Latest Reading – THE PROMISE – Elicits Passionate, Mixed Reactions

More on The Promise from Rachel Gubow
dated February 1, 2011

Jews have been expelled from different locations for centuries. Although it seemed as though The Promise mainly debated whether a Jewish state should exist, I felt the real debate was what about what it means to be Jewish. Is Judaism a religion, a race, or both? Should Jews be part of a nation, a state, or neither?

Edwin, a Jew, is to marry Venetia, a Christian. Although he is completely accepting of interfaith marriage, Venetia is still converting to Judaism because it was the expected thing to do in 1915. Edwin explains that when they have children, even though their mother was not born a Jew, he would still consider his children Jewish and not disapprove. I found this part of the play to be very interesting and deviant from common views during this era. Coming from a home with a Jewish father and Catholic mother I have some perspective on the criticisms of being raised Jewish with a non-Jewish Mother. I have attended Shabbat services my whole life, been consecrated, become a Bat Mitzvah, confirmed, and graduated Hebrew school. Seeing that it is 2011 and there are many people today who would not consider myself Jewish makes me highly skeptical of the reality The Promise attempts to grasp. Edwin argues that his children can be any religion they choose, including Jewish, because he does not believe that Judaism is a race or ethnicity. Therefore, too, they should not be a nation nor have their own state. He was against the Zionist movement and did not feel that the Jews deserved or had the right to take back Palestine. I think that arguing Judaism is solely a religion is very difficult to do (and as was seen in the play) not the winning argument. This show provoked me to think about the “Jewish way of life” and I truly see it as a culture and not just a religion. The customs and traditions span so much farther from the text of the torah or the traditions surrounding holidays. It means different things to different people, and the fact that there is a homeland for Jews to return to, is a comforting thought for me.

Overall, I am not the biggest fan of readings because I am a very visual person. However, I felt that the small amounts of blocking that were done helped the overall vision of the show. Especially the use of different locations on stage helped the show move along. This play was very slow moving and painfully so at parts. Edwin and Venetia’s acting was enjoyable. Still, I didn’t think that there was enough of a personal connection between any of the characters to hold the show together…. I thought that the show would have been better had it not divided its attention on so many plots and focus either on the relationship of Edwin and Venetia or the formation of a Jewish state.

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Arthur Thinks–that dependable blog–puts the latest reading in some very thoughtful context: “The third play reading in Theater J’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East” festival was “The Promise” by British playwright Ben Brown. The promise in “The Promise” is the 1917 Balfour Declaration’s statement that the British government would support a Jewish homeland in Palestine.” Read the rest of the posting here.

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UM student Peter Nolan writes…

The Promise is an extremely interesting look at the Balfour Declaration, where the characters act as arbiters of history for the audience, through which we make sense of the declaration of a Jewish homeland. Using such prolific and historic characters brought a profound sense of historicism that makes the play even more enthralling. The Promise functions as a sort of time machine whereby we are able to look in on an important historical decision unfold, while taking into account the various viewpoints involved in the process.

I found it interesting that the play took place during WWI, as I generally think of the push for a Jewish homeland as a phenomenon of WWII instead. The dialogue between the parties, as well as the arguments both for and against the Declaration are framed far different outside of the horrors of the Holocaust, which I had to continually remind myself of while reading it. I was struck by the reality that the discussion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine had begun at least twenty years before Hitler began the Holocaust, which gave me a whole new viewpoint on the matter.

The Promise is an exceptional discussion of the historical debate of the Balfour Declaration which has proved to be a world changing event and whose repercussions are still felt to this day. In using historical figures as characters to play out the debate before us, we gain a more appropriate and correct understanding of the history surrounding the conflict.

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Whereas Kristen Brey struggled with the play…

Here is my blog for The Promise

Having thus far truly enjoyed the two shows and one reading I have seen since the beginning of this class, I left somewhat disappointed Monday night from the reading of “The Promise” by Ben Brown. Admittedly, my state of mind was not at its sharpest which must always be taken into consideration when one critiques a show.   A headache, or exhaustion or even wearing an uncomfortable outfit can taint your patience and openness to a live performance.  Therefore, before expressing any dissatisfaction with reading, I will admit that my mind was preoccupied and tired from the moment I sat down in the theater. 

Additionally, I want to state that there were plotlines in the show that peaked my interest, the most of which was Montagu’s adversarial view towards creating a Jewish state despite the character being Jewish himself.  Seemingly, Montagu’s opinion is not as well documented and I feel is rarely highlighted among the Jewish community at the present time.  I appreciated that the entire question of whether Judaism is a religion that does not need a homeland just like Christianity or Islam or is it a heritage and a group of people that have been forced into nomads that deserve their own land. 

