Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Caryl Churchill's "Play for Gaza"

[Cross-posted from dotCommonweal.]

I'm a week late in issuing this recommendation, but I encourage you to read the cover story from the April 13 issue of The Nation, "Tell Her the Truth" by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon. Kushner is a major American playwright (he won the Pulitzer for his two-part drama Angels in America), and Solomon is a perceptive theatre critic and the coeditor, with Kushner, of Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Paliestinian Conflict. Their article in The Nation is a careful study of British playwright Caryl Churchill's controversial work Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza.

Churchill is unquestionably a political provocateur. But it would be a serious mistake to leave it at that, for she is also a towering talent. Her plays (among them Cloud Nine, Top Girls, and A Number) fearlessly take on politically sensitive issues in all their uncomfortable ambiguity. At the same time, they tend to push boldly against established theatrical conventions. In recent years Churchill's plays have been especially spare and unsparing. I saw Far Away, a darkly fanciful meditation on the devastating effects of war, in London in 2001. The performance was 45 minutes long, but I have never seen a play whose impact was so direct and lasting. I get chills even now when I think of it.

Kushner and Solomon's article is valuable, I think, for several reasons: first, it directly confronts, and attempts to move past, the neuralgia that surrounds, and interferes with, any discussion of the situation in Israel and Palestine. Second, it clearly and carefully explains how a work of art, and especially a work of theater, can contribute to such a discussion, if it is permitted to function as art and not as a political tract. In this I think the article shares some ground with Cathleen Kaveny's recent piece for Commonweal about The Vagina Monologues and how Catholics might fruitfully respond to the popularity of that play on college campuses. A major difference, of course, is that (at least in the judgments of Kaveny and Kushner and Solomon), Churchill's work, unlike Ensler's, is an artistic achievement worthy of high esteem. This gives way to the third good reason to read the piece from The Nation: Kushner and Solomon's insightful reading of Seven Jewish Children as a dramatic text.
Though you'd never guess from the descriptions offered by its detractors, the play is dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate. This is not to say that the play isn't also direct and incendiary. It is. It's disturbing, it's provocative, but appropriately so, given the magnitude of the calamity it enfolds in its pages. Any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn't arouse anger and distress has missed the point.
Of course, the distress aroused by Seven Jewish Children has been, in many cases, completely detached from the actual content of the play. And reporting on the controversy tends to depend on unhelpfully rigid viewpoints (for example, a recent headline from the New York Times: "Readings and Talks for Pro-Gaza Playlet"). From Kushner and Solomon's article:
The now-rote hysteria with which non-Israeli criticism of Israel is met--most recently dismayingly effective in quashing Chas Freeman as President Obama's nominee to chair the National Intelligence Council--has a considerable and ignoble record of stifling opinion and preventing unintimidated, meaningful discussion, in the cultural sphere as well as in the political. The power of art to open us to the subjectivities of others is especially threatening to those who insist on a single narrative.
One of the remarkable features of Caryl Churchill's recent plays is the scarcity of stage directions -- what Kushner and Solomon refer to as Churchill's "relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control." In this case, she has left everything but the words to the discretion of the artists who produce and perform the play.
The play consists of seven sequences, each composed of approximately twenty simple sentences, almost all of which begin with the words "Tell her" or "Don't tell her." There is no place-and-time setting specified for the sequences, and the lines are not assigned to specific characters. In fact, there isn't a character list or even a suggested number of performers, and the text looks less like a play than the poem it also is.
Churchill has been accused of writing a one-sided political tract, but in fact she has placed a great deal of faith in the insight and interpretive powers of directors, actors, and audiences.
Any director and company approaching the play will have to decide whether and how the audience will be made aware of the radical degree to which the written text has insisted, through its lack of character identification or stage action, on collaboration. Surely it's essential to understanding Seven Jewish Children that against the specifics of the script, the playwright, relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control, engineers a far-greater-than-usual slippage among text and performance and audience reception, producing an unusually large amount of room for variant readings.
If that sounds intriguing, you can download the play (in .pdf form, from the Royal Court Theatre website) and read it for yourself. It is brief -- only eight printed pages -- but there is much more to it than the controversy over its performance would suggest.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Alisa Solomon was in my class at Yale! I will definitely read both Churchill's play and Solomon's response.