Against my advice -- and the advice of others -- my friend Ari Roth has decided to stage two readings of Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children" at his Theater J, in Washington. (The first reading is tonight at 8:00 p.m.; the second is tomorrow at 10 p.m.) Given Churchill's strong distaste for all things Israeli and the not-entirely veiled blood libel embedded in the text, Roth's decision to put on a reading has been controversial, but has at least produced a steady stream of publicity for his theater (of which I am generally a fan).
"Seven Jewish Children," (the full text -- it's a quick, if gross, read at eight pages -- is available here) was dismantled by some critics -- "ludicrous and utterly predictable lack of even-handedness" -- and lauded by others -- "heartfelt lamentation for the future generations." I'm in the first camp, in case you couldn't tell. Anyway, Ari asked me if I would come and talk to the audience after the reading, and I said no, but I said I would interview him on his decision to provide Churchill's play with Jewish oxygen. Here's our bizarre and sometimes-entertaining argument on Churchill and theater and Jews.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, tell me why I'm wrong.
Ari Roth: Well, let me ask you, do you think you're still right?
JG: I read the play five times. It reads like anti-Jewish agitprop to me. I see it as a short polemic directed against one party in a complicated conflict. Take the line, "The world hates us, tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, 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." I mean, I think she moves from the traditional smug, self-righteous European morally superior stance --
AR: When you say she starts, she doesn't start there --
JG: No, no, no, let me finish my sentence. I think she moves into an area that she has to know has this very, very terrible historic resonance. It's associating Jews with the spilling of innocent blood. She knows what that means and I think it kind of feeds into, obviously, the very worst and most dangerous stereotypes about Jews. How they revel in non-Jewish blood.
AR: I totally agree with you. I mean, I'm on the watch for this as well --
JG: Then why are you putting it on?
AR: I wrote in the Washington Post and the Washington Jewish Week when the Royal Shakespeare company came over with their Canterbury Tales two years ago and included The Prioress's Tale and they brought, in order to make it pungent and fresh again, they did this re-enactment of essentially a blood libel, a young boy was slaughtered by Jews and buried under the floorboards, and all the Jews wore hook-noses. This was very primitive and I blasted it. They wanted to make it fresh, they wanted to elicit outrage, they didn't contextualize, they didn't -- they wanted to surprise the shit out of people and surprise they did.
JG: Let's start at the beginning --
AR: One other thing, can you be available one of those nights? I want to give voice to a critic.
JG: I'm not going to validate it by arguing against it.
AR: Validate what? The play?
JG: What am I going to do, debate every hater?
AR: No offense, you're a critic who went out in public and said something strong about the --
JG: I don't want to treat this as a serious piece of art worthy of argument. I want to argue against what I think is a grotesquely unfair.
AR: I wouldn't be doing this if I thought it was as bad as you do.
JG: I hope not.
AR: But then I think you should be open to the possibility that it's not as bad as you think. And the fact that some of this piece is incredibly deft in accurately overhearing the trauma that the Jews felt, you know, way back when. When they were hiding a child in the closet. I mean there's tremendous accuracy --
JG: Hold on, are you equating what happened to Jews in WWII to what happens to Palestinians children at the hands of Jews now?
AR: Okay, I'm going to speak like a valley boy: dude, I didn't say that. You know I didn't say that. And you didn't even say that because that's a dumb thing to say. That is not what it says and, in fact, that's a very convenient and easy conflation. Does she mean to suggest that people who are once under siege themselves are now laying siege? Is she creating a compressed historical irony like that? That's a question. There are a lot of questions here. But is she saying what you just said to me? I would say absolutely not.
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 --
JG: 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?
JG: Why? Why bother?
AR: Why do you do symposiums on Shylock? Why have we done two different pieces on Shylock? Because we want to make love with that character? Because we think it's the greatest comedy William Shakespeare ever wrote? It's not a particularly good play. Why is it of interest to Jews to decode and demystify and see into what --
JG: Decoding Shakespeare is one thing --
AR: How many better playwrights are there than Caryl Churchill living today?
JG: Okay, seven.
AR: Harold Pinter had lunatic left-wing politics too.
JG: He wasted the last years of his life writing shitty poetry about George Bush.
AR: When I read this play, I knew it was both pernicious and that there was something really strong and right about it, too. And I'm investigating the hell out of it, artistically. And I think it doesn't lend itself to journalistic drive-bys --
JG: I'm not driving by. Caryl Churchill wrote the drive-by. This is a drive-by shooting of a play. I mean, if she really wants to grapple with the complexity of the situation --
AR: -- Write a full-length play.
JG: -- then grapple with the complexity! There's no story in human history that is as simple as the story she presents.
AR: You may be entirely right. This form may be a kind of bastard form -- in ten minutes to tell the history of a people in the 20th century.