One of the best lines in the play is when Venetia asks for clarification by asking Montagu, “ But you’re not religious?” to which he answers no and she replies, “And yet you’re Jewish aren’t you?” and after he responds yes she points out that, “it can’t just be a matter of religion, can it.”. Despite my appreciation for that theme, I walked away from the reading fairly unsatisfied. I spent my walk home trying to put my finger on why and all I could come up with was that I don’t think this play worked for me as a reading. 

Whereas “A Railway to Damascus” had enough emotional energy behind it and a fast enough tempo to disguise the fact that all the actors were on stage in modern clothing with scripts in their hands, last night’s show did not provide the same suspension of disbelief.  The script is verbose and heavy on politics. I did feel that with the addition of props, costumes, and more rehearsal this could be a very powerful show that captures the audience for the whole two and a half hours since the themes and storylines are strong but as a reading, I ultimately was not as moved by any of the characters as I was hoping I would be.
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Kal Kreisberg comments…

“The Promise”: About this play on the Balfour Declaration, several in the audience commented that they could not connect with the characters. I think it fitting to consider “Fiddler on the Roof,” another play that references pogroms and concludes with a character leaving for Palestine, and think of why that play works better.

Some also observed that the most emotionally poignant part of the story – the relation between young husband and wife and the romantic triangles including the Prime Minister – seemed to have almost nothing to do with the play’s supposed subject, the creation of the Jewish homeland. I was favorably impressed at how much director and actors could accomplish in such a short time: blocking on the stage and memorization of lines. And it occurred to me that the title of the play, “promise,” refers not only to the British promise to the Jews, but the husband and wife’s promise to each other.

Thus the final departure of the husband, the ambiguous parentage of the little girl (like the contested parentage in Kanafani’s play), all give an eerie new light to the playwright Brown’s interpretation of British commitment to the early Zionist project. And the wife, staying in Britain to tend to and build the new house, reminded me of the parents and the old, contested house in “Return to Haifa”.


2 thoughts on “Latest Reading – THE PROMISE – Elicits Passionate, Mixed Reactions

  1. The play “The Promise” is a very interesting play that opened my eyes to a whole new side of this conflict. Though the play was very dense and sometimes hard to follow with all of the different characters, it was a good way of introducing myself to the beginnings of a Jewish state in the land formally know as Palestine. Though the play did offer some interesting historical facts, I found it somewhat boring. It seemed mostly descriptive and while it was good to have some background on the main characters, I felt the whole storyline that included Venetia was unnecessary.

    As unentertained as I was with the action of the play, I felt that it is still an important piece of art because of the uniqueness of its story. I had never read a play that had dealt with the beginnings of the State of Israel going back before World War II. I also thought that the play had an interesting take on religion and identity. The character of Montagu was the one that I found most fascinating, but also hard to identify with. To me, he felt so disconnected with his Jewish identity that he had trouble believing way this Jewish homeland needed to be created. I also did not enjoy that way in which this play brought up the topic of conversion. It made it seem like anyone that wanted to could become Jewish with the snap of a finger.

    In the end, this play brings up an interesting point of discussion. Would a Jewish homeland make the Jewish citizens in other countries less a part of that country? I think that this question is a big one that Jews still deal with in the world today.

  2. I believe I enjoyed the experience of the reading because it was the first play reading that I had witnessed in a real theater. I enjoyed the bareness that a reading offers. Instead of being completely subject to a director’s vision with set and costume design, I felt empowered to imagine the spaces where set and costume would fit.

    I am unsure as to whether it was a purposeful to keep the set for Return to Haifa as the backdrop for the reading. I think this added another element to the play. The stage was previously Israel and during this reading different parties were arguing over whether there should be a providential or international home for Jews. The tension between the two instances was quite intriguing.

    Initially, I walked a way believing that the play did not put me in a new dialogue or taught me a new lesson right away.

    Now as I am sitting down and actively reengaging in the play, the relationship between the female lead and Prime Minister comes to mind. I know it is cliche, but what is love? What are the borders between love and infatuation, love and comfort, love and indulgence? Is love an indulgence? This comes to mind as I ask myself if I could not a marry one man because of another man’s love for me, and then marry a man out of some form of pity. Maybe that is a form of love and I have just never experienced it.

    The notion of having a place to return to also seems embedded in the plays that I have encountered thus far regarding the Israel. It makes me think about the importance of a physical place in the world to a constantly wandering people. This place reigns as a symbol of belonging without necessarily assimilating.

    Lastly, I found the end where a young girl runs out to be completely confusing. I felt as if something deep was taking place but I missed it completely. This is an instance where I would be happy to rely on the Director’s interpretation and staging. I felt the same way about Return to Haifa when the end came and time past and present was existing simultaneously.

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