Sarah Annes Brown’s lecture notes on Seven Jewish Children

I found the fierce discussions which Seven Jewish Children inspired when it was first produced extremely interesting, and suggested giving a seminar on the play as part of a postgraduate course on modern and postmodern literature. I did wonder whether that was wise, given its controversial subject matter, but in practice the classes seemed to go smoothly, without causing offence, and we’’ve had some very good discussions, particularly focusing on the distribution of lines in the play. Engage has offered to post a link to my lecture notes on the play. I’’ve never given the lecture in its full form, but have used the material here to shape the discussion. Some Engage regulars get a mention and you can view the PDF HERE.

Sarah Annes Brown, Professor of English Literature, Anglia Ruskin University.

9 Responses to “Sarah Annes Brown’s lecture notes on Seven Jewish Children”

  1. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Thank you for this, Sarah. This is excellent; it must be a wonderful starter for a seminar. I can almost see the furrowed brows, all the “yes, buts…”; and the “that’s all very well, but what about…”. It might almost be fun to conduct a session or two with this stimulus. (Actually, I’m envious: I never managed to create a document like this to get my students going.)

    However, one of the problems with 7JC is the univocal nature of it, which makes it even easier to dismiss as a diatribe, rather than a play. Of course plays (or other literary efforts) don’t have to be “balanced” – that’s for the BBC and other news organisations. Nevertheless, what’s missing from 7JC is any sense of debate. I wrote the following (as part of a longer comment) back in March 2009, relating to the original discussion of 7JC: Deborah M. is, for the unaware, Deborah Maccoby, a member of, among other organisations, Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) and, in general, one who takes exception to many of the arguments put forward here on Engage. in this case, to the general response to “Seven Jewish Children”. The comment is edited.

    “Of course, Deborah M. ignores the critical (“critical” as in criticism) fact that good plays often give the best lines to their political opponents. We must all have seen plays…in which the…characters [opposed to the author’s position] are given the best (in literary terms) lines. This happens when the playwright is honest to the text that is writing itself (as many writers note happens). When a _literary_ piece (such as a play or story) is one-sided, it tends to lose its impact.

    For example, in the short play “Dai” (Hebrew for “Enough”), in which the conceit is that a UK tv film crew are interviewing people in a Tel Aviv cafe just before a suicide bomber detonates himself, the best lines explaining/justifying the general Israeli position are given to a woman West Bank settler. It is also clear that the playwright is not in sympathy with her.”

    I must also add that each episode is ended by the sound of an explosion, breaking glass, the fire alarm going off, and the sirens of emergency vehicles…it was the most emotional (in the sense of visceral) experience for me at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe ever.

  2. Sarah AB Says:

    Thanks Brian – it’s confusing enough working out what a play ‘means’ or what its message is (in so far as those are the right questions) when it’s clear who is speaking which lines. 7jC has plenty of potential for allowing us to think that nasty people are speaking ‘nice’ lines (in a deceitful way) and that nice people are speaking ‘nasty’ lines – and so suddenly aren’t so nice after all. It also has the potential to send out very different signals to different constitutencies – I can’t remember if I said this in the lecture but oddly I think the Engage type reading will resemble most that of Israel’s fiercest critics – with those in the middle seeing a ‘fairer’ play??

  3. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    However, Sarah, Caryl Churchill has stated that 7JC was a response, at some level or another, to Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank(?). Given that, as has been commented on (in the “Lincoln” thread below), why is the play 7Jc rather than 7IsraeliC? This tends to create a wholly different response to the play, at least among those who are not in the middle. Had it been labelled 7IC, the reactions might have been very different.

    And it is interesting to note that, now some two years after taking part in the play, one of the actors has changed their stance on it, and become far less enamoured of it. Distance lends disenchantment, maybe. And this actor did not, at the time, see it as in any way carrying or repeating antisemitic tropes, but does now. (None of this is to do other than assert that that the play does carry these tropes, but not that the author is antisemitic.)

    Thus, I am looking at a reading of the play, when the words are not overlaid with the emotional delivery of the actor and/or as requested by the director. As is the actor in question.

  4. zkharya Says:

    Thank you, Sarah. I will have to digest it.

