The subject of considerable controversy when performed at London’s Royal Court earlier this year, Caryl Churchill’s new ten minute play Seven Jewish Children received its first public readings in New York in March 2009. musicOMH’s Richard Patterson was in attendance.
After recent reports citing the death toll Palestinians took at the hands of Israelis in recent conflicts over the Gaza Strip, the sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River to which both Israelis and Palestinians lay claim, playwright Caryl Churchill, herself a non-Jew, has responded – using a form that comes natural to her – by writing a ten-minute playlet entitled Seven Jewish Children – A Play For Gaza.
The play, which had its premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in London, quickly caused a stir. Available for free download online from the Royal Court, the contents of the play, (which can also be licensed for performance free of charge provided donations are solicited for the London-based organization Medical Aid for Palestinians), are no mystery. And yet, due to the complexities of the play – both in its format and content – controversy has arisen both in Britain and in America over Churchill’s intentions in writing the play.
After the London production, talk of a production or reading in New York arose quickly. New York Theatre Workshop announced in mid-March that it would hold three readings of the play on March 25-27 at 7 PM. If the readings were a success, NYTW said it would consider mounting a full production at a later date. Having canceled a production of Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman’s theatre piece My Name Is Rachel Corrie (based on the diaries of its real-life title character) in early 2006 due to its pro-Palestine stance, this seemed a compensative, inclusive move on the part of NYTW, which has a history of performing Churchill’s plays, including Far Away and A Number. In order to make certain that the play was being presented with as little institutional bias as possible, a series of featured guests were announced to lead post-show discussions with the audience.
On the night I attended, the moderators of the post-play discussion were journalist-writer-professor Alisa Solomon and playwright Tony Kushner, though on other nights the role was filled by radio host Laura Flanders and journalist-writer Mark Crispin Miller. To begin the evening, the play, directed by Sam Gold and read around a table with actors seated in bright red cafeteria chairs, was performed by a cast of seven – Jon Robin Baitz, George Bartineff, Aya Cash, Michael Cristofer, Laura Esterman, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Lola Pashalinski.
As becomes clear after glancing at its published script, the unusual format of Churchill’s play presents itself inherently as both a constricting and limiting force. The first words she’s written, before any lines of dialogue, are these: “No children appear in the play. The speakers are adults, the parents and if you like other relations of the children. The lines can be shared out in any way you like among those characters.” Tony Kushner, later in the evening, pointed out the “intriguing surrender of part of a playwright’s authority,” and he makes an interesting point. Simultaneously, Churchill claims authorship of the play and leaves its interpretation in the hands of those who chose to interpret it.
Though on the page, the play may seem slight, it comes alive in performance. As the words are spoken, Churchill’s economy of language quickly proves itself to be calculated rather than coincidental. The back-and-forth quality of the lines, each of which begins either with “Tell her” or “Don’t tell her,” establish a free-flowing rhythm throughout the piece that an audience member later noted resembled, to him, a human heartbeat.
Structurally, the play consists of seven brief scenes, each new section focusing on a different set of Jewish parents determining what to tell or not to tell their daughter about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because of the ambiguous division of the individual lines, the play can be interpreted as a dialogue between family members (if performed with a multi-person cast), as an internal conflict (if performed solo), or in any number of other as yet undiscovered ways. The play, clocking in at just around ten minutes, is just long enough to cause a stir amongst an audience but short enough to hold our rapt attention. Churchill’s intention here seems to have been not to create a lofty work of epic brilliance, examining every facet of a dense and complex conflict, but to write a short and accessible piece to incite a conversation.
Though the play is more complex than its critics may believe, however, the monologue featured in the final scene nevertheless packs a healthy punch. Even those who argue most amicably in support of the play’s merits in and of itself have to acknowledge the brutality of the monologue, in which a parent exclaims, “Tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.”
What kind of brutally cruel character could utter such words? An angry one. However, the monologue, taken out of context, has caused more of a commotion than it really ought to. After all, this chunk of dialogue is followed by the commands, “Don’t tell her that./Tell her we love her./Don’t frighten her.”
Even the violence this woman espouses is countered by the voice of reason, however muddled. Churchill’s play, even if it is viewed as distinctly pro-Palestine and anti-Israel, still holds more layers than can be parsed at first glance. Churchill intends to provoke, as many great playwrights do, but more importantly, she intends to start a discussion. Thanks to New York Theatre Workshop, that’s exactly what happened.
