Practical criticism: reading without prejudice

Practical criticism is a loosely recurring strand of the blog in which we look at the outside world through the eyes of a critic. It's kind of a pun. But today, people, we're going to do old-school prat crit, the like of which I haven't done since college. We're going to look at a text, and decide what it's telling us. We'll look for rhythms and repetitions. We'll parse individual phrases. We may even examine the punctuation.

This might seem a purely academic exercise, if the text weren't Seven Jewish Children, Caryl Churchill's short (10-minute, as staged at the Royal Court this month) play written in response to the situation in Gaza. Short but with a prolonged aftermath of debate and dissent. Most of the discussion has involved people who didn't see the play staged - I'm one of these too. But the play is available for free download (props to the Royal Court and Nick Hern Books), so we can all arm ourselves with the eight pages, and get down to some textual analysis.

Ready? Pencils sharpened? We'll begin after the click.

Actually, this is one of the most problematic aspects of the play: it courts trouble in ways that 'Seven Israeli Children' would not. Churchill's scenes take us through several key moments from the past 70 years: from the Holocaust through to the current conflict in Gaza. Those who are frustrated by the conflation of the terms Jewish and Israeli, or Jewish and Zionist, will be frustrated all over again. The title is bold, possibly reckless.

There's also a subtitle - 'a play for Gaza'. Interesting: not 'about', but 'for'. In a simple sense, the play was indeed written for Gaza - a collection for the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians was taken at each performance, and future productions will be licensed free of charge as long as they make similar collections. But what else might 'for' mean here? It suggests the play is doing something, serving some purpose. Does it aim to arouse compassion, reflection or indignation?

Many commentators seem pretty certain about what the play is saying. But to me it seems far from clear. It consists of a litany of conflicted, often contradictory statements. A note at the beginning of the text refuses to prescribe the number of actors or disposition of lines: it could even, I imagine, be read as a monologue, in which case the uncertainty would be contained within a single character rather than between several.

Each scene refers to a moment of European Jewish or Israel history, and one which seems to require some kind of explanation. The play begins with the adult(s) debating how to persuade a child to hide quietly, presumably from the Nazis. Subsequent scenes implicitly touch on the aftermath of the Holocaust, the foundation and then the early years of the State of Israel, the Six Day's War, the second intifada and the current conflict in Gaza. Each conversation concerns how best to frame events for a child. The first and third scenes hope to get the girl to do something (to hide quietly; to emigrate willingly), but all of the scenes are about how to offer her ways of understanding, of processing the events. And, as the phrase 'Don't frighten her' recurs in several scenes, it might seem that the aim of understanding is for the child not to be frightened.

Every line presents two choices: tell/don't tell. And each of these involves two further options: tell the truth, or an untruth; don't tell a truth or an untruth. Each scene circles rather than resolves: we don't know what 'version' of events will eventually be presented to the child, or how she will accept it. Seven Jewish Children is a play about language - what it can or should do, how it can be used, how rhetoric works in the aftermath or in the vanguard of political events.

At certain moments (for example in the sixth scene, which seems to concern the second intifada), the contradictions come thick and fast: Tell her they want to drive us into the sea / Tell her they don't / Tell her they want to drive us into the sea. / Tell her we kill far more of them / Don't tell her that / Tell her that

'Don't frighten her'
This recurring phrase is one of the text's most striking features, and is also the final line of the play. You notice it on the page, as it's so short, and in performance it would probably be rhythmically significant. And it's one of the play's few suggestions that isn't contradicted - whatever else is disputed, frightening the child is never good. Of course, it's only worth saying if you're in a potentially frightening situation - and it's notable that the phrase occurs six times in the text. Three times in the first two scenes, which deal with the Holocaust and its aftermath; three times in the last two scenes, about the most recent conflict. We can't say that Churchill is drawing an equivalence between the two situations (the language she uses is otherwise very different), but she is clearly asking us to compare them, and wonder how we got from the first to the last. What they certainly have in common is that they might frighten the child.

