The Second Life of Rachel Corrie
By Jason Fitzgerald
My Name is Rachel Corrie
Taken from the Writings of Rachel Corrie
Edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane
Box office: (212) 420-8000
Rachel Corrie died on March 16, 2003. In her
place rose a pair of stories in conflict: first, of a woman either inspired
or misguided into pro-Palestinian activism; second, of a play either
victimized or not by censorship in America. In the murky waters of these
two controversies, both Corrie herself and the documentary play she
inspired have been hard to see clearly.
In late 2000, while an undergraduate at Evergreen
State College in her hometown of Olympia, Washington, Corrie took it
upon herself to travel to Gaza to join the International Solidarity
Movement (ISM), which identifies itself as "a Palestinian-led movement
committed to resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land using
nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles." On March 16, barely
three months after arriving, she was crushed by a bulldozer while defending
a Palestinian home against demolition. All evidence suggests that the
driver knew what he was doing--Corrie reportedly looked the driver in
the eye before being killed. Almost immediately, both sides of the larger
conflict in the area claimed ownership of the true meaning of her death.
The ISM called her "a true American hero," and the Palestinian National
Authority Web site announced on its Web site, "Israel killed another
Angel." Memorial web sites, with pictures of Corrie as an innocent-looking
young girl, quickly filled the Internet. Michael Moore dedicated his
book Dude, Where's My Country to her memory.
In contrast, the Israeli military, which has
argued that the demolition of Palestinian homes is a necessary measure
to destroy terrorist cells, saw Corrie's death as the inevitable result
of a larger problem. A spokesman was quoted on CNN: "This is a group
of protesters who are acting very irresponsibly. They are putting everyone
in danger, the Palestinians, themselves, our forces, by intentionally
placing themselves in a combat zone." In the States, a photograph of
Corrie burning an American flag with a group of Palestinian children
was widely circulated, suggesting that her allegiances were anti-American.
Rachel Corrie: martyr for the Palestinian cause? Hero of peace? Betrayer
of her country? It depends on whom you talk to.
Corrie's theatrical journey home has been similarly
fraught. Her story caught the attention of actor Alan Rickman, who,
with the support of the Corrie family and journalist Katharine Viner
as co-editor, turned her diaries and emails into a one-woman play. My
Name is Rachel Corrie was produced by the Royal Court Theater in
2005. Not long thereafter, New York Theater Workshop announced and then
unannounced the play for its 2006-2007 season, creating a storm of controversy.
An open petition from members of the theater community was sent to artistic
director James Nicola urging him to change his mind and "come down on
the side of peace, justice, and open discussion" (available at: http://www.petitiononline.com/nytw/petition.html).
Playwright Eduardo Machado, in a speech to the Alliance of Resident
Theatres/New York, denounced the cancellation as "horrifying and the
worst kind of censorship imaginable." Perhaps the harshest words came
from Vanessa Redgrave, who called the cancellation a "catastrophe" and
"The second death of Rachel Corrie."
Inside all the newspaper editorials, panel discussions,
and email warfare was a self-congratulatory energy from those who cried
censorship--a pride that they had found a martyr for the cause of politically
relevant drama. James Nicola responded that he had intended a "postponement,"
that he was trying to be "sensitive to all communities," and that he
felt unable to present the play "simply as a work of art without appearing
to take a position," at least not until his theater had taken "more
time to learn more and figure out a way to proceed." While his supporters
could not rally behind so romantic a cause as free speech, many, including
BAM's executive producer Joseph V. Melillo, acknowledged the difficult
position of an artistic director and insisted on his right to choose
or un-choose his season. Others, including the New York Times
critic Edward Rothstein, sympathized with NYTW over the political difficulties
of the play itself.
Regardless of one's position, Jim Nicola was,
in the end, the best thing to happen to My Name is Rachel Corrie,
at least in America, as his "postponement" generated attention the play
could never have received otherwise. The rewards, as for most artworks
that some people don't want others to see, belong to the author and
presenters, who now find themselves with full houses in a month-long
run at the Minnetta Lane Theatre. To speak about "Rachel Corrie" as
though she were in fact performing on an Off-Broadway stage is not entirely
inappropriate. In many ways, My Name is Rachel Corrie is a
theatrical resurrection of a woman who had a great deal to say but,
because of her death, lost the chance to say it. Thanks to a subtle
performance by Megan Dodds, an American actress who originated the role
in London, we are able to confront a woman who is complicated, contradictory,
and complete, despite the fact that the controversy had reduced her
to a bloodless object of debate.
That My Name is Rachel Corrie is interested
in more than the stories of Corrie's martyrdom becomes clear in the
first scene, which shows the activist lying on her bed beneath a pile
of primary-colored sheets, bemoaning her messy bedroom. "I haven't done
laundry in a month," she says, "and the other girl who lives in my room
when I'm not here--the bad one who tends the garden of dirty cups and
throws all the clothes around and tips over the ashtrays--the bad other
girl hid all my pens while I was sleeping." Immediately, Corrie presents
herself as not one but two women, a psychology of conflicting impulses,
not surprising for a precocious 24-year-old confronting her adult identity.
Equally clear from the play's first moments is
that Corrie, even in her private diaries, has an extraordinary capacity
for language. "I get ready to write down some dreams or a page in my
diary or draw some very important maps," she says on the bed, "and then
the ceiling tries to devour me." Her refreshing description of cabin
fever, together with the felt reality of a linguistic talent we know
has been lost, suggests a twenty-first century Anne Frank, another girl
whose personal writings about a violent, upturned reality have made
her a symbol of lost human potential.
But Anne Frank was 13 when she wrote in her famous
diary, not 24, and she was a victim of circumstance, not an activist.
The first part of My Name is Rachel Corrie, whose set is her
bed and a red wall covered with photographs and magazine cut-outs, concerns
her growing restlessness to leave Olympia and immerse herself in the
causes she is already fighting for on campus. As she says to her mother,
"I love you but I'm growing out of what you gave me. I'm saving it inside
me and growing outwards." The search for belonging and fulfillment,
the problems of young adulthood, sit side by side with the problems
of international politics. She later tells her mother: "Please think
about your language when you talk to [local reporters about my trip]…if
you talk about 'the cycle of violence'…you could be perpetuating the
idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a balanced conflict…I'll
call you tonight." The primary tension of the play is between her self-described
"nomadic" soul and her love for family and home, a duality that leaves
her unsettled. "I look at things the wrong way," she later confesses,
"I know how it feels not to be normal." Behind the bright bed and the
red wall, however, stands a cement structure that runs the length of
the Minnetta's wide stage, representing her stark lifestyle in Gaza,
calling her inevitably onward.
Act Two, the Palestine portion of the play, introduces
a tonal shift, signaled when Corrie pushes her bright and friendly bedroom
offstage. She segués into a directness of purpose as her energies are
pushed to exhaustion. The scene structure now follows the chronology
of her diary, with more reporting than musing: "I went to the kitchen
and stayed two hours. The tank stayed too, so no work, no school." She
finds self-assurance, ironically, in one of the least self-assured regions
in the world. If only from trying to stay alive, Corrie is not restless
anymore. Her challenge now is to write down what she "has very few words
to describe," the "reality of the situation" that "you can't imagine…unless
you see it." Part of the triumph of My Name is Rachel Corrie
is that the real Corrie's longing to find and, presumably, communicate
to others "a connection to the people who are impacted by US foreign
policy" is realized in the stage-Corrie's graphic, honest descriptions
of life in the Gaza Strip. In a sense, the play completