The Children’s Republic

by HRM on December 12, 2011

by Harriet Alida Lye

The Children's Republic

The Children’s Republic, Canadian playwright Hannah Moskovitch’s brilliant new play currently on at the Tarragon Theatre, starts with an important deception. The scene is dark, the walls are black paper, and there is white powdered chalk spelling out WARSAW 1942 on the ground. The lights open on a crying boy. He is on the streets, sobbing sincerely, begging for money to replace that which he’s lost – his father’s, he says. The hems of his trousers have been let down, his face is shadowy. A well-dressed man approaches, takes off his hat and swiftly calls the boy on his ‘act’. “This, this asking for people to give you money back for your father’s, this works for you? Your father is dead, right?”

The boy is silenced. The boy follows the man. His father is dead, it’s true; the boy is an orphan. We learn the man is Janus Korczak (Peter Hutt) and he is taking the boy, Israel (Mark Correia), to his orphanage.

The character of Korczak is based on a real person, someone who did command great authority and great respect. A famous Jewish-Polish author and pediatrician, he was instrumental in advocating for and drafting up the Declaration of Children’s Rights. The Declaration he envisaged — not a plea for good will but a demand for action — was left uncompleted at the time of his death. He founded an orphanage in the centre of Warsaw and ran it from 1912 to 1942. The orphanage operated as a sort of republic: children were given their own small parliament, court and newspaper. In 1942 it became agglomerated in the Warsaw ghetto and, in August of that year, was closed down by the Nazis.

The Children's Republic

“We wanted to make a play that Korczak himself would have come to,” explained Moskovitch in an interview after the show, looking directly at me with a calm, unwavering gaze. “We wanted to make something where the children would be at the centre of it.”

The magic of The Children’s Republic takes a while to envelop you but as soon as it does, about ten minutes in, the story is riveting, all-consuming, heart-breaking. Under Alisa Palmer’s strong direction, the actors – three adults and four children – created a real and beautiful and tragic world, and I was utterly hypnotized.

At first, I must admit, I was mildly irritated by the children in this play. This was a problem, of course, for the children are at the heart of it all. My date agreed – we found ourselves judging what seemed like caricatures of archetypes: Mettye, the bossy, lispy girl (Katie Francis Cohen); Misha, the timid, trembling boy (Elliott Larson); Israel, the dark and rangy criminal-type; and Sara (Emma Burke-Kleinman), the taciturn violin prodigy. Then, I realized that children are just sometimes annoying. The way they sing the same dumb song over and over, the way they don’t talk when you want them to and won’t shut up when they should. The way they are trying hard to be themselves but are also trying to figure out what that self is. The children in this Republic feel betrayal and defiance, pride and fear, hatred and love. Often all at once. There was one moment when Mettye looked piercingly at the audience and her face had the fullness and depth of expression of a Balthus painting. The “essence of teen-age” is there: in real life, the actors range in age from 13 to 15.

Balthus - Thérèse Dreaming (1938)

Balthus - Thérèse Dreaming (1938)

“It was important that the roles of children be played by actual children,” Hannah Moskovitch told me, “because we wanted the play to formally do what the story describes. We wanted it to be an instrument of empowerment for children.” In order to make the lines feel realistic, Moskovitch rewrote the dialogue constantly, up until days before the dress rehearsal, listening closely to the children’s natural speech patterns and trying to imitate them to create natural dialogue.

The theme of freedom and entrapment is woven deftly throughout the script. Early on, Mettye says to Korczak “I think my bird likes its cage.” Later, he explains that the bird is wild. “It can’t belong to you, Mettye.” Reluctantly, she opens the cage, and with the sound of flapping wings we follow this sound-bird to its freedom.

The first half of the play ends with a fight: Israel, who follows no person’s rules, has broken Misha’s leg, knowing that Misha has rickets so his bones are very fragile. Misha lies crying on the ground, Israel runs away, and Mettye, having just been told by Israel that he “likes” her (yes, readers: he “like likes” her) runs in to to say that the radio announced that the Germans have invaded. I didn’t know what I cared about more: that poor Misha was laying there, wailing with a broken leg and Israel had ruptured the temporary beautiful calm in the orphanage, or that the Nazis had invaded Poland.

When the black paper walls are ripped to reveal the barbed wire and the scene closes in on itself, the bonds between the children only get stronger. They joke, cry, love. The ghetto is unsafe but Korczak has created a haven for his children. And it’s true: Moskovitch tells how Korczak “miraculously managed to keep all his [200] orphans alive, in spite of extreme deprivation and rampant illness.” Eventually, though, his children were deported to Treblinka. As a famous figure, recognized for his work by both the Poles and the Germans, Korczak was offered many opportunities to escape, but refused them all. He was no hero: the way he saw it, he had no other option but to stay with his children.

This is the Children’s Republic, and Korczak is the Philosopher King.

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