The storm over Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children'

The power of theater: Eight minutes about Seven Jewish Children

Churchill: 'A political event.'
Churchill: 'A political event.'

The English playwright Caryl Churchill has been surprising and shocking audiences for four decades with her unpredictable choice of subject matter and innovative dramatic form. Her 28 plays— including Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Far Away, A Number and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You—deal with a dazzling range of topics, from 17th-Century revolutionary idealism to environmental poisoning to the stock market to human cloning. But they share a common ground of social conscience, historical perspective and a deeply felt humanism.

Churchill's latest play has unleashed a response that's unprecedented even for her— not only because of its provocative content and unorthodox form, but also because of the unique way in which it has been disseminated. Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, lasts only eight minutes, and was rushed into the world in response to the 22-day war between Israel and Palestine that ended on January 18, 2009, killing roughly 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

The play's narrative, written in seven poetic, page-long scenes, suggests a group of Israeli adults (parents, grandparents, etc.) struggling over what to tell their children about recent stages of Jewish history. I say "suggests" because Churchill provides no specifications of time and setting, no stage directions, no cast of characters, no indication of who speaks each line (indeed, we only surmise that members of an elder generation are reciting the dialogue). The play seems to move from the pogroms of 19th-Century Eastern Europe to the Holocaust to the founding of the state of Israel to the series of wars with Israel's neighbors to the most recent tragic conflict in Gaza.

"Tell her/Don't tell her…." is the incantation that is repeated again and again, as the elders anguish over conflicting interpretations of Israel's history. "Tell her her uncles died/Don't tell her they were killed," they say about the Holocaust, for example; or "Don't tell her she doesn't belong here," in reference to the migration to Israel in 1948; or "Don't tell her anything about the army/Tell her, tell her about the army," about the current events in Gaza. Throughout, above all, is the leitmotif of "Don't frighten her…."

A unique birthing process

Seven Jewish Children was first read on February 6— only a week after Churchill had written it— at the Royal Court Theatre in London (where Churchill has been a playwright in residence and where many of her plays originated) with a company of nine actors. Churchill asked for no royalties, specifying instead that the reading be given as a benefit for a charity called Medical Aid for Palestinians. Churchill customarily declines to discuss her plays and rarely grants interviews, but she made a brief statement to the Guardian, expressing feelings of urgency about the play.

"Anyone can perform it without acquiring the rights, as long as they do a collection for people in Gaza at the end of it," she said in her statement. "It's only a small play, but it came out of feeling strongly about what's happening in Gaza— it's a way of helping the people there. Everyone knows about Gaza, everyone is upset about it, and this play is something they could come to. It's a political event, not just a theater event."

The Royal Court promptly posted a full text of the play on its website. Subsequently, on February 26, a few weeks after the reading, a video of the play performed by actress Jennie Stoller appeared on the Guardian website. But the British Broadcasting Corporation refused to broadcast it, citing a policy of impartiality.

"'Incitement to hatred'

The response to the reading and the website video was predictably explosive. Guardian critic Michael Billington praised the play as an example of "theater's power to heighten consciousness and articulate moral outrage," while Christopher Hart of The Times of London called it a "dishonest and grossly anti-Israeli rant." Sixty-five prominent Jewish leaders co-signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph, denouncing Seven Jewish Children as historically inaccurate. The Spectator attacked the play as an "open incitement to hatred" and a "ten-minute blood libel."

Since the turbulent opening, the play has been performed across the United Kingdom, adhering to Churchill's specifications that, in lieu of royalties, contributions be made to Palestinian relief. Seven Jewish Children has captured the attention of American audiences and critics, too. The New York Theatre Workshop held three readings of the play during the last week in March. On the night I attended, a group of eight actors read through the play, followed by an audience discussion, and concluding with a re-reading of the play as a monologue, this time by Andre Gregory, the director.

"'Response plays' answer back

That same week in Washington D. C., two staged readings of the play were held on March 26 and 28 at Theatre J, located in the Jewish Community Center in Washington"“ despite vigorous opposition from the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic (his headline ran "Caryl Churchill Advances Demonization of Jews"). Forums were held after each performance, including the reading of three "response plays": Seven Palestinian Children, by Deb Margolin; The Eighth Child, by Robbie Gringas; and Seven English Children, by Iris Bahr.

"Listening to the sharp give-and-take became as integral to the experience as listening to the eight fine actors reading from Churchill's script," commented Peter Marks of the Washington Post. As in London, the readings in America (subsequent ones were held in Seattle and Chicago) prompted further heated remarks about the play in critics' columns and blogs.

My students' broader perspective

I recently received a copy of the play from a colleague and distributed it to my students at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where we read Seven Jewish Children aloud the other day. Unlike some of the more vocal public reactions, which reflected immediate concerns, my students looked at the bigger picture.

"It could be about any struggle," said one. "It could be about colonization in India."

"I think it's a tirade of an authority figure trying to calm down his people, but really trying to calm himself," said another.

"It's a very powerful piece about how we talk to our kids in a time of war, and it's a beautiful message, really," said yet another. "I think Churchill purposely leaves a lot out and only presents one side. This way she allows the audience to fill in the rest. As they leave the theater, they'll be saying, "'I don't believe that, I believe this.' The play is very effective in that it'll get people talking."

I am grateful for the clarity of my students' insights. They've provided an unbiased perspective on eight minutes of theater that have accomplished so much. For the phenomenon of Seven Jewish Children isn't only about Israeli history and the Palestine question. It's also about what Caryl Churchill has shown us that theater can do.

She has written a play that has gone from the page to the stage in a matter of weeks, provoking an immediate response and an ensuing worldwide dialogue.

She has written a play that received its "world premiere" on-line, uniquely casting a newspaper in the role of theater producer.

She has written a play that invites theaters to incorporate audience "talk-back" sessions into the presentation, rendering the post-performance discussion as integral to the play as the dramaturgy itself.

She has written a play that dramatically demonstrates, as the Guardian's critic Michael Billington put it, "theater's ability to react more rapidly than any other art form to global politics."

She has written a play calling urgent attention to the responsibility of all adults, to explain our world to our children.

As one of my students said, "Something good will come of this."

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