Interview with FACTS playwright Arthur Milner

Dates and Venue 7 – 30 November 2014, Thurs - Sun 8pm (except Sundays Nov 16 and 30 2pm matinee) | Jericho Arts Centre

Interviewer Roger Wayne Eberle

A few years after the turn of the century, in the year 2003 to be precise, Canadian playwright Arthur Milner wrote a compelling drama about two policemen intent on solving the murder of an American archaeologist in Israel’s West Bank. Mr. Milner happily answered all of my questions, and went beyond the mere facts to uncover several underlying perspectives.

Although facts, they say, can be easily manipulated, there is nothing manipulative about Milner’s play Facts. Two hard-boiled detectives—one a liberal Israeli and the other a Palestinian—go about the business of detecting until they zero in on a suspect; then the question becomes who will play the role of good cop as they strive to get a confession out of this Zionist settler that both of them come to ‘like’ for the crime.

Don’t get me wrong, there is not really any liking here at all, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, apart from the affinity the audience comes to feel for the two cops, Yossi and Khalid. Danny, the settler, as we shall see is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Arthur Milner

I commented to Milner about how some of the conflict in his play appears to hinge upon the differences between characters who represent long-standing ethnic/religious differences. Then I asked him what there is in his own personal / professional background that he felt most effectively prepared him to write about Yossi and Khalid. Mr. Milner offered the following candid biographical synopsis: “My father was a passionate Zionist and supported Israel’s right wing. I visited Israel many times, several times with him. Writing the liberal Israeli cop (Yossi) came naturally to me. I’ve known characters like that and I’ve watched a lot of Law and Order. But I had almost no experience with Palestinians and less with Israeli settlers. Getting them right, to the extent that I did, took a great deal of research, and I also had various people read the script and incorporated feedback that I received. The settler, for whom I have absolutely no sympathy and who I really can’t understand, was particularly difficult. Still, I had to do what I could to make him reasonably accurate and human: that’s job #1 for writing naturalism.”

Facts involves the device of having two apparently conflicting law-enforcement representatives attempting to solve the murder of a victim whose writings dispute the authenticity of the Old Testament and claim there the Israelis were never in Egypt and that King David never existed. I wondered to what extent Milner feels his play accurately represents the nub of this age-old conflict. His response is revealing: “No one in the play claims —and I certainly don’t claim — that a dispute about the existence or non-existence of the Exodus or King David is ‘the nub of this age-old conflict.’ In fact, Muslims accept Moses and David — and Jesus — as prophets, as the Palestinian cop points out. The Palestinian cop suggests that the archaeologist’s writings might provide a motive for his murderer by a religious and Zionist fanatic, nothing more. And I would not describe it as ‘age-old.’ The conflict goes back to the birth of modern Zionism, about 125 years ago.”

I asked Mr. Milner about the Guardian’s review of the London production of Facts. Critic Michael Billinton commented that the play suggests that the gulf that separates secular and religious Israelis is often as great as that which divides Israelis and Palestinians. Specifically because the liberal Yossi feels such hatred for the fundamentalist Danny that the audience cannot help but question his credentials as a police officer, and these very issues tend also to obscure the fact that the real victims of the West Bank conflict are the 2.6 million Palestinian Arabs who live there. When asked to comment in response to these criticisms, Mr. Milner is explicit: “Yes, I know that review. A Palestinian theatre company based in a refugee camp saw fit to tour Facts, in Arabic translation, to Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel, so presumably they disagreed with Mr. Billington about whether the play turns moderate Jewish Israelis into the “real victims.” Frankly, I think Mr. Billington needed to pay more attention. As for Yossi’s hatred undermining “his credentials as a police officer,” well, of course: at some point it might and he’s close to that point if not over it. In fact he muses several times about leaving Israel altogether.”

