Sunday, March 29, 2009

Caryl Churchill Gets Libelled

Because I was off at a conference in San Francisco until today, I was unable to attend the Washington, D.C. readings and discussions of Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Girls: A Play for Gaza. I'm sorry to have missed this event.

Churchill is one of our greatest living playwrights, and her work has been a formal touchstone for my own endeavors. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire taught me so much about how the past can be dragged kicking and screaming into the present without betraying its essence as history. And I've been reading the incredible first act of Top Girls as I grapple with a very complicated cafe scene of my own in a new play I'm writing. She is one of our indispensible playwrights.

First thing: Kudos to Theatre J and Forum Theatre for hosting the readings. This is truly the mission of theatre -- to expose audiences to provocative and excellent new work. Theatre J's Ari Roth and Forum's Michael Dove get mad props from this playwright for doing so.

There has been a lot written about the productions, including this extended dialogue between Roth and Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg. Despite its length, it's worth reading, especially for Roth's spirited defense of Churchill as an artist and his choice to stage the readings at Theatre J.
For me, this exchange near the beginning is telling:

JG: Let me give you another quote from Caryl Churchill. "Israel has done a lot of terrible things in the past, but what happened in Gaza seems particularly extreme." This is a woman who hates Israel. She's not complicated. I mean, has she ever expressed an ounce of sympathy for a Jewish child victim of a Hamas suicide bomber?

AR: You're a great writer, but you may not love art enough. And you --

I may not love art enough?

AR: Yeah, maybe you don't love the dramatic arts enough. You know a thousand things but you're making assumptions about Caryl Churchill that are not true, in terms of her lack of empathy. So I would invite you to come sit in on a rehearsal. We're just trying to understand what she's saying. Okay?

The other important point that Goldberg makes that needs to be refuted in as clear as terms as possible is that somehow Caryl Churchill is perpetuating the "blood libel" against Jews regarding the ritual killing of innocent children.

I have been thinking a lot about what I wanted to say this issue, but when I came home, I saw that Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon had beaten me to the punch with a powerful cover story in The Nation. The entire essay is terrific, but I found the authors' dissection of the "blood libel" charge leveled against a monologue near the end of the play particularly powerful:

When the two of us first discussed Seven Jewish Children we turned immediately to those lines. We both winced when we read them; we both became alarmed. One of us was disturbed by the line "tell her we're better haters," resonant of Shylock and Alberich the Nibelung. The other focused on "tell her we're chosen people," contending that in this context it reflected a misunderstanding of the term "chosen people," casting Jewish chosen-ness as an expression of divine right and exceptionalism rather than of religious/ethical responsibility. We speculated that these two lines added fuel to the willful misreading as blood libel of the lines that follow: "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." Those who level the blood-libel accusation insist that Churchill has written "tell her I'm happy when I see their children covered in blood."

But that is not what Churchill wrote. Distortion, misrepresentation and name-calling are tactics familiar to anyone who's spoken out about the Middle East. There's no blood libel in the play. The last line of the monologue is clearly a warning: you can't protect your children by being indifferent to the children of others.

Writing bravely about controversy is the lifeblood of theatre. And Churchill has an amazing track record in doing so -- brilliantly. In my view, making such a charge against Churchill is libel -- and a vicious attempt to chill the expression of all playwrights. But you can read a print out of the play here. Decide for yourself.

NB: Ari Roth has already posted a reflection on the week in the context of his theater's festival -- Voices from a Changing Middle East -- on the Theatre J blog.

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