Kathleen Parker
"If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters."
- Ray Bradbury in coda to his novel Fahrenheit 451 [buy book]. On page 20 of the sixth draft of Glyn O'Malley's play-in-progress, "Paradise," is a line that has proved prophetic for this unfairly thwarted playwright: "Point of view is everything." Spoken by one of the play's five characters, that phrase has never been truer than in recent weeks as test audiences and insta-critics have reacted to O'Malley's play before it has been performed or even completed. In January, the play was stopped from being performed for Cincinnati high schools by outraged Muslims who deemed the play pro-Zionist. O'Malley and Ed Stern, producing artistic director of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, which commissioned the play, had invited the Muslims, as well as a Rabbi and a professor of Middle Eastern studies, for a private reading in hopes of inspiring a constructive exchange. What they got were fiery accusations of racism from the Muslims and intimidation sufficient to force cancellation of the high school tour. If the purpose of theater is to engage dialogue, O'Malley might feel gratified by the response. People are talking. The problem is they're not saying much that is true. As Mark Twain observed, a good lie will have traveled halfway around the world while the truth is putting on her boots. Today O'Malley, somewhat shell-shocked by the reaction and subsequent distortions, sits in his Manhattan apartment developing a new work: "The Play About the Play They Couldn't Do in Cincinnati," and wondering whether he hasn't become an accidental actor in some farcical Kafka drama. What he hears and reads about his play these days bears little resemblance to the words he wrote. Or to those I've read. For example, word now circulating is that the play is considered anti-Semitic as well as being pro-Zionist. Quite an accomplishment for any wordsmith, which suggests that O'Malley has written something that, as theater people say, has "landed." He hit a nerve. But "Paradise" is no more anti-Semitic than it is anti-Palestinian. It is true that Bert Goldstein, Playhouse director of education, voluntarily stepped down as director of the play to avoid any impression of bias, but that's the extent of any Semitic correlative. By my reading, the play isn't pro or anti anything. Here's what the play is and isn't. It is about two 17-year-olds growing up in the war-torn settlements. It was inspired by the suicide bombing last year of an 18-year-old Palestinian woman who blew herself up and killed, among others, 17-year-old Israeli Rachel Levy. The two were featured together in news stories because of their proximate ages and in other ways parallel lives. The play is not a documentary. It was not intended to portray the young women as equal victims as they met a violent death, but as having shared similar dreams. The fictional Palestinian girl, Fatima, is clearly named a "murderer"; the Israeli girl, Sarah, is clearly the victim of that murder. But. Even that description oversimplifies the story and what O'Malley was trying to convey. Remember that his audiences were to be high school students with hopes and aspirations similar to those of teenagers elsewhere. Sarah wanted to be a photographer; Fatima wanted to be a writer. O'Malley hoped to humanize the girls so that students might begin to explore new ways of looking at Middle East tensions. "Without dialogue," said O'Malley, "nothing is going to open up." But. Even that is an oversimplification. A 70-minute play with carefully crafted dialogue and artfully choreographed scenes cannot adequately be described in a column. That would be like saying War and Peace [buy book] is about Russia. O'Malley's play needs to be seen, or at least read. My own reading is that the play is emotionally riveting and intellectually challenging. What more does one want from theater? Well, an audience would be nice. On Feb. 18, O'Malley got just that with a public reading at the Cincinnati Playhouse. Some 400 braved the weather to attend, and most reported favorably. The majority of those who wrote comments on index cards urged that the play be finished and produced. Wrote one: "I am a Muslim and I believe that your portrayal of the situation was fair and unbiased." Another said: "As an American Jew . I found the play surprisingly even-handed." Most pointed perhaps was this note: "I would very much like to see this in a play. If we did, at the end, 'Both Sides' should be weeping." In other words, art is not literal nor is it a policy statement. If it makes us stop and think, swear and weep, crash our cymbals and rage against the night - or question our point of view - then art will have done its best work. If only we would let it.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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