The history of the Royal Court theatre is peppered with instances of plays causing impassioned public discussion, and outrage, from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger past Edward Bond’s Saved to Sarah Kane’s Blasted and, more recently, Seven Jewish Children – Caryl Churchill’s playlet of February 2009, responding to the Israeli military strike on Gaza of the previous months.
The latter (an elliptical, distinctly loaded look at how Jewish and Palestinian experience is framed and described) was judged by the Board of Deputies to be “horrifically anti-Israel” and Churchill responded in a national newspaper to the inferred charge of anti-Semitismby the novelist Howard Jacobson. But that furore was far less intense than the one which engulfed the theatre in 1987 with the attempted (and cancelled) staging of Perdition by Jim Allen.
The furore surrounding Perdition – a fictional court-room drama concerning alleged collaboration during the war between the leaders of the Zionist movement in Hungary and the Nazis – was so great that it saw the Royal Court’s then artistic director Max Stafford-Clark withdraw it two days before it was due to open.
That in turn led to three resignations at the theatre, including the former artistic director William Gaskill, who insisted that “the controversial nature of the play demands that it should be given a hearing, at the Court of all theatres, and to prevent this is a form of censorship.”
“Censorship” was also the charge the play’s director, film-maker Ken Loach, levelled at Stafford-Clark, and the pair were never on amicable, speaking terms again.
Why revisit the affair? Because it was referenced amid the uproar surrounding a virtual event part-held on Monday by St Peter’s College, Oxford, in which Loach (an alumnus) talked about his career. The invitation was protested in advance by the Board of Deputies, whose president Marie van der Zyl argued that “Higher education institutions have a duty of care to their students, which must include a zero tolerance policy to antisemitism and those who minimise or deny it.” Accusations of antisemitism have long dogged Loach; in 2017 he was alleged to have legitimised Holocaust denial during a BBC interview, which he later fiercely denied. (“The taint of antisemitism is toxic,” he wrote; in 2018 he added that “To portray myself as anti-Semitic simply because I add my voice to those who denounce the plight of Palestinians is grotesque.”)
After including the College’s statement defending the invitation, the Jewish Chronicle referred to previous accusations of antisemitism made at the film-maker, beginning with Perdition.
Statement on tonight's Ken Loach event: pic.twitter.com/IqUkWtlrr5
— St Peter's College (@SPC_Oxford) February 8, 2021
Allen (1926-1999), a former labourer, fireman and miner from Manchester – a school-leaver at 13, and lifelong socialist - had achieved a measure of success writing TV dramas in the 1960s and 70s. He would go on to write three full-length screen-plays for Loach in the Nineties, culminating in the Spanish Civil War-set Land and Freedom. Perdition was his first stage-play.
It centres on a trial at the High Court of Justice in London in 1967. A Hungarian gynaecologist called Dr Yaron is bringing a case for libel against Ruth Kaplan, an Israeli Jew. The latter has argued that Yaron and other members of the Central Jewish Council in Budapest in 1944 collaborated with Adolf Eichmann in sending half a million Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers. She alleges some Zionists were more concerned with the creation of a post-war Jewish state than with the rescue of fellow Jews.
There are clear points of comparison with the famous real-life case of Rezso Kasztner/ Rudolf Kastner (1906-1957), the Hungarian-Israeli journalist and lawyer who negotiated with Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, to allow more than a thousand Hungarian Jews to leave by train for Switzerland in 1944.
Kasztner, the leader of the Zionist Vaad (or Rescue and Relief Committee) drew up the passenger list, including friends and family. A 1953 pamphlet self-published by freelance-writer Malchiel Gruenwald accused him of Nazi collaboration. The Israeli government sued on Kasztner’s behalf for libel. The judge acquitted Gruenwald on three counts and in his ruling stated that Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil”. The government’s decision to appeal led to internal division and its collapse. Kasztner was assassinated; in 1958, the supreme court of Israel overturned most of the judgement against him.
Allen described his play as “the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written because it touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.”
Dave Rich – author of The Left's Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti‑Semitism - quotes those words in his book and tells me: “There are obviously very complex moral dilemmas to be explored across all of occupied Europe. Allen’s play does not explore those moral dilemmas and all the shades of grey that existed. It has a very black and white ideological purpose."
“The case that it’s based on is an incredibly controversial issue - there are historians that argue Kastner was a hero, some who argue he was a villain, and others are in between. Those historians look at his activities, but Jim Allen takes all that out of context and argues that this is representative of the Zionist movement as a whole - and that is simply not true. The Zionist movement saved huge numbers of Jews, including in Hungary. His purpose is not to contribute to that historical discussion.
