“The Promise” – a play about the Balfour Declaration (28 cents)

The third play reading in Theater J’s “Voices from a Changing Middle East” festival was “The Promise” by British playwright Ben Brown. The promise in “The Promise” is the 1917 Balfour Declaration’s statement that the British government would support a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

During World War I, Palestine, along with the rest of the Ottoman Empire, was clearly in play, with the British and French being the proponents of strengthening their own national interests in the area, leading to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. (Of course, the Germans were lurking in the background, as the war was still ongoing, and if Germany and its allies, including the Ottomans, had won, everything in the 20th century would have turned out differently.) The Sykes-Picot Treaty, which in basic terms, allowed France to influence what is now Syria and Lebanon, and Britain influencing what is now Iraq and Jordan and part of Israel, and international control over what is now central Israel, including Jerusalem.

You would expect that the Sykes-Picot Treaty would cause a lot of controversy. It did not, but only because it was a secret agreement, withheld from the general public. Separate from Sykes-Picot, within the British establishment there were many different views as to how this part of the middle east should be handled. The British foreign service had many Arabists, who following in the tradition of T.E. Lawrence, were all for the creation of a variety of individual Arab states, operating of course under British influence. But at the same time, in 1917, in large part based upon the lobbying of world class chemist, Chaim Weitzman, Foreign Secretary (and former prime minister) Arthur Balfour, with the approval of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, issued what has become known as the Balfour Declaration, promising that Britain would support the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people within Palestine.

This was not a secret document, and did cause a lot of consternation, especially as the British had made a number of clearly contrary pledges, mostly secret, to various Arab leaders.

“The Promise” tells the story of how the Balfour Declaration came about. focusing on the debates within the British War Cabinet, during the last years of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, and the early years of the Lloyd George era. The participants in these debates include, besides the two prime ministers, Herbert Samuel (Jewish and pro-Zionist), Edwin Montagu (Jewish, a cousin of Samuel, and fervently anti-Zionist), Lord Curzon (anti-Zionist), Alfred Milner (who voted for the declaration) and, of course, Balfour. Interspersed with these debates is a separate, but connected, domestic plot, focusing on Venetia Stanley, a young woman with whom PM Asquith was madly in love, but who married Edwin Montagu (and converted to Judaism), although she may not have been in love with him. The marriage resulted in Montagu being dismissed from the War Cabinet, which may have influenced the tenor of discussions amongst that small group of men.

It was a very complicated time in the world (isn’t it always?) – with a war going on, Europe in ruins, the middle east in turmoil, and the future uncertain. The French and the English, allied in war but personally antagonistic to each other, were each playing their own games, looking for leverage in the post-war world to come. It is hard to make it all make sense within the confines of a two act play. Even if you have many of the main characters represented, even if you give their lines historical accuracy, you still have to leave out a lot, you are still presenting something with insufficient context. All the more so, when you have these historical discussions share the stage with the love life of Venetia Stanley.

There was an interesting talk back after the play. All audience members who spoke expressed reservations (and similar reservations) about the play, contrasting it with the first two in the Theater J series, “Argentina” and “The Train to Damascus”, also historical plays, but seemingly much stronger. Someone suggested that “The Promise” might have a more receptive audience in Britain, where the audience (and, I would add, the actors) would have more familiarity with the characters, and perhaps with the events in question. This might be exactly so, as I read through six reviews this morning of “The Promise”, which premiered on year ago in a small London (off-off-West End?) theater. Four of the six reviews were quite positive; two were less so. But, like we in Washington, the reviewers seemed to feel that the admixing of the historical and the domestic was not the best idea. The more positive reviews seemed to concentrate on the Balfour Declaration negotiations as the main focus of the play, with Venetia Stanley being pushed off as a mild diversion. The less positive said, as did I in the talk back, that it seemed to be plays combined into one, and that it really did not work. All seemed to give much credit to the actors and their portrayal of the historical characters.

Talking it over with my wife on the way home, she came up with what might be the best idea for the playwright. Perhaps he should divide his play into two plays, to be treated as a diptych, the first play being the story of the adoption of the Balfour Declaration, and the second (to be done the same day, perhaps) to be the back-story, i.e., the story of Venetia Stanley and her interaction with many of the characters involved in the discussions of Palestine. This way, you could watch the political events unfold without the interruptions involving Venetia’s circle, and then you could see the events revolving around Venetia Stanley, being already familiar with the political intrigues, and watch how one would interface with the other. There would also be an element of surprise here – the viewing of the Balfour Declaration discussions would give the audience no hint of the back story, while the subsequent viewing of the back story would add a hitherto hidden perspective, casting an interesting light on what the viewer had just seen, and showing how clueless one can be to the real story of why things often proceed the way they do.

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