Thoughts on writer’s envy, Iran, Israel/Palestine and the u.s.p. of playwriting…

There are times, particularly when I am ‘between’ plays, that I suffer from ‘novelist-envy’. Although the journey of a play from conception to production is likely to take a year at minimum, the physical act of writing a draft – not including the tortuous re-writing phase – may only take weeks. And it is this that I am addicted to, the writing process. Once a play is done and before I can move on to the next I suffer from writing withdrawal. Which is when my novelist fantasy kicks in. How satisfying, I imagine, to be engaged in a piece of writing that lasts years rather than weeks or months. To wake up each morning knowing that this story is still waiting for you, that if stuck, your can write yourself into the next section with some leisurely prose, can indulge yourself in lengthy descriptions of people and their interior thoughts, of places, and moods and sensory experiences. And, most blessed of all, can take your time over it. This is you and your characters locked into an ever-deepening relationship for a goodly span of years. No need therefore to sit hunched and tense over your laptop for eight, ten, twelve hours at a time. A few hours every morning will do, with perhaps a couple more before supper with a glass of wine, if you feel up to it. And if you are Graham Greene not even that. He measured his daily output in words, not hours – 500 and it’s pens down and off to Antibes for cocktails before lunch with chums on the Riviera. Ah, this is surely the writer’s life I should be leading!

And yet, and yet… would I be able to carry this off, endowed as I am with work-ethic genes from my Lutheran forebears, and guilt genes from my Jewish forebears, not to mention the curse of a social conscience and a fatal attraction to the world’s ills.

Which brings me to Iran and its recent election debacle. With the current clampdown on opposition supporters and the secret arrests and detention of hundreds, if not more, of its citizens I am strongly reminded of the horrifying stories of summary imprisonment, forced confession and torture that I heard from my Iranian writing clients at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in the mid-90s. One in particular found its way into my play Crocodile Seeking Refuge, that of ‘Parvaneh’, a young woman who was horribly tortured before being sentenced to death in 1982 for her civil rights and women’s rights activism and whose execution was only commuted after the repeated intervention of her family. The notorious Evin prison, where many Iranian citizens are now finding themselves, was just one of the jails in which she passed ten years of her young life, and from which she emerged with her hair turned entirely white, and with scars that were mental as much as physical. She, like so many of her fellow exiles, is now flooded with anxieties for her fellow countrymen and fears that the opportunity for political change may have now passed, and retribution will continue for dissident citizens. Stories like hers are almost unknown to the British general public, which was why she wrote a book about her experience and why I felt compelled to include a story like hers in the repertoire of iceandfire’s early work. The fact that such stories are not over bears out the need to disseminate them as a means of understanding what are the forces at work in countries like Iran.

There is a link here also with my most recent play, Welcome to Ramallah, co-written with Adah Kay and set against the Israel/Palestine conflict. The reinforced image of Iran as the West’s key bogey figure is hugely convenient for the Israeli government for whom Iran has in recent years been a major propaganda tool. By inviting Western democracies to align itself with Israel in the war against terror (a.k.a. Iran) it seeks to muddy the waters over its own terror of a subject population, thwarting Western attempts to put Israel under moral and financial pressure to bring to an end its 41 year occupation. Good to see the beginning of an Obama wind of change this week with American pressure brought to bear for the first time to prevent thousands of demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, which were due to make way for new settlements of the Jewish population – even if this does leave 6,000 of these homes still targeted for demolition according to Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

On a micro-scale Obama’s regime may also herald a wind of change as regards the fortunes of Welcome to Ramallah in the USA. Artistic directors in regional theatres in the U.S. have been nervous of producing iceandfire’s latest play less it threaten their funding from what they imagine to be their largely pro-Israel-benefactors. A badge of courage therefore goes to the fiercely independent Compass Theatre in San Diego, who are building this year’s Resilience of the Spirit Festival around our play.

The subject of my next play is assisted suicide – or assisted dying as Sarah Wootton of the UK charity Dignity in Dying so eloquently described it in her recent cogent Guardian article. The writing is now underway, so I can put on hold my novelist fantasies – for a while at least. Instead I can rejoice in the unique power of theatre as a visceral experience, as a dynamic medium that refuses to be sealed behind the covers of a book but is open to revisions throughout its life and as a peculiar blend of entertainment and public speaking that I unashamedly embrace.

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