“The play argues that there was a deliberate and knowing strategy by the Zionist movement to sacrifice European Jews in return for getting a state of Israel. Morally, in this argument, the people who created the state of Israel were no better than the Nazis and actually collaborated in the Nazis crimes and therefore Israel has no legitimacy.”
As a storm of anger blew around him, Stafford-Clark lamented in a diary entry for January 1987 (reproduced in his 2007 memoir Taking Stock) “This has been the worst week of my life. An artistic director has no business programming a play which in the end he cannot defend.” Revisiting the affair today, more than 30 years on, he remembers it “as an incredibly stressful time”.
“It had seemed an interesting subject. I commissioned a report on the play, which was done by the pro-Zionist historian David Cesarani," he tells me. "The idea was that it would unearth the controversy in advance. It did do that. But I read it and thought: 'This isn’t going to be a bother. This is the Royal Court – we’re used to controversy. It will all pass over.' I had no idea what we were getting into. The mistake was that it was a polemic. It was a simplistic way of handling what was an extremely complicated, tangled, confused and difficult period.”
In a 2004 letter to the Guardian, Loach asserted that “the essential story the play tells - of collaboration of some Zionists with the Nazis in Budapest in 1944 - was not challenged and stands as historical fact. Minute details were rigorously pursued.” Stafford-Clark demurs. “The play was selecting the facts to fit the theory, to tell the story [Allen] wanted to tell.”
According to the journalist Barbara Amiel in 1987, one historian “was able to compile a list of 60 errors” (the script was circulated in advance). The Board of Deputies requested that the play’s programme carry a disclaimer that it was fiction. More vociferous complaints came in advance of the show from other quarters.
He remembers being visited by Dr Stephen Roth, chairman of the Institute of Jewish Affairs. “He was a frail, elderly man. It was a Monday night. He sat in the freezing cold in my office. We talked quite amicably about the play for 10 minutes and he pointed out that the Zionist resistance wasn’t mentioned, the confused situation in Budapest wasn’t mentioned and the number saved wasn’t touched on.”
Loach reportedly told the Workers Revolutionary Party newspaper: "I hadn't tangled with the Zionist lobby before... What is amazing is the strength and organisation and power of their lobby”. Stafford-Clark is adamant the play was withdrawn because the artistic rationale for it evaporated. “It was the wrong decision to do the play and the wrong decision to withdraw the play, but I don’t think there were any right decisions that were available at that point. I don’t think I come well out of it.”
After the cancellation, Stafford-Clark said the theatre did not accept it was anti-Semitic; only that it could cause great distress to “sections of the community”. He reiterates that: “I don’t think Ken is anti-Semitic. The Jewish members of the Royal Court council at the time and the Board of Deputies never made that accusation.”
The actress Tracy-Ann Oberman chooses her words carefully. ‘Perdition is a horrible play. It uses truly horrible racist language above and beyond what’s acceptable to make a political point. It was written as a political weapon." She can remember discussing it as part of her drama course at Manchester University in the late 1980s and can quote from memory a line from the original text (which was cut): 'The road to Golgotha runs along Park Avenue, where rich American Jews hurl tax-deductible donations [to Israel] from their fur-lined dugouts.' That line still haunts me.”
“When you look at that period of history and say there was a collaboration between Zionist Jews to kill their own people in order to establish the state of Israel you are attempting to delegitimise the state of Israel. Allen and Loach lacked understanding of the minutiae’d details of how the Holocaust happened.
In an interview Allen conducted in the mid-1990s, he was quoted as saying “If ever I win the lottery, the first thing I'll do is hire a theatre and put Perdition on.”
Perdition was in fact staged, first for a short run at the Conway Hall in 1988, where it was judged by one critic to be “completely useless” as a play. It was staged at the Gate, Notting Hill in 1999, though Allen was too ill by then to attend the performance. Though some critics gave it some intellectual credence, the phrases that stand out are “an angry, partisan pamphlet” and “a crude, badly acted production”.
Should it come back? Should it be banned? While not calling for the latter, Dave Rich argues: “The play itself had a very clear ideological purpose which was to equate Zionists with Nazis. If people choose to read this play or put it on, they need to know what they’re putting on. They need to be very clear about the nature of this play and the potential impact that it can have.
"I’m reluctant to call for things to be banned, the problem is that people might put it on thinking it has quite edgy and uncomfortable truths. But there’s a difference between uncomfortable truths and things being uncomfortable because they’re not true, and people are claiming they are.”