Monday 20 April 2009

Seven Jewish Children

This is a very short - ten minutes only - play by Caryl Churchill. Subtitled a play for Gaza, Seven Jewish Children was written in January 2009 in response to the Israeli aggression against Palestinians in Gaza. First performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 6 February 2009, it has subsequently been performed at many other venues across the world.

Though children feature in the title, there are no children in the play itself. Rather the play is about the responses of adults – parents and other relatives – to the question of what to tell or what not to tell a child. There are seven scenes, each one set in a different period of recent Jewish history. Though the play does not give any specific details of where or when each scene is set, this can be inferred from the dialogue. The first scene is set somewhere in Nazi occupied Europe, and the child is in hiding. The second seems to be set just after the end of the Second World War and features survivors of the Holocaust. In the third scene the Jewish family are about to embark for Palestine, while the fourth scene has them in Palestine discovering that it is not an empty land after all. The fifth scene is the shortest, only six lines and celebrates victory in the Six Day War. The various Intifadas seem be the background to the sixth scene and the final scene is set during the Gaza fighting.

Apart from its intense brevity, Seven Jewish Children is unusual in that the author gives very little in the way of instructions or stage directions. The only qualification is that the characters are different in each small scene as the time and child are different. There is no indication of how many characters there are in each scene, this is left up to the director, as is the number of actors to use. Who the characters are and their background is also for each performance to decide. In the early scenes, 1 – 3, the Jewish family will be European, but from where in Europe? And what socio-economic status to give the family members? Would this make a difference anyway? In the later scenes the family could be Israeli in the sense of having been born there, or the family could be a recent arrival from the USA or Australia or Russia.

Another unusual and very powerful aspect of the play is that each line begins with the words Tell her or Don't. All the lines are short and the repetitive introduction to each line gives a very insistent and staccato like rhythm to the play. Apart from the very short Six Day War scene which is all boasting, the other scenes show elements of doubt and debate about what to do and what to say or not say. This is an example from scene 2, which features Holocaust survivors:

Tell her there were people who hated Jews

Don't tell her

Tell her it's over now

Tell her there are still people who hate Jews

Tell here there are people who love Jews

Don't tell her to think Jews or not Jews

And from the fourth scene where the Jewish family comes to terms with the existence of Palestinians:

Tell her for miles and miles all around they have lands of their own

Tell her again this is our promised land.

Don't tell her they said it was a land without people

Don't tell her I wouldn't have come if I'd known.

Tell her maybe we can share.

Don't tell her that.

All the lines are short, except for an outburst near the end, in which someone gives a longish monologue. (Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe....) This is quite out of keeping with the rest of the play and reads as a ruthless justification for self preservation, as Michael Billington puts it in his review for the Guardian.

However the play does not end with this outburst, but ends with these more considered lines.

Don't tell her that.

Tell her we love her.

Don't frighten her.

This is a play which can be staged in many different ways. A rather unusual and to my mind very restrained performance from Chicago can be seen here. Part 2 can be seen here. The play has of course engendered a lot of controversy from the usual suspects and a very good overview of the play by two Jewish American critics, Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon can be found here. If you want your own copy of the play you can get it free here. Seven Jewish Children can be performed anywhere provided that no admission fee is charged and that a collection is taken at each performance for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).

Tayside for Justice in Palestine hope to put on a performance of the play as our contribution to the commemoration of Al Nakba on 15th May. Al-nakba means "the catastrophe" and throughout the Arab world, the word is used to refer to the devastation of Palestinian society and the dispossession of the Palestinian people resulting from the ethnic cleansing conducted by Zionist forces during 1947-48.

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