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Theatre and politics

Culture Column by Paul O'Brien , May 2009

Paul O'Brien looks at the recent controversies over England People Very Nice and Seven Jewish Children

Twenty years on from the death threats to Salman Rushdie and the public burning of his book The Satanic Verses, there has been a succession of literary and cultural events that highlight the often fraught relationship between culture and politics. The recent furore over Richard Bean's play England People Very Nice and Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children is a case in point.

Written in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Gaza, Seven Jewish Children asks a simple question: what should Jewish parents tell their children about their history? But the answers Churchill provides are far from simple; rather they are complex and contradictory. In this ten-minute play Churchill outlines the rise of anti-Semitism, the pogroms and the Holocaust, and charts the trajectory of Zionism since the foundation of the Israeli state. In both Britain and the US the play has engendered fierce reactions. Churchill has been accused of "an open vilification of the Jewish people" and perpetrating a "blood libel" where Jews revel in the sacrifice and death of others.

In England People Very Nice, which was produced at the National Theatre in London, Richard Bean set out to write "a state of the nation play that points out the xenophobic and intolerant nature of British society". That may be the case, but this was not the view of the Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane. They objected to what they perceived to be a racist portrayal of their community.

In their view, Bean was intent on fanning the ever ready flames of prejudice and the play is "anti-Bangladeshi, anti-Irish and Islamophobic". Bean set himself a difficult task. He created stereotypes and then tried to undercut them with humour and irony.

Whatever his intention, Bean does not carry this off. Irony is hard to do well. It does not work in this play and all we are left with are shallow, and at times racist, caricatures of the local community. Bean dismissed the protests as of little consequence: "The play's sold out for April, so who cares? It's a hit." The problem for Bean is that if you are going to assert the role of the writer as a transformative force in society, you had better have something important to say.

Both of these plays raise questions about how we engage politically with literature and art. What is the balance between an aesthetic response to a work of art and a political one? We are against censorship. However, literature or art does not have to be balanced or fair. It can't be. Any great work exists because its creator had a particular vision of the world and felt compelled to express that vision. How political that vision should be is not fixed; it is a historical question.

There are times when art and literature are forced to ask political questions. The rise of fascism in the 1930s demanded an intellectual response. George Orwell spoke for that generation in his essay "Why I Write": "It is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning." In the 1960s no anti-war demonstration was complete without one of the standing army of poets declaiming from the platform. Today the war in the Middle East, the economic crisis, unemployment and the collapse of the old certainties have elicited a comparable artistic response. At such times there is a fluidity between art and politics that responds to the changes in how we experience the world.

In the past, crude left wing critiques often started with an analysis that defined a work on the basis of its political message. The difficulty with this approach means that we are unable to engage with great writers such as TS Eliot, CS Lewis and Ezra Pound, who were politically on the right. Art and literature have to be judged on their own terms - as works of art. We must start by understanding the artistic value of any piece of writing or art before getting down to the nitty gritty of wrestling with structure and meaning.

England People Very Nice fails principally because it is a poor piece of drama. A better playwright than Richard Bean could have gone beyond racist stereotypes with the same material and developed a more nuanced and complex understanding of the tensions that face immigrants in Britain today.

The Irish writer WB Yeats believed that theatre should be a forum for debate. The Jewish theatre group Theatre J, in Washington, who produced Seven Jewish Children knowing it was controversial, is dedicated to taking its dialogues beyond the stage. It offers an array of innovative public discussion forums which explore the theatrical and social elements of its work. It initiated a debate and opened up its website to different points of view regarding Seven Jewish Children, which included a contribution from Caryl Churchill.

The demand by sections of the Brick Lane community for an open debate on the issues raised in England People Very Nice is one we can identify with, and should have been welcomed by the National Theatre. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose from such an approach.

Comments?

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