Caryl Churchill has answered in a very thoughtful and considered way some of the questions I posed to her this weekend. She’s allowed me to share that correspondence with our audience in the theater this week and on the blog. Here’s a part of our correspondence; there will be more on Wednesday and Thursday nights at Theater J (at 8 and 10 pm, respectively).
From: Caryl Churchill
To: Ari Roth
Sent: Tue, 24 Mar 2009 8:22 am
Subject: RE: 7JC
First, thank you for the warm things you say about the play…
There’s so much that could be said that it’s hard to know how to put it concisely. And I would always rather a play could just be seen without any comment from the writer. But there are things you raise that I’d like to try and answer. I’ll start with your two specific questions.
You say some people ask why the play is called Seven Jewish rather than Seven Israeli Children. I think that is a question that comes from people who have heard about the play but not read it or seen it, as it is clear from the text that most of the children are not Israeli. The first scene is set at some time of persecution, which could be nineteenth century Russia (as I think I was inclining towards when I wrote it)or (as we chose at the Royal Court) in thirties Germany. The second scene is some time after the Holocaust in England (or indeed America.) The third scene, a few years later, has people from England (or America) deciding to go to Israel. In the fourth scene a(different) family has just arrived in Israel. So in none of those scenes is the child who is spoken of an Israeli. In the RC production the child in scene 6 wasnt Israeli either as we imagined she was coming from England to visit relatives in Israel, which is why so many things would have to be explained to her, but of course she could be an Israeli child. So it is called Seven Jewish Children, because that is what they all have in common. I find it astonishing that anyone would think, as you suggest, that it means that all Jewish people are being blamed for what happened in Gaza. I dont think it is wrong to suggest that all (most?) Jewish people take an interest in what happened in Gaza and might well have to explain it to their children, as well as the other history that is touched on in the play.
Your second question. You ask whether the play inevitably foments a rage in the audience against the characters on stage. I think it’s hard for the writer to answer that question, it is really one for the audience. I’d have thought the answer was no. If it makes people feel angry about what happened in Gaza, I think that is a good reaction. It is hard to think about what happened without anger and grief. It may make the audience angry with the character who has the long speech, though I think even that is a more complicated feeling because of seeing how it bursts out as a reaction against all the attempts to soften what is going on and present it acceptably to the child. Even if it does make people feel angry with the character in that scene, I dont think that is a bad thing. It doesnt make the anger extend to all the characters in the play right back to the early scenes. When I wrote the scene I wanted it in some small way to reflect the shock and enormity of what happened in Gaza. I think it does that relatively mildly. And the recent reports of course, the soldiers’ statements, the tshirts, confirm what seemed to be happening at the time, and make the speech seem inadequately mild in comparison. You ask if that scene shows “a legacy of historical trauma”. Yes, I would say that the play overall puts it in a context of people who are aggressive because they not surprisingly feel defensive. (It’s perhaps relevant that I was told of one audience member who said she came to the theatre feeling angry with Israel but left feeling more understanding towards it. )
This leads me to your saying that the play faces charges that it shows “a terrible historical irony, that Jews once under siege are now laying siege.” I’m not sure why that is a charge. It seems a fact.
You refer to my being quoted in the Guardian as saying that “Israel has done lots of terrible things in the past but what happened in Gaza seems particularly extreme.” I stand by that, though to explain why in detail would get us into a whole discussion of Israeli history. There are of course things I admire about Israel, but… the refusal to comply with UN resolutions to withdraw from the occupied territories, the compliance in the massacre in Shabra and Shatilla, the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories … the checkpoints, the bulldozings, the wall, and with Gaza the killing of a thousand people during the truce… the siege… Someone who writes about all this well, I think, is Avi Shlaim, who is Israeli and a professor at Oxford. (You can find an article he wrote for the Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/07/gaza-israel-palestine or simply google avi shlaim + guardian + gaza .) But I’m sure you know all this, better than I do, and of course supporters of Israel will justify these things. I am not going to pretend that I am not critical of Israel, or that the play was not written out of anger about Gaza. But it was also written out of a more complicated anguish about the whole history, which I know is shared by many Jewish people outside Israel as well as many Israelis.
