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.