July, 2003
How to Eat Yourself
by Russell Reich

Excerpts from the following essay appeared in the September issue of American Theatre magazine.

"You can't eat yourself," said Peter Jeffries, the late British actor and member of The Royal Shakespeare Company. He was departing momentarily from the day's acting lesson to reveal a private observation: "You can start with a hand or foot, maybe make it up to your knee or just past a shoulder, but inevitably, attempting to eat yourself is necessarily a self-limiting endeavor. It probably won't kill you."

I can't recall sixteen years later why he said this to our class, but it seemed like sound reasoning to me at the time. Now, however, the American theatre may yet prove my teacher wrong. At least, what may be true of the human body may not be true of cultural institutions or even whole art forms; "On The Road to Palestine" in the July/August issue of AMERICAN THEATRE demonstrates that perhaps the theatre can eat itself.

It can happen when theatre artists espouse a perspective that (however unified and justified it may seem amongst themselves) selectively omits evidence and historical facts, and neglects many of the responsibilities inherent in a mature, effective, and dramatically valid examination. When the public and our potential audience perceives these deficits, I fear the long-term impact on theatre can only be detrimental.

Six American playwrights--Kia Corthron, Tony Kushner, Robert O'Hara, Lisa Schlessinger, Betty Shamieh, and Naomi Wallace--traveled to the Palestinian territories for seven days. Their stated purpose, in part, was "...to see for ourselves...that the sporadic, lopsided glimpses into Palestinian life...were neither trustworthy nor sufficient to the task of trying to comprehend...the appalling suffering endured by both sides--but especially, and for many long decades, by the Palestinians."

In proclaiming a commitment to fairness for the Palestinians, fairness was the first thing the playwrights threw out the window. (Why, for instance, the a priori assumption of "lopsided glimpses," or that the Palestinians have "especially" endured appalling suffering compared to others?) Too conveniently, the playwrights' experience--as related in the essays each wrote--proved their hypothesis and supported their preconceptions with perfect symmetry; the playwrights found everything they were looking for and nothing they weren't. Remarkable! Not a word of dissent or discovery. Has this ever happened before? After all, we're talking about six artists.

In any case, a unified response to a given circumstance does not indicate clarity of understanding. One suspects the playwrights were aiming to create the monolithic impression that, of course, all correct thinking theatre artists think as they do. Thankfully, we don't. Their approach certainly doesn't exhibit the depth of perception or subtly of consideration appropriate to the complexities of the situation...or to the standards of good art.

For example, from an artistic standpoint, their focus on suffering children presents a powerful emotional trigger, but why no questioning of the wisdom of seeking the opinion of children as an analytical tool? They're children, after all. Why no deeper exploration, one that asks how strapping bombs to these children, and using them as human missiles against other innocents, contributes to their suffering?

Why might the playwrights omit this?

Why no mention of the hate-filled and historically revisionist textbooks from which Palestinian children learn, the propaganda to which the children are exposed, and the murderous "heroes" and "martyrs" they're taught to emulate?

Why the omission of facts about the wider conflict: the declarations by Arab officials that their opposition to Israel will not end until every Jew is gone from the land, the repeated Arab rejections of offers for statehood, the historic efforts to "drive the Jews into the sea," the blood libels? Aren't such elements of conflict at the heart of dramatic inquiry? Yet these artists don't seem interested. Why?

There's a palpable absence of completeness, distinction, or facts in "On The Road to Palestine." Still, around which shared values might the theatre-going audience understand what is driving the writers' perspective? If not on facts, on what basis might the audience relate to the playwright's argument?

Maybe the playwrights see promoting a sense of balance as their primary commitment, yet they make no attempt to examine any viewpoints contrary to their own preconceptions. Perhaps their concern is for innocent victims, but they apply such concern to only one side of the conflict. Maybe they want to be seen as advocates for victims and not victimizers, but they easily make distinctions between victimized Palestinians and victimizing Israelis, and never between Palestinians who want peace and those who don't.

What other foundational values might be animating the playwrights' discussion? The advocacy of non-violence? Equal rights for women and others? Literacy and education? Democratic institutions? An impartial judiciary? Freedom from tyranny? Anyone who truly believes in such causes would certainly find aspects of Palestinian society at least questionable, yet such questions are never raised.