Why might she be frightened? In the first scene, it's easy to answer: she risks being captured. In the other scenes, it's not so much physical harm (though that is a concern when terrorist activity is involved). The adults worry more about emotional distress. Judging from the lines which precede it, she might be strongly affected by fear of attack; or by full knowledge of what happened to her family during the Holocaust; or, the last line implies, by the vicious denunciation of Hamas and the Palestinians which comes just before. What is truly frightening here is not just a violent situation, but how one explains and responds to it. Is the girl frightened? Is Churchill? Are we? The prominence of this injunction suggests that the play is working through fear far more than anger.

The published text is conspicuously lacking in punctuation. Few of the short printed lines ends with a full stop; none with a comma. There are none of the slashes ('/') that Churchill habitually uses to mark interruptions in her dialogue. The effect is that even the most determined instructions read as indeterminate. Where there are full stops, it's tempting to read them as a resting point, a pause or hesitation, and it's notable that there are numbers of them in the fourth and sixth scenes, the ones in which the speakers are talking about their accommodation with their neighbours. There is one group of lines that does contain full stops and commas, question marks even. These lines are the play's most abrasive.

Responses to the play as staged have read it as unequivocal in condemning Israel. Andrew Haydon's temperate review, for example, concludes '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.' Maybe that's the effect of Dominic Cooke's staging and the choices made in rehearsal (though I imagine that Churchill was also closely involved in the production). But on the page, things seem less clear.

The speech or group of lines that has caused much of the debate is undoubtedly incendiary. In the final scene, it advertises itself to the eye, as its lines run on rather than being printed in fractured isolation. It could be read as one voice - it is certainly without the contradictions and arguments that characterise the rest of the text (even so, as noted above, it is the only section of the play to contain question marks - the speaker(s) may not be as assured as they seem).

The rhetoric is extreme. 'Tell her we're the iron fist now'; 'tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe'; 'tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out'; 'tell her we're better haters'; '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.' These are brutal sentiments, brutally expressed. The play's anger is concentrated here, in the rush of unshakeable, raging energy. But, surely, it's an extreme voice, and not a representative one.

Is it wrong to voice extremity? Are artists no longer allowed to address violent thoughts and speech? Seven Jewish Children admits this belligerent, extreme voice in the final scene - but then retreats from it. 'Don't tell her that,' urges the next line. And the concluding two lines of the play return to the personal: 'Tell her we love her. / Don't frighten her.' That speech is frightening - but the situation is also frightening. Seven Jewish Children strikes me as an anxious, pained play about trying and failing to explain the world; about trying and failing to contain rhetoric; and about being very frightened.

Enough from me. Critics don't usually get space or opportunity to examine the text in such detail, though there's far more one could say. And much that I've missed or mistaken, no doubt. Tell me what you think: and, as our exam papers used to say, remember to show your working...

February 25, 2009 12:55 AM | | Comments (2) |


Thanks for the kind words, Alison. It seemed important to turn down some of the heat around discussion of the play, and to think about it as a piece of writing. Of course, any text (especially one by so spare and exacting a writer as Churchill) represents a series of choices - but as you say, the title is the only one which seems particularly driven by the urge to provoke.

Thanks for that sober and above all accurate analysis, David. That is pretty much exactly how I read the play. Discussing it with a friend last night, I also realised that I read the play not primarily through its political framing (which is, I grant you, perhaps a little odd given the context) but through the framing of the parental voice(s), through which I then read the politics. I guess that cirucumstance of adult voices framing the world for a child is what seemed most real to me in the theatrical imagining here. My friend said that although he didn't believe the play was anti-Semitic, he could see how other Jewish people might think it was. He had some interesting points. I still think it's an intriguing and quite classy piece of writing, if a minor footnote next to other things by Churchill, and I simply cannot see any of the "hatred" apparently imputed to it. Though definitely the title was a mistake...

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on February 25, 2009 12:55 AM.

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