Prophecies Are For Violating

By David Swanson

I wrote a review of Karen Malpede’s new play “Prophecy” when I had only read but not yet seen it. Karen read the review and invited me to lead the first in a series of talk-back discussions following performances in New York, and I did so on Wednesday. For that incredible privilege I’m glad I wrote that early review, but I’m sorry it was so insufficient as an attempt to convey the intensity of the phenomenon that is “Prophecy.”

“Prophecy” should certainly be read (and the book, available in the UK, will soon be published in the US), but it must be seen. This play has, in fact, received the highest praise everywhere it’s been presented in this country and the UK, and has nonetheless been refused by the theaters that have praised it. The UK run, and success there, was necessary before any theater in New York would permit a performance, and now a run of three weeks has been selling out — yet extending the run is forbidden. Why? I heard nothing but passionate praise and gratitude from members of the audience on Wednesday. When a bunch of us went out afterwards, the conversation centered on how we could get the play more widely seen and how that could change our world.

But we were a self-selected group of people who had chosen to attend a performance that we knew was anti-war. We were not just representatives of that majority of Americans who tell pollsters they want the current wars ended. We were people who feel compelled to work for that end. Others who have seen the play and praised it have not been peace activists, and they have not stood up for an artistic masterpiece in the face of what they’ve claimed have been angry Emails. You see, the play, while it focuses on the lives of eight people, inevitably leaves you with the understanding that there is something horribly and outrageously evil about U.S. foreign policy, and even worse: Israeli foreign policy.

The play is set in the early fall of 2006 in New York City, but includes flashbacks to earlier decades, and also includes a scene in which one character is speaking by telephone from Beirut. The eight characters are played by five actors, with one young woman masterfully playing three very different roles. The play reveals itself slowly, in the sense that later scenes give earlier scenes new meaning. While I found the performance overwhelmingly powerful despite (or even because of) having read the script, I don’t think I should impose any knowledge on you that could interfere with your seeing the play fresh.

So let me just say this: Multiple wars explode into the characters lives from the past, present, and future. The lives and relationships are not otherwise untroubled (knowing the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar enriches the play), but it is impossible to separate the characters’ personal troubles from the wars that have impacted them. Among the characters are victims, participants, opponents, and avoiders of war, and they come from a variety of backgrounds. You are likely to relate to at least some of them in the sense of having met people and known people they resemble. But a prominent theme in the play is the need to look at things from the other people’s points of view. And this is contrasted subtly with the dehumanization of enemies that takes place in war.

It’s easy to ask how we would approach the occupation of Afghanistan or Iraq if we were the ones occupied. Would we want the occupation ended slowly and “responsibly” if we were the occupied instead of the occupiers? It’s easy to question the New York Times story printed on Wednesday’s front page that explained how humanitarian aid workers are something “Israel sees as a serious and growing threat.” It is not easy to feel the soul-crushing pain our short-sightedness inflicts on people we feel we know and care for.

Tragedy often involves prophecy and the playing out of events understood to be inevitable, but of course war — even if it seems to repeat itself each generation — is something we could very easily put an end to. That fact makes it all the more horrifying to realize that we can with great certainty prophesy the creation of hundreds of thousands of unnecessarily traumatized lives if we do not act. “Prophecy” is a play that shows us and pulls us into what we need to know, and yet leaves us with a crystal clear understanding that we are not expected to merely feel worse about what we are allowing to occur. Our responsibility is to render false the prophecy that foresees ongoing war forever and always.

One tool we have at our disposal is “Prophecy.” We need to find a way to have this play performed, including in Washington, D.C., with congress members invited to attend. There are no sound bytes or caricatures here for them to work with, only people struggling to survive the policies so routinely enacted and re-enacted by our representatives.

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