Churchill’s Eight Controversial Minutes

Steve here. I’m the new(ish) intern at Theater J helping Shirley with the theater’s literary management/dramaturg duties including, at Ari’s request, the occasional blog post, this one focusing on eight minutes of very controversial material about to make its way to American stages.

Playwright Caryl Churchill has never been one to shy away from using innovative forms to tackle hard topics–from turning post-colonialism and gender politics on their respective heads in Cloud Nine to personifying the United States and Britain as homosexual lovers in Drunk Enough To Say I Love You. However, it might be one of her shortest plays that ends up courting the most controversy.

Seven Jewish Children was written by Churchill as a direct response to the recent events in Gaza. The eight-minute play features seven scenes of Jewish parents, grandparents and relatives attempting to explain to children how they should feel and react to the sometimes violent and confusing world around them. The play’s sparse poetics touch upon the major political events of the last half-century that have most affected the Jewish people, from the Holocaust, to the founding of Israel, to the Intifada and the recent violence in Gaza.

An excerpt from late in the piece reads:

“Don’t tell her they throw stones
Tell her they’re not much good against tanks
Don’t tell her that.
Don’t tell her they set off bombs in cafes
Tell her, tell her they set off bombs in cafes
Tell her to be careful
Don’t frighten her.
Tell her we need the wall to keep us safe
Tell her they want to drive us into the sea
Tell her we kill far more of them
Don’t tell her that
Tell her that.”

The Royal Court Theatre allowed audiences to see the play for free during a thirteen-show run from Feb. 6-13; however, a collection was made at Churchill’s request for Medical Aid for Palestinians: Emergency Appeal for the People of Gaza after every show. The Royal Court Theatre promoted the play on its website with the words, “Angry? Sad? Confused? Come and spend ten minutes with us.”

Anger and confusion were just two of the myriad of responses to Churchill’s play—responses that started in London and are now spreading worldwide. On one end of the spectrum were responders like Michael Billington, theatre reviewer for The Guardian, who praised the play’s clear purpose to heighten the public debate on the events in Gaza.

“Churchill, I’m sure, would not deny the existence of fierce external, and internal, Jewish opposition to the attack on Gaza,” Billington wrote in a Feb. 11 review. “What she captures, in remarkably condensed poetic form, is the transition that has overtaken Israel, to the point where security has become the pretext for indiscriminate slaughter. Avoiding overt didacticism, her play becomes a heartfelt lamentation for the future generations who will themselves become victims of the attempted military suppression of Hamas.”

On the other end were journalists like the Spectator’s Melanie Phillips, who, in the conservative weekly British magazine, called Churchill’s play a “ten-minute blood libel” that only adds to anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe and acts as genocidal Arab propaganda.

“It is sickening and dreadful beyond measure that the Royal Court Theatre is staging this,” Phillips wrote on Feb. 8. “It is not a contribution to a necessarily polarised and emotional debate. It is open incitement to hatred. In the Middle Ages, ‘mystery plays’ which portrayed the Jews as the demonic killers of Christ helped fuel the murderous pogroms against the Jews of Europe. With this piece by Caryl Churchill, the Royal Court is staging a modern ‘mystery play’. It is a despicable act.”

Phillips’ opinion was seconded by Jeffrey Goldberg, contributor to The Atlantic. Writing in a Feb. 9 blog post, Goldberg said, “This isn’t surprising, given the peculiar attitude of some of the English to the Jews. Two: Just because it’s not surprising doesn’t mean it’s not shocking. The mainstreaming of the worst anti-Jewish stereotypes—for instance, that Jews glory in the shedding of non-Jewish blood—is upon us.”

But most reactions have fallen somewhere in the middle. In fact, many are wrapped up in a debate on the proper way to react. Does the play authentically raise the level of debate? Or by criticizing Israeli actions in Gaza and coming down heavily on the pro-Palestinian side of the argument, does the play become anti-Semitic? That is the question that American theatres are seriously considering as Seven Jewish Children prepares to hop over the Atlantic.

So, why the cram session on the recent controversy? Because Seven Jewish Children might be performed at Theatre J in the very near future. The theatre’s artistic staff are currently investigating where it could fit in the upcoming schedule, and whether Churchill would allow the play performed without Theater J soliciting for donations (It’s Theater J’s policy not to solicit donations for any charity). Ari Roth, our artistic director, feels that a play that has provoked such strong responses, one that is becoming a significant subject in a political and artistic debate important to the Jewish people, should have its DC premiere at the theatre devoted to investigating Jewish voice and culture.

