feel I am). The program was accompanied by two interesting documents: one a letter from Churchill in response to a letter from Ari Roth from Theater J (which is also producing a reading of the play), and the other a letter from Kenneth Stern, Director of Anti-Semitism and Extremism for the American Jewish Committee.

The reading are going on for three straight nights at NYTW - last night was just the first of them. Each night has a different moderator, who is supposedly moderating the audience in a discussion. Tonight the moderators will be Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, a very interesting pair.

Unfortunately, last night's moderator was Lauren Flanders, the host of GRITtv on Free Speech TV, as well as the host of RadioNation. Flanders had a very clear point of view on the piece (that it would finally make people think about the crimes in Israel and the U. S. complicity in those crimes), and she had brought in people in the audience as authorities to support her point of view. She called on them to speak about what she termed the facts around the conflict, in order to educate the audience, and called on them to rebut dissenters.

Which was the main problem with the discussion. It was not about listening and conversation. It was not a discussion at all. Flanders was trying to educate (and bully a little) those in the audience that didn't see things her way. But she was doing it in the guise of a moderator, and of course that sort of "moderation" is both transparent and, in the end, even more polarizing.

But perhaps that is a problem inherent in Churchill's play, which in the end, is a polemic, written in anger. A piece that truly was meant to create empathy for the Palestinians would have Palestinians onstage, true characters with their assets and their faults, struggling in a conflict with no easy answers. This play has generic "Jews" onstage, or what Churchill imagines a "Jew" to be.

I spoke briefly yesterday about the lack of empathy in the play. I felt empathy when they were talking about the Holocaust, Flanders responded. It's true, the play does use the existing empathy about the Holocaust. But it's a ploy, saying, yes, we feel bad about the Holocaust, but you're just as bad, so now we're justified in feeling anger.

In the end, the play creates anger at Jews and anger at those promoting anger against Jews. The Palestinians, as human beings, never exist in that theater at all.

Does that get us any closer to peace?


Travis Bedard said...


I am producing a reading of it tomorrow night. You can watch it at Also, I welcome you to read a response from Churchill:

Theater of Ideas said...

Actually, my name's Edward, Travis.

Thanks for posting that response. I referenced it in my blog post but I'm glad to see it online.

There's also more pro "Seven Children" comments from Kushner and Alisa Solomon at An interesting column from people I respect.

They all address the subject of anti-Semitism, yet simultaneously say that anti-Semitism should not be the topic. It's such a delicate thing. I don't think Churchill is anti-Semitic, and I would hesitate to call the play anti-Semitic, because the word is so often used as a bludgeon - much like the words racist or sexist can be used as a bludgeon.

But perhaps that's an appropriate word. It's just a hard one to use, without entering into a shouting match.

Talking about how a play can be sexist or racist is somehow more acceptable than talking about how it can be anti-Semitic. But if one can look at a play that Pinter has written and say that there are overtones of sexism in it (and yet it manages to be a good play), one should be able to make the same arguments about plays with inherent anti-Jewish sentiment.

Once again I avoid the word makes me so uncomfortable. Is that still the legacy of the Holocaust?

Yet anti-Semitism is a great British legacy, especially among its finest writers - Shakespeare, Marlowe, Proust, Eliot, Dickens, Shaw, even Wilde. And as I say in my blog post, to me, one must put the play in context. Part of that context is those writers.

I don't have an answer to all this. Then again, I don't really believe in answers. So I try to ask questions that provoke.

Travis Bedard said...

Lord above. The downside of not being on a site when you respond, Theatre of Ideas and Theatre ideas bleed together so quickly. My apologies.

I think the step that most of us, I first and foremost, missed on our road to discussing this work is some sort of definition of what we considered anti-semitism to be. We end up talking past one another too often because we don't define what it is we're discussing.

Anonymous said...

We created our own play "Seven Muslim Children"

Tell him to launch the rockets
Tell him to use the school yard
Don’t tell him to use the school yard
Tell him they’re afraid to fire back because the world will hate them
Don’t tell him they might fire back anyway
Tell him they must all die
Don’t tell him they might attack
Tell him we’re living in the Warsaw Ghetto
Tell him what the Warsaw Ghetto was
Don’t tell him what really happened in the Warsaw Ghetto
Don’t tell him about Auschwitz and Treblinka
Tell him they’re afraid of us and won’t attack us
Tell him we can shoot off rockets forever.
Tell him if he’s lucky the rocket will hit a kindergarten
Tell him “itbach-al-Yahud”
Tell him “Filastin hi arduna, Wa al-Yahud kilabuna”
Tell him we will go back to al-Andalus
In the Name of the Prophet

Theater of Ideas said...

I must say, I find your play/poem as troubling as Seven Jewish children. Why assume that a whole religion exists only in relationship to one conflct? I understand Chruhill does something similar - but this play is just a counter provocation. I will ask the same question I asked of her play - doe this lead us any closer to peace?