It’s hard not to see the more extreme reactions against the play as an attempt to distract attention from criticism of Israel with smears of antisemitism, which then become the topic. But I know that some people who are upset by it dont have that agenda, but are really so closely identified with all the good things Israel can mean that they cannot bear to think ill of it, and who identify their own Jewishness so closely with Israel that any attacks on it seem to be an attack on all Jews. I can only say that that is not at all my intention, and to urge your audience to look instead at Gaza, and to share your hope of peace and reconciliation through talking about these things, and through being able to disagree with each other with understanding.
Do please share as much of this as you want with your audience.
If the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the play comes up, it’s important to be clear that they said it was because ithe BBC’s guidelines say they must be “impartial over all services and outputs” and that it would be hard to find a play putting the opposite point of view, ie a political objection, not because they considered it antisemitic. There’s been some outcry about this, of course, as they dont usually try to bring this subject of balance into drama, and certainly not in relation to individual plays balancing each other, which could be ludicrous – the Writers Guild here have issued a press release about it. It seems to connect with the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the charities appeal for Gaza. It’s a whole other issue, but I dont like to think people are trying to use the BBC to bolster their accusations of antisemitism.
[Note that more from our exchange will be shared on Wednesday and Thursday nights at the theater].
I hope all this goes some way, Ari, to answering your questions and letting you know where I stand. As I said, it’s hard to do concisely and accurately. Please give my best wishes to your audience and of course to all those taking part in the readings. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes.
From: Ari Roth
Sent: Tue, 24 Mar 2009 9:47 am
Subject: Re: 7JC
I’m terrifically moved by your taking the time to write to me. Only days ago I was “afraid” to enter into correspondence as I feared that my own questions and public wrestling with your play would seem somehow professionally impertinent It’s not how we like to make our introductions to distinguished theater colleagues, by immediately questioning choices made in a ten minute piece of writing. Better to try to approach any writer of merit with an attempt first to understand and honor their enterprise before getting down to thenitty gritty wrestling with structure and meaning. But you have heard me and absorbed the questions I’ve posed and you’ve replied openly and with great care. I’m pleased that you’ll allow me to share your important thoughts with others.
As a playwright, you’ve also given our actors important insights into better understanding the play and I think it will lead to an even more fully realized presentation later this week. I value the fact that you’ve taken so long to consider questions that have been posed about the play and I value all the balance that’s in your prose–and, yes, in the play as well–as you consider the twin legacies of Jewish history in Europe in the 20th Century and the trajectory of Zionism since the founding of the State of Israel. Your letter, I believe, will put the focus of conversation back on the rightful topic–as we take stock of a people and a state long under siege executing Operation Lead Cast (as it was called) in Gaza and all the fall-out from that campaign that’s been openly discussed in Israel, in courts in Geneva, and in newspapers around the world.
Finally, for this round of dialogue, may I end with this wish: That the good transmission of ideas and thoughts and, yes, questions, that marks your exchanges with Jewish artists in America, London and Israel, inspire you to allow your work to be once again performed in Israel by people who know how important it is to share your plays with the Israeli public. You’re in very good hands with a director like Sinai Peter who is using art to transform consciousness. Your work, your voice, your dialogue is needed in Israel in order to effectuate change from within.
Oh, and one more request: Shimon Levy, the dean of Israeli Theater scholars and critics, was so moved by your piece that he, all in the same day, translated it into (a beautiful) Hebrew, with some deep resonance in referencing the language of Zionist idealism that’s already touched upon in your play. May I invite an actress who reads Hebrew to read the opening scene (chapter 1) as either a symbolic prologue — or epilogue — to your play? I only want to include this if you approve.
[Note: Caryl did agree to allow Shimon Levy’s translation to be read aloud at Theater J. It was read by the Israeli born actress, Noa Baum]