Following the evening’s first ten-minute presentation of the play, the Tony Kushner- and Alisa Solomon-led discussion served to highlight the complexity of the play and the divided responses to it. In the audience on March 26 were a number of journalists, including those from the Wall Street Journal and Germany’s Die Zeit, as well as writers, academics, and activists, many of whom added their two cents as handheld mics were passed around. Kushner and Solomon, who highlighted several points about the play before opening up for discussion, served more as lightning rods of discussion than as talking heads.
Claiming that the play has been “surrounded by a lot of noise,” Solomon pointed out that the play was not just a talking point but a “work of art.” Referring to the play in dramatic terms as “condensed,” Kushner and Solomon pointed out that Churchill’s work has been tending toward brevity. They pointed out that the play is not just about a clear-cut conflict. It’s about repressed speech, suggesting a possible Freudian reading of the play even, which Kushner interprets to be an “explosion of what’s under the surface” and an expression of the voice of various people coping with “having been done to too much.”
To add to this idea, Solomon brought up the idea of what can and cannot be said to children, a point that she later returned to when she addressed the idea of the questioning child in Jewish culture, a “powerful trope.” Though no children appear in the play, Solomon asserts, she and Kushner like to believe that “this is a girl who’s going to keep asking questions.” Later, the idea of girls as catalysts in Churchill’s work was examined. In plays like Top Girls and Far Away, Churchill uses young women as linchpins to her drama. Kushner pointed out that the final harrowing line of Top Girls spoken by young Angie, is “Frightening.” Here, the final line, spoken by a parent, is “Don’t frighten her.”
The title of the play was also discussed. Would the play, several wondered, stir up the same level of controversy were it not for its simple and direct title? Only some of its lines make direct reference to the conflicts at hand, but those lines that don’t take on a new shape because of the direction the playwright gives us through the title she’s assigned the play.
Others discussed the idea of the play as a choric piece hearkening back to Greek tragedy – including elements of tragic destiny – only with a particular twist. Churchill’s play includes no tragic hero.
Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis was quick to point out that Gaza is “the impetus behind the play” and that this idea can be felt in the text but should not limit the impact of the play. Eustis said also, “This is a play. It is not a tract or a statement, and the political opinion of the author or the political impulse of the author does not limit what this play is. Those characters are disagreeing with each other, and the dialogic form of it is absolutely of the essence of the thing itself. It’s what a drama is, and it’s what she’s written, where there is a struggle about what to do, what to say. How do you talk to children about the horrors of the world in a way that could be truthful, that could be productive?”
Later in the evening, responding to the remarks early in the evening of Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, who applauded the courage of the performers and moderators on-stage, Kushner and Solomon remarked that there was no great act of courage involved in presenting Churchill’s play, however hot-button-prone it may seem. It was made clear through their remarks that they believed a reading like this – and the presentation of theatre in general – should not be an act of bravery but a natural embrace of free discourse.
The discussion Solomon and Kushner moderated asserted this idea; thankfully no audience participants incited major flare-ups. The exchange of ideas instead caused several waves of “Ahhs,” waves of sighs of catharsis and realization signaling that perhaps the New York Theatre Workshop’s intentions for a civilized, well-thought-out discussion of Churchill’s play had been achieved.
The evening of the 26th ended with a second reading of the play, this time by a solo performer, Lisa Kron (on the 25th, the play was repeated by Andr Gregory, and on the 27th by Kathleen Chalfant and Wallace Shawn). This second interpretation served not only as a convenient button to the evening; it also brought the discussion full circle. Instead of hearing the conflicting voices of the earlier reading – the voices of parents bartering over what to tell or not tell – we heard the singular voice of an actress struggling throughout the seven scenes to make heads or tales of the situation for herself.
In a way, listening to Kron’s reading of the play invoked Churchill’s own singular authorial voice. In a way, it also invoked the internal discussions of each individual audience member. What we think of the play is ultimately our own interpretation, but the conflicts, whether spoken by one actor or one hundred, suggest that Churchill has written a piece that defies simple interpretations despite its deceptively brief length. No amount of discussion can ultimately bring about an audience-wide agreement. This, however, is ultimately the joy – rather than the misery – of theatre. No two audience responses are alike.
The playtext for Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is available for free download at the Royal Court website.
Further reading: Tell Her The Truth: Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon on Seven Jewish Children in The Nation