My next question hinged upon Milner’s thoughts about the most significant underlying religious and political issues facing Palestinians and Israelis that he might want his play’s audience to take away from any production of Facts. He simply said, “I don’t want to explain the play and, really, I just want people to think about several issues and to pay more attention and maybe read and talk more about it. But I would say a lot of my work focuses on fanaticism. My earlier play on Israel/Palestine is Masada — the site in Palestine where Jewish men who had provoked a hopeless rebellion against the Romans ended up killing their own families.”

Arthur Milner has on occasion been compared with David Hare who once said that human beings are never more interested in questions of faith than when it is in collision with justice. I asked Mr. Milner how his play presents this type of collision and which comes out of it the least unscathed. He said, “I would think faith always, sooner or later, collides with justice, since faith means accepting things as true and/or necessary in the absence of evidence or ethics. I suppose Facts reflects the current situation in which ethics and justice are not in ascendency.”

Having read the play, I found myself pleasantly surprised given the controversial tone at how funny it is in parts, and at the same time I am struck by how good a working relationship the Palestinian detective has with the Israeli detective. The only time the liberal Israeli detective Yossi ever feels uncomfortable is when his Palestinian counterpart Khalid is quoting scripture and asks the Israeli detective to say Yahweh. I asked Milner whether this brush with sacred religious shibboleths was meant (as it certainly appears to this reader) to portray a kind of spiritual checkpoint for these characters? His response was both measured and revealing: “Well, mostly it’s a little joke, the kind of teasing that happens between them. If it means anything more, it’s that even we hard-boiled materialists (in the philosophical sense) can be a little superstitious.”

One of the most hilarious lines of the play comes after Khalid mentions that most modern archeologists find it unlikely that David was never king of Israel and in fact there never was an Israeli kingdom, and Yossi says first: “You’re right. We’ll leave.” A few wonderful beats later after Khalid says, “You’re a liberal Israeli,” Yossi comes out with the explosively funny line, “Until two minutes ago.” Intriguingly enough, the audience is left with the impression that although he is obviously being ironic, Yossi cannot help but feel an affinity for, or an allegiance to long-held Jewish traditions and the sacred texts from which they arise. Milner’s comments on this perspective are bracing: He says, “The Tanach presents itself as history and while atheists Jews have no trouble seeing the Adam and Eve or Noah stories as myth, we’ve all grown up thinking there’s some historical truth to the Exodus and what follows. It doesn’t make us religious; it just makes us wrong.”

The Palestinian is another matter entirely. The same cannot be said of Khalid, who quotes enigmatic and broad verses from the Qur’an, but refuses to commit himself to any beliefs no matter how pointedly his associate questions him (p. 10). I prompted Milner to explain why he let the Moslem detective off so easily when it comes down to an expression of personal religious beliefs. Again, Milner does not disappoint. His explanation makes up for in plausibility and allusiveness what it may lack in terms of depth, which is to say it suggests far more than it reveals: “It’s complicated, and again, I don’t want to get into explaining the play. I’ll just say that you can’t make characters say what they don’t want to say. Yossi is happy to proclaim himself an atheist. That’s the kind of person he is. But Khalid is much more guarded. It’s the situation they’re in, too. Richard Dawkins once said (I’m paraphrasing) that America would elect a black, female or gay president before it elected an atheist. In a recent episode of The Good Wife, our hero is forced to hide her atheism as she pursues public office. So people say, “You have your beliefs, I have mine.”

Halfway through the play, after Yossi tries to get Khalid to be ‘the good cop,’ he goes on to tell him that “a professional puts aside his personal feelings. You fake it. It’s called acting.” I wondered whether some more overt racist people responding to the play might not think that based on Yossi’s subsequent behaviour, that Yossi is a bad actor, and by extension (generalizing as some racists do) all liberal Israelis are ‘bad actors’. Mr. Milner’s response is revealing: “No. My brain doesn’t work like that. And Yossi is a good actor. But confronted with a fanatic who behaves in a rude and racist manner to his colleague, he decides to drop the charade. In any case, the point of the “good cop” is to get the suspect talking. If that’s not working, you try something else. So Yossi’s not out of control. He was a soldier. He knows he has to scare the shit out of Danny to get him to talk. He’s not the first cop in the world to use violence on a suspect.”

