Wednesday, October 25, 2006


You can read my review of the National Theatre's production of Tony Kushner's musical Caroline, or Change over at Londonist.

WARNING SPOILER AHEAD: Something I didn't mention over at Londonist, but which I found puzzling and a bit disturbing, was the audience's reaction to the play's climax. Caroline, the Gellman's African-American maid, has been told that she can keep whatever money eight-year-old Noah leaves in the pockets of his dirty laundry. (This is 1963; we are in Louisiana.) Caroline finds this a bit patronizing, but she only earns $30 a week and could use the spare change -- even if it does come from an absent-minded child.

Well, everything goes swimmingly, until Noah leaves his Chanukah money -- $20 from his grandpa -- in his pants. He rushes home, but Caroline has already found it and kept it and is thinking of the Christmas presents she can now buy for her three kids. Upset that Caroline won't give the cash back, he tells her (sings, as this is a musical) that LBJ has invented a Negro-killing bomb and he hopes she dies from it.

Caroline hands the money over. Then she tells Noah that Hell is a fiery, hot place... and it is where Jews go when they die.

It's really a shocking moment in the play. Caroline has been infantilized by her position and has been reduced to scaring a child... all over a little loose change.

But the audience laughed. And then, they applauded. They applauded a grown woman telling a precocious little kid that he was going to hell because he was Jewish.

Eeg. My expat theatre companion, I found out after, was equally put off by this reaction. He wondered if we were just having the "North American reaction" and the rest of the audience was having their "British reaction."

I'm assuming that Kushner wants more of the North American reaction. After all, Caroline has to exorcise her demons after this and regrets the mean, bitter woman she has become.

The laughter is understandable. The "Jews go to hell" bit is set up like a punchline. It is surprising. And, in a way, you're glad to see the whiny brat get his come-uppance, even if you feel guilty afterwards. I do hesitate to ever condemn an audience for having an honest reaction.

But the applauding really did throw me for a whirl...

I'd be curious to know what Kushner thinks... And also what the reaction to this part was like in New York. Anybody see the production there? Am I off base?


jean said...

Did the applause make you uncomfortable because you felt it was an approbation of the anti-Semitic remark? That wasn't my reaction, and being a halfaJew I'm usually quite sensitive about such things.

Anyway, welcome to London; let me know when you need a literary agent.

J. Kelly said...

Maybe I worked at the National Post for too long...
As soon as I finish the first draft of my opus, The Myth of Cause and Effect, I will contact you.
Any tips on London living?

jean said... number one tip is that most people seem to love it initially, hate it two months later, and then fall back in love by the six-month mark. So be prepared.

Otherwise, learn the bus routes.