The kinship these playwrights feel for the Palestinian cause must be based on something to which all these other values are apparently sacrificed, but what is it?

It is this: The playwrights' behavior arises out of their sense of an artist's role in exposing what might lie beneath the surface of conventional thinking. They champion the presumed underdog and implore us to think beyond a narrow perspective. As they do so, they model for the rest of us what they think is proper artistic behavior. But these playwrights are also taking this singular feature of artistic virtue to an inappropriate, even dangerous extreme. They're jumping immediately and unhesitatingly to the opposing side of whatever the strongest elements of society view as true. For these six, contrariety and iconoclasm alone lie at the pinnacle of artistic and moral endeavor. They think that as long as they're sticking their collective finger in society's eye, they're not only fulfilling their highest calling, they're fulfilling the only necessity for artistic legitmacy.

Their method is as arrogant and disturbing as it is incomplete. A fuller approach--a 360 degree view of the entire landscape--that more responsibly represents character, complexity, conflict, stated and implicit objectives, and the sources of resistance to those objectives--would have revealed not only the expected, but also quite possibly the dramatic and unexpected.

Imagine what deeper understanding might have emerged had the strong been revealed to be other than evil, the weak other than good, the voice of protest other than virtuous. But these assumptions went unquestioned and we are all the poorer for it, especially since the richer evidence is there. Examine a map. See the tiny sliver of Israel, the rough equivalent of New Jersey, surrounded by enormous expanses of largely uninhabited and hostile Arab territory. Yet Israel remains the target of Arab conquest. Why? Delve into the history of the word "Palestinian" and discover its origins in an ancient Roman insult to the Jews: erasing the land of Judea and naming it instead for the Jews' enemies, the Philistines. The "Palestinian" Arabs have co-opted the term only recently to continue the insult and form a false impression of more ancient ties to the land than they could otherwise claim. The Palestinians are the world's largest and oldest refugee population? Only if one applies the U.N.'s highly politicized multi-generational definition of the word "refugee" that is commonly applied to no one else on the planet, thereby assuring the Palestinians continual and unique victim status.

Yes, the Palestinians suffer in appalling poverty, which we should indeed all care about. But rather than acting as advocates for a particular self-serving perspective, isn't the artists' higher calling to aim at the truth? The six playwrights could have explored fully, but instead chose an easier path, one that infantalizes the Palestinians rather than holding them responsible for their actions.

Iconoclasts seek the label of courage--the recognition due them by taking seemingly compassionate, unpopular, and risky positions--but their risk-taking obstructs a truer understanding of the wider conflict. With the absence of any more substantial underlying values, their actions appear to be self-promoting devotions to the benefits that accrue from iconoclasm itself, however wrongheaded its means and ends might be; with no regard to what might be demonstrated through evidence, facts, and historical knowledge; and with no regard for logical consequences.

By virtue of their skills and talents as dramatists, playwrights are in a position to influence, to move, to spur to feeling and action and thought. Yet the potential for the misapplication of talent remains. When we abdicate our responsibilities as artists--and fail to question our right to impregnate our audience with a deeper understanding of the world and of human behavior--our audiences might well be justified in ignoring or even fearing us, and equating us with their fear of terror itself.

Only through seeing a reflection of themselves can our audience relate to the creations we artists provide. Yet when artists legitimize terror and its supporters by arguing for the sincerity of those who are blowing people up, the only image the audience is likely to see is of artists who gaze at themselves in the mirror, along with behaviors that suggest self-justifying and self-promoting political posturing.

Was the approach taken by these six playwrights a responsible and fair examination, one of hopeful artistic endeavor? Perhaps it was an attempted fulfillment of Brecht's dictum that "art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." If so, what is the nature of the reality the playwrights are trying to shape? Is their iconoclasm close to that of, say, the civil rights advocates of '60s America, or are they closer to the original Eikonoklasts of the Middle Ages? Named from the Greek terms for "image breakers," the Eikonoklasts destroyed countless works of art in opposition to religious freedom. And now these playwrights come dangerously close to unquestioning alignment with those who seek to destroy our society and its foundational values. Why should the audience be listening?

Mr. Reich, a writer and creative director, is the coauthor of "Notes on Directing" (RCR Creative Press, 2003, www.notesondirecting.com).