  5. Sarah AB Says:

    Brian – that’s very interesting about the actor. Perhaps I have overstated, incidentally, the tendency for those who are in the middle, or have not given much thought to the issues raised in/by the play, to respond broadly positively to it. It is hard to be sure, as those who comment on the play tend to have views about the issues raised by/in it already.

  6. Mira Vogel Says:

    I enjoyed reading your notes Sarah. I hadn’t been inclined to look at is as anything other than the piece of agit prop from the PSC you mention, nor had I realised that there was a group of people who found it understanding of Jews. I gave the script another look, and some of the productions on youtube, and discovered that there was more space than I’d thought among the self-deluding and the disingenuous Tell Hers to see generations of Jews struggling in impossible situations, and that I had confused the play with the productions.

    I was thinking about your ending:

    “It seems to please strongly pro Palestinian, anti Israel audiences and alienate pro Israel ones. I’d say, tentatively, that neutral audiences often perceive it to be fairly evenhanded. All those points seem to add up to a balanced play – just as the BBC takes comfort from being attacked from right and left.”

    Wouldn’t it have to be disliked by pro- and anti-Israel audiences alike for that to be the case?

    Perhaps the BBC is comforted by outcry from both sides of a controversy alike – but that can only be a good indicator if both sides are equally wrong – and if there is something more at the source of the controversy than insensitive, crass or openly biased writing. I’ve noticed that criticising the acts of the Israeli government towards Palestinians is not a controversial subject if people speak about it the right way. Pro-Palestinian activists manage it all the time – perhaps the reason they go unnoticed is that they take care not to become part of other political agendas.

    I was listening to Jonathan Safran Foer being interviewed about his book Eating Animals at the RSA not too long ago, and was struck by how he responded to a question about a stormy reception to the book. It’s maybe not quite right to compare this work of non-fiction with a play, but in a way they’re comparable because in common with 7JC Eating Animals wasn’t a polemic, was artistic, did have narrative, and at the same time a political act. Distinct from 7JC, its author was attempting to get to the bottom of his topic and so he presented the best arguments for eating animal. To the question about how the book was received he replied that he hadn’t experienced any fallout, only interest: “It’s not a controversial book because it’s not a controversial subject. If you speak about it the right way.” And he wrote a superb book which put animal suffering as a central concern. His advocacy is so astute that the book’s most enthusiastic supporters have been farmers themselves.

    Caryl Churchill decided to advocate for Gazans by turning the spotlight on Jews. She wrote a play about what Jews tell themselves to tell themselves and encouraged its audience to treat it as a political act. And so here we are discussing ourselves – British reactions to the play – instead of the circumstances of contained Palestinians. I’d say the play has failed on its own terms of ‘A play for Gaza’, and this is a curious failure by a seasoned activist and playwright. Now I’m verging on old ground so I’ll stop.

    Suffice to say it was salutory to be reminded by you not to take a play only on its author’s terms.

  7. Sarah AB Says:

    Mira – you are quite right about my point about the BBC – it’s not an accurate analogy. Also – although you say you are verging on old ground – I think your point about the play failing as a ‘play for Gaza’ is one that hasn’t been mentioned enough in criticisms of the play.

  8. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “Suffice to say it was salutory to be reminded by you not to take a play only on its author’s terms.”

    Mira, I don’t think that those who have only read the play and/or (as in my case) have discussed it with a participant in one production are, by any means, doing this. I suspect that Churchill _really_ doesn’t want us to see antisemitic tropes in the play (because she doesn’t think they are there – and if they are, they are there without intent). That doesn’t stop this being a Gary Younge moment (see Absolute Observer towards the end of the “Lincoln…” comments thread below).

  9. Sarah AB Says:

    I agree with Brian’s analysis I think – some people can (in an honest and benign way as far as I can tell) see this as an evenhanded play (I don’t) – but others latch on to the antisemitc tropes and magnify them – eg the publicity material I quote which brings together the Holocaust and OCL, implying an equivalence.

    Although I have sympathy for those who genuinely don’t see a problem with the play (particularly if they haven’t had a chance to engage with a different perspective) I don’t have much time for those who not only dismiss such concerns out of hand but insinuate that those who voice such concerns are insincere or trying to close down criticism of Israel.

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