I was reminded, when reflecting upon these characters, of Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbi, who said “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” I asked Mr. Milner whether art imitates real life in his play, and whether, as the playwright, he might expect his audience to sympathize more with Khalid or with Yossi. His compelling response puts enigmatic issues of justice and law in high relief as does his play: “I don’t know. People in the audience tend to like both of them. And the disagreement between them in the end — about justice vs. the law — does not have a simple answer.”

At the end of the play, after Yossi describes how he’d go off to Paris if he were to lose his job, Khalid asks him whether this is “your contribution to the Palestinian struggle” and Yossi says, “These people want to go back three thousand years.” Although both Khalid and Yossi go on to agree that “They’re fascists,” Khalid ends up saying almost humorously, “Just so we’re clear, they didn’t take my country. It was people like you. I have to live here. I can’t arrest people because I don’t like them.” I asked Milner whether this humour was intentional, and his response is key to an understanding of these characters: Milner says, “If there’s humour there, it’s absolutely unintentional. He’s dead serious.”

I then asked Milner about the extent to which he speaks through all the characters (some perhaps more stridently than others!) might suggest that you as a playwright have a special disdain for liberal Israelis. When prompted about whether he might care to elaborate upon this speculation, Mr. Milner offered this measured response: “None of me is speaking through Danny. He was very hard to write. But I don’t have a special disdain for liberal Israelis, Khalid’s statement is just historical fact. Up until 1967, there were few Jewish religious fanatics in Palestine/Israel and they were not Zionists. The Zionists tended to be liberal or socialist European Jews. There were also extreme right-wing Zionists, but they, too, were atheists. The Zionists — the people who “took an Arab country and made it a Jewish one” (Moshe Dayan) — were people like Yossi.”

One of perhaps the most intriguing parts of the play is the subtle way Khalid attempts to goad Yossi into retributive justice for those relatives that died at the hands of Goldstein, the radical Zionist mentioned in the play. At least I thought he was goading him. Mr. Milner again puts things in perspective: “It’s a strange (but I suppose possible) reading. Everything Khalid does and says in the play — with the one exception of his goading Yossi to use torture to get a confession out of Danny — shows Khalid to be far more concerned with law than with revenge. So is Khalid serious when he goads Yossi, or is it to teach him?” Intriguing perspective indeed. I could not help but wonder after reflecting upon the play, about how through all this dramatic tension at the end of this thriller of a play, what Milner might really be saying about the chance of “equality of abuse between Jews and Palestinians?” Like all great writers, Milner takes exception to having his words ripped out of context. He closed the interview by tempering his hope with realism: “Well, it’s a good line in context. I’m not looking for equality of abuse, of course — just equality. You know, ‘Do unto others ...’ It’s hard to be optimistic, but I try.”

Arthur Milner’s intriguing and controversial play Facts has been produced six times prior to having arrived at the Jericho Arts Centre: three times in Eastern Canada, once in London, once in Istanbul and once by a Palestinian-Canadian production touring, in Arabic, through the West Bank and Israel. Mr. Milner counts “writing a play about Palestine and travelling with it (and doing talkbacks) as it was performed by and for Palestinians … [as] one of the great adventures and pleasures of [his] life.”

It is this reviewer’s view that this play is causing quite a stir, and that the Andree Karas has made an excellent choice as artistic director to bring this play to Vancouver and an equally excellent choice to have Adam Henderson direct it. I have posed a series of questions which Mr. Milner kindly considered and to which he conscientiously responded. I hope you have found this interview to be both objective, helpful and candid. We certainly look forward to seeing this play performed at the Jericho Arts Centre starting on November 7, and you can expect my review on our website shortly thereafter.

© 2014 Roger Wayne Eberle