And that, like everything else about this play so far, will likely cause debate.

9 thoughts on “Churchill’s Eight Controversial Minutes

  1. I hope Theater J gets the chance to produce the play. If I were still working there I would certainly be pushing strongly for it. Churchill’s play, in my mind, distills the issue in a beautiful way. It is painful, disturbing and accurate. Knowing Theater J audience, I feel like the discussion that would arise would focus less on the controversy of if it is or isn’t Anti-Semitic (it really isn’t) but more on the issues facing Israeli psyche today. I really wish I could be there to hear what I’m sure would be intelligent and thought provoking conversations.

  2. The Royal Court Theatre has posted the script on its website. The focus of the negative reviews has been on the one segment quoted in this post, but the piece itself is quite balanced and nuanced, and hits home in many ways. I am not normally a Churchill fan, but I think that she is right on point in this one, and it would be great to have it performed at Theater J and see what the reaction is. Perfect for a peace cafe, I would think.

    And, by the way, other people miss Hanvnah too.

  3. The chunk of the play I quoted above is actually a sort of in-the-middle section as far as controversy goes. It comes from Scene 6. The part of the play that is drawing the most heat is Scene 7, where the tone of the piece escalates dramatically. Feel free to check out the full script at the Royal Court’s web site (http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whatson01.asp?play=548) and decide for yourself.

  4. TheaterJ passed the opportunity to produce ‘My Name is Rachel Corrie’ as it was deemed ‘inappropriate’. (From an article in the Post). Having read the play, I thought that TheaterJ missed an opportunity to mount a thought-provoking and intelligent work.At the back of my mind, I thought it (TheatreJ’s decision not to produce it) was because it might be accused of anti-semitism – much like New York Theatre Workshop.

    So it’s gratifying to note that TheaterJ is trying to produce Churchill’s play.

    • Hi Niraj,
      Thanks for your comments here. There are a few blog entries about our wrestling with the play “My Name is Rachel Corrie” that you can review here: https://theaterjblogs.wordpress.com/category/my-name-is-rachel-corrie/. Theater J deliberated long on whether and how to either produce the play or respond to the controversy surrounding it. In the end, because of issues pertaining to the play’s quality and its subjective rather than objective treatment of Rachel’s death (which is handled in a post-scripted faux BBC/ISM broadcast of a witness watching Rachel be run over–an inauthentic way of treating the confusion surrounding her death), we decided to SUPPORT production of the play by our colleagues at CATF in Shepherstown and commission our own work responding both the Rachel’s life and death, the play about her, and the controversy surrounding NYTW’s decision to cancel its production. We never felt the play to be “anti-Semitic” and have never suggested as much anywhere in print or on line. It’s important to note that Theater J did do a reading of “My Name is Rachel Corrie” — performed by Jenifer Deal — where we heard first hand, in our own building, in front of an audience of 35 (including my parents and the president of the JCC, and friends from our Peace Cafe who loved the play) and had a lively discussion of the play after. We treated the play as any other important “hot” play. And then created a play about play and its subject, rather than produce the piece, assembled as it was, by a non-dramatist.

  5. I posted the following comment on the press release thread, and I want to do everything possible to ask Mr. Roth these two questions, so I am reposting here:

    (1) Could you also do a dramatic reading of a short play which Haaretz published by Israeli storyteller Robbie Gringas? The play is The 8th Jewish Child – For Caryl Churchill. It is very short, shorter than Churchill’s should only take a few minutes.

    At least a portion of the play was published in the regular Haaretz edition. It is also on this haaretz blog:

    http://makom.haaretz.com/blog.asp?bId=129

    Please call me at 703-297-1833 to inform me whether you are willing to consider reading Robbie Gringas’s play under the same conditions as Ms. Churchill’s play.

    (2) Please also inform me how much DCJCC/Theater J paid Ms. Churchill. As you know, DCJCC is a charity which raises funds within the Jewish community, and the community has a right to know how community funds are spent.

    Jonathan Mark
    7055 Chesley Search Way
    Alexandria VA 22315
    703-297-1833

  6. I would like to clarify that I at least would like for the Gringas play to be read at the same meeting as the Churchill play, with a similar press release and an addendum to the program and posters.

    Can DCJCC also read the Gringas play on 3/26 and 3/28? That is my question.

Comments are closed.