Feb 20, 2009

Brits, Jews, Protest Art

I don't relish wading into the electrified waters of the Israel/Palestine conflict, or pronouncing on the similarly thorny issues of political art vs. agitprop. But the subject of Caryl Churchill's Gaza-incursion-inspired playlet Seven Jewish Children, and the prospect that the New York Theatre Workshop is considering staging it, has led to a lot of blogospheric chatter that I feel compelled to add to.

Starting at the end, Time Out's David Cote doesn't care much for the Churchill play, available in its entirety online, and uses this opportunity to offer a sweeping diss of the late-20th century British political theater of Pinter, Barker, Bond and (latter) Churchill, even including some plays Cote says he somewhat likes. "Often they think they’re being so shocking and complacency-shattering when in fact they’re just fuming over their own sense of powerlessness and outrage," he writes.

I share some of his misgivings, but I think David may be too sweeping here. I would make a distinction between Churchill's brief, nearly blank-verse Drunk Enough To Say I Love You and the new Seven Jewish Children on the one hand and her incisive, haunting plays, even as late as the eerily prophetic Far Away, on the other; and I would make a similar distinction between Pinter's late plays, as politically explicit as they may be, and his execrable later poems and borderline-unhinged political rants. At best, these blasts of outrage can be seen as a kind of crude protest art (what some more dismissively call "agitprop"), which is any artist's birthright and prerogative but which, thankfully in these cases, constitutes neither the foundation nor the tarnishing of a serious artist's reputation.

To move into more fraught territory, the question begged by a play titled Seven Jewish Children, in which characters without names talk in short, polyphonic bursts about how to explain Israel and its actions to their children, is: Is it anti-Semitic? I hate the way criticism of Israel routinely gets shut down by spurious charges of anti-Semitism (Yglesias is my hero on this point), but critics of Israel do themselves no favors when they themselves conflate Jewish identity with Israel's actions. I'm not a big fan of analogies because they're imprecise, but imagine if Lynn Nottage had given her Republic of Congo-set Ruined the title "Black People" or "Black Women." That would be ugly and off-point; I think Churchill's conception is similarly crude and ugly (at least in part because her title is not off-point).

Still, I'm not willing to throw the baby (bona fide plays, political and otherwise) out with the bathwater (in-the-moment protest art). In fact--to get to back to the notion of NYTW staging Seven Jewish Children--I wouldn't "throw out" the bathwater, either, just cherish it less.

UPDATE: Brit blogger Andrew Haydon has the most comprehensive non-hysterical take on what's wrong with Churchill's play (h/t Superfluities):
Like Churchill’s last play Drunk Enough To Say I Love You, the playwright’s politics are worn so baldly on the play’s sleeve, that the ersatz experimentalism of the piece’s form is lost in a mire of lecturing. We all get it. We’re not being made to work at complexity, we’re being told that something is bad. Ultimately, Seven... is a very quick theatrical trot through an opinion most of us have heard rehearsed a thousand times before. If Churchill really wanted to shake us up, she’d be putting the Israeli’s point of view. In the current climate, that really would be revolutionary.

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