conducted by Eckart Voigts
Reading, May 2017; updated 4 June 2019
EV: There has been a clear identity in certain ethnically-inflected theatre movements since the 1960s, yet we think that the situation with Jewish theatre in Britain has been a bit of a ‘hiding in plain sight’ scenario, to quote Nathan Abrams’s recent book on Jewishness in popular culture. And the closer we looked, the more people we found – interesting people, interesting writers, generally thought to be mainstream.
DB: I’d been aware of ethnically Jewish playwrights, as you say, some of them in fact among the most eminent of all post-war British playwrights, but I suppose the big question is, to what extent are those people, or to what extent is their work, influenced or inflected by questions of Jewish identity. I think the answer to that varies a great deal, depending on which figure you’re looking at, and, of course, also depending on how you define these things. Pinter, I think, is in some ways the obvious example, or the starting point, just because you can’t get a more canonical figure: The Nobel Prize winner and someone who is easily regarded as one of the key figures in post-war theatre – you don’t even have to add the qualification ‘British’. Howard Jacobson wrote that the key to understanding Pinter’s plays was the Jewishness, even though it was never explicitly articulated.
EV: You’d probably come up with something like the vague threat of menace, the sense of not belonging, like Davies in the Caretaker (1960), who’s not really at home in this place.
DB: Yes, I think one would have to talk in terms of dislocation, of paranoia, of perhaps cultural and linguistic collision between a sense of authority and power, if you like, on the one hand – and a sense of insecurity and threat on the other hand.
EV: I’ve always thought about Goldberg in Birthday Party (1958).
DB: That’s a very ethnically unequivocal name; it’s hard to imagine coming across someone called Goldberg who would not be Jewish, but, at the same time, the word ‘Jewish’ is never spoken in the play, and his partner is someone who seems to be ethnically Irish.
EV: The Irish is more present, because McCann gets to sing some Irish songs, but Goldberg talks about gefilte fish. I’ve just started reading Shylock Is My Name by Jacobson. For a joint paper on the Shylock-character we sent out a questionnaire to living Jewish playwrights in Britain and asked them about their take on Shylock. We got a response from Tom Stoppard.
DB: Stoppard is a really interesting case because he only discovered his Jewish roots relatively late on in life. So, if one is talking about intentionality, then clearly any Jewishness that one might locate could only be ‘post’ his knowledge, as it were. But, of course, one doesn’t just have to talk in terms of intentionality. One can talk in terms of themes and in terms of wider cultural questions – questions of Jewishness, which can be addressed by writers who are Jewish and writers who are not, and writers who may be and don’t know they are [laughs].
DB: I think Julia Pascal and Diane Samuels are the ones who deal with it most openly, as far as I’m aware, and sometimes Stephen Poliakoff, as well. Those three have at times dealt very explicitly with Jewish themes, much more so, I think, than most of the other names we might be talking about.
EV: Narrative fiction is your field of research, and I’d be very interested in your experience of that field. Having begun to think about the situation of the theatre more recently, do you see differences there? Obviously, narrative literature is a better researched field, with names like Howard Jacobson, who are at the forefront of culture at the moment.
DB: In terms of post-war British-Jewish fiction, there are some important, albeit generally under-rated figures – you’ve got people like Howard’s namesake, Dan Jacobson, and Jenny Diski, who have passed away in recent years, and then you have Howard, Clive Sinclair, Will Self, Gabriel Josopovoci and Linda Grant, all still very much with us, who deal, to different degrees, quite explicitly with questions of Jewish identity and Jewish history. And then you’ve got a younger generation – people like Naomi Alderman, who’s just won the Baileys Prize for a novel that never mentions Jewishness, but whose earlier work is very much immersed in Jewishness. Also, Charlotte Mendelson, David Baddiel. I think that’s the main difference – not necessarily that there are more or more eminent writers of British-Jewish fiction than British-Jewish theatre, but probably the British-Jewish writers of fiction tend to engage more explicitly with Jewishness than the dramatists do.
EV: An immediate answer or explanation would be that, of course, you’d have to have some kind of place to stage the plays that are Jewish.
DB: A lot of these things come down to money, of course, and funding. If you look outside the National Theatre and the RSC, then it’s very much a history that’s bound up with funding and what public funding has been available. British-Jewish theatre, for various reasons, was never going to be a funding priority for the Arts Council, for example, in the way that Black British theatre was. There were clearly deliberate efforts to foster the arts in certain areas, some of which were defined in ethnic terms. The political incentive to fund Black-British theatre or a British-Asian theatre would be very different from an incentive to fund British-Jewish theatre.
EV: Probably because we certainly have them as part of our mainstream.
DB: Precisely, you already have the writers and you don’t have the same issues of integration and discrimination. Yet, of course, antisemitism is still a thing in England, as it is all over the world.
EV: That question cropped up. There are different responses to that. Some people are feeling it immensely and other people we talked to say, ‘maybe it’s a slight undercurrent, but not really a factor in my experience’.
DB: I can’t imagine making a comparison between post-war antisemitism and post-war racism suffered by Black British citizens, for example. That’s not to say antisemitism doesn’t exist, but we’re talking about institutionalised prejudice and discrimination. They are very different situations, so – if you’re thinking in terms of space, of money, and of funding – there are very clear and understandable reasons why there hasn’t been any concerted effort to promote British-Jewish theatre in the way that there has been for other ethnic minorities.
EV: Hytner was a very interesting case, because, obviously, he ran the National Theatre for a very successful decade. It’s interesting to see to what extent he fostered ethnical British-Jewish theatre.
DB: The Mike Leigh play Two Thousand Years (2006) was put on during his tenure, wasn’t it?
EV: A lot of people said it’s antisemitic…
DB: Someone will always say that [laughs]. As soon as you deal with Jewishness in any form, someone somewhere will say it’s antisemitic, and someone somewhere else will probably say it’s right-wing and Zionist, so I think you can’t really win with that one.
EV: That’s what Julia Pascal said about her Shylock Play (2007), for some it wouldn’t go far enough —
DB: Yes, and for some it went too far. That’s probably a good sign you’re getting this right, if you get complaints from both sides.
EV: And I guess Howard Jacobson is similar with his Shylock Is My Name.
DB: One of the things it’s doing is that it provides a reading of the Shakespeare play. Actually, I think some of the stronger pieces of the novel are really unpacking things that go on in the Shakespeare play.
EV: There was one writer who we talked to, Shelley Silas, who has a completely different background to the other people we have talked to who have a predominantly Ashkenazi-background. She was born in Calcutta, in a very tiny Jewish community, and she wrote a play called Calcutta Kosher (2006) about that experience, which is kind of a maverick scenario. It’s very interesting talking to her. She was dealing with her upbringing; the play addressed Calcutta and was produced by the Kali Theatre Company. So, it had this Indian, Anglo-Indian touch, which is probably popular – but there was very little about what it is like to grow up as a British-Jewish person today.
DB: There’s a playwright, Jack Rosenthal, most famous for Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), a television play, which also became a musical – so it has quite an interesting cultural afterlife. I think he began writing for the theatre and then moved into television, and then that became his thing. But he’s someone who did seem to be interested in that sort of contemporary experience in a way that most of the playwrights probably haven’t been.
EV: Stewart Permutt, who is not very well known, had A Dark Night in Dalston staged at the Park Theatre (2017), which was about an orthodox Jew spending a night with an older non-Jewish English woman – different cultural backgrounds, the idea of orthodoxy meeting an unorthodox lifestyle. We interviewed Ryan Craig, his play Filthy Business (2017) deals with the family background and the idea of Jewish matriarch, which is interesting. There are bits and pieces, but that’s also in a way the history of people born between the 1950s and the 1980s.
What role would you say that religion plays in Jewish writing? All of the people we talked to were, of course, non-religious, secular.
DB: That tends to be overwhelmingly the case with fiction writers, as well. There’s the odd exception, but even then, they tend to be people who come from an orthodox background and have moved away from it. That’s what people like myself have written about for some time – about questions of Jewish identity. The term I tend to use is ‘Jewishness’, precisely to distinguish it from any sense that religion is important. Because, actually, for most British-Jewish writers – whether dramatists or novelists or poets – they tend not to be religious. The same is true if you look at American-Jewish writers. It’s the same thing, one or two exceptions, but overwhelmingly literary Jewish authors are secular.
DB: Well, just because authors are secular doesn’t mean that they are not interested in biblical sources – in the bible as literature. Many of the authors I mentioned earlier – Jenny Diski, the Jacobsons, Dan and Howard, for example, have written novels that are rewritings of biblical narratives. But there remains very little literature, I think, written from an orthodox Jewish religious point of view – and I suspect that Diane’s project won’t be an exception.
EV: Michael Billington wrote an article on British-Jewish theatre; he’s recently written about how the European theatre infiltrates the good old English traditions of theatre.
DB: Cultural protectionism. That’s a bit dismaying; I wouldn’t have had him pegged in that sort of camp.
EV: David Hare was particularly dismissive of the term ‘theatre maker’, which is diluting the idea of, ‘This is your playwright, and this is your director. That old model that’s still very much in place in England, but not in Europe.
DB: But it’s a completely artificial distinction to me anyway in British and European theatre. If you think about the history of post-war British theatre, you know the key figures in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Maybe not so much now, but Brecht and Beckett are really European figures. You can’t imagine post-war British theatre, really, without the influence of those two figures. They really were the presiding spirits, I would say, of that era of British theatre. So, you can’t really talk about a kind of set British theatre that is somehow insulated from Europe.
 Clive John Sinclair (1848-2018), one of the most important British post-war novelists, has passed away since the interview was conducted. An obituary that highlights his Jewishness can be found in the Jewish Chronicle, where he served as books editor: https://www.thejc.com/news/obituaries/obituary-clive-sinclair-1.461845
 My formulation here is misleading. Responding to David Hare’s criticism of the way continental directors deal with classics, Michael Billington wrote a piece in The Guardian on how “concept-crazed” directors fail to do justice to classic drama. See Michael Billington: “The National Theatre’s new season is a staggering dereliction of duty.” The Guardian (30 Jan 2017). A good overview of the debate can be found here: Natasha Tripney, “Is Europe ‘infecting’ British theatre culture?” The Stage (16 Feb 2017).
 “Now we’re heading in Britain towards an over-aestheticised European theatre. We’ve got all those people called ‘theatre makers’ – God help us, what a word! – coming in and doing director’s theatre where you camp up classic plays and you cut them and you prune them around. And all that directorial stuff that we’ve managed to keep over on the continent is now coming over and beginning to infect our theatre. And of course if that’s what people want, fine. But I’ll feel less warmth towards the British theatre if that ‘state-of-the-nation’ tradition goes.” Qtd. In Dalya Alberge, “David Hare: classic British drama is ‘being infected’ by radical European staging”, The Observer (29 Jan 2017). See Duska Radosavljevic’s excellent response in “An open letter to David Hare”, Exeunt Magazine (1 Feb 2017) http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/open-letter-david-hare/