A new Jewish play called The Retributionists, by Daniel Goldfarb, opens tomorrow. I mention the play in particular because The New York Times had a fascinating article about the play a few weeks ago, called At Ease in His Own Pigeonhole.
In it, Goldfarb talks about the difficulty of being a modern playwright labeled specifically as a Jewish playwright. According to the article, the younger generation (my generation, in fact) of Jews is no longer comfortable with seeing themselves onstage. Jewish culture is no longer a draw for young Jews.
During the Jewish theater conference, I noticed that some of our speakers (among them Israel Horovitz and Donald Margulies) clearly were uncomfortable with classifying themselves as Jewish playwrights. They, too, seemed worried about being pigeonholed, about being assigned to a genre which they could not escape.
Oddly, the playwright most comfortable with the association was Itamar Moses, another in the younger generation of playwrights. Although he did not write specifically Jewish plays, his closing speech embraced the idea that his plays are shaped by Jewish ideas.
I struggle with this question personally, as well. Many of my plays have Jewish themes, though some do not. But do I embrace the genre, if it is a genre? The problem with genres is that, to the uninitiated, they are defined by stereotype. Jewish theater is defined by Fiddler on the Roof or plays about the Holocaust, and anyone writing another sort of drama might well wish to step away.
In some ways, it reminds me of the dilemma that Vonnegut writes about regarding the science fiction genre. Vonnegut resisted being termed a science fiction author. As he said: "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction'... and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."
Personally, I felt in many ways my play Doctors Jane and Alexander would have been more reviewed had it NOT been included in my Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. After all, it was about a Jewish family (my own), but in its themes it could have applied to anyone.
And yet...I stubbornly call my science fiction work science fiction and proudly identify as a Jewish writer. There is a pride in being connected to great works from the past, even as I wince when being connected to work I am less fond of. And truth to tell, much of my work is Jewish. Why play games with wording? I resent the need, if there is a need. My ideas are often based on Jewish ideas. My experiences are the experiences of an American Jew. So my work is Jewish and it is American. Doctors Jane and Alexander is even more than that. It is a science play, it is a documentary play, it is a found text play, it is a family drama, it is a comedy, it is a play with music, it is an autobiography. Why reject any of it? Each is a genre of sorts and each informs the play.
And each is a pigeonhole that limits me some audience member or critic that says - you know, I just don't like that sort of play. And each is a doorway to a fan of the genre. So does it help me or hurt?
I don't know. It is.