I missed this when it popped up last week, but Jeffrey Goldberg’s conversation with theater director Ari Roth, who’s staging a controversial reading of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children here in Washington, is one of the most fascinating conversations about the interplay between art and politics I’ve ever read. At the heart of it is the question: Is there anything to be gained by staging a work of drama that stems from a political (or even perhaps moral) belief system that one personally finds reprehensible?
Goldberg is a brilliant journalist who is exceptionally good at portraying morally complicated scenarios without resorting to oversimplification, but he’s also used to making judgments about the worth and validity of people’s political ideas; his answer is a firm no. Roth, the theater director, accuses Goldberg of being a “journalist who doesn’t love theater” enough, says yes, agreeing that the work is problematic, but also defending it as diasarmingly well written, rich and layered enough to be worth “investigating.” It is a debate, in other words, about whether or not to prioritize aesthetics or political/moral judgments. In life, of course, that’s an easier choice, but in art, it can be difficult to navigate such nuances. I tend to agree with Roth that a rich, well-crafted work deserves a hearing, regardless of its politics.
Yet I also find in my own writing that it can be extremely difficult to engage overtly political drama without resorting to political argument. To use an obvious an extreme example, a movie like Lions for Lambs is as much a (badly thought, simple-minded) political treatise as it is a serious work of drama. Indeed, its politics are so crucial that engaging it as cinema almost seems beside the point. The question becomes even thornier, I think, when engaging with smarter, arguably more layered works like Seven Jewish Children, and I’m not always certain what the right response is — which is why I found the feisty, serious discussion between Goldberg and Roth so fascinating.