Martin Sherman’s one-woman play Rose, which is currently being performed by Maureen Lipman in the West End, has attracted criticism over the years. When Olympia Dukakis delivered the monologue to New York in 2000, there were complaints that it was anti-Israel; these same reservations have been voiced today.
This is because Sherman’s fictional heroine Rose is a Holocaust survivor whose daughter was murdered in the Warsaw ghetto but who when we encounter her (spoiler alert) is mourning the death of a Palestinian girl shot dead by her grandson, a soldier in the IDF.
Such complaints see the play as presenting the Holocaust and the Israeli Palestinian conflict as morally equivalent. Many take this interpretation further. They claim the play perpetuates the antisemitic narrative that Jews kill children.
In my view, this somewhat reductive interpretation of the play extrapolates the Jewish blood libel from the actions of an off-stage character which is a stretch for most people.
More problematically, such criticism has an implied directive attached to it. If a Jew hater might feel vindicated by something in a play, why then it is the duty of Jewish playwrights not to write it. To which I can only reply no, it is not.
If there is a duty to be performed by Jews it is to defend the right of Jewish artists to freely express themselves even if it discomforts some of their fellow Jews. Or especially if it discomforts fellow Jews.
The argument has also been made that Rose as a play and as a character places an intolerable burden on Jews to be morally superior due to the horrors Jewish families endured during the Holocaust. Such a burden is indeed heavy but is such a notion really wrong?
It is undoubtedly a tricky thing to mention the Holocaust and Israel’s policy toward Palestinians in the same work. But the play Rose does not compare the two. Rather it reflects a truth: that Jewish experience combined with the Talmudic tradition of questioning law and authority (even God’s) is the magnetic north that has kept the Jewish moral compass pointing largely in the right direction.
When it veers off is it not inarguable that many Jews call on that experience when responding to moral questions? And is it not right that this process is reflected in art? Would Jewish sensitivity to the plight of refugees be tuned as finely as it is had Jews not been refugees themselves? Is this not what Jews do?
True, it could be said that Lipman’s character Rose is a cypher for Sherman’s opinions. This is a weakness of the play. The more Rose becomes a political mouthpiece with an axe to grind the less convincing and interesting she is as a character. Indeed even Lipman, who has a long record of opposing both antisemitism and anti-Israelism has herself said the play is “further to the left” in its criticism of Israel than she would ever go herself.
On the question of whether Lipman would have been wiser to reject the role it is worth remembering that she is one of many good actors to have played Rose. Indeed her performance follows a relatively recent production starring Janet Suzman. So Rose is unlikely to stop attracting good actors in search of a meaty role any time soon.
Consider though a production of Sherman’s play starring one of the acting profession’s many outspoken critics of Israel. In those circumstances, one might doubt the motive of an actor appearing as Rose in a play that depicts Israel as less than, well rosy. With Lipman we can be sure the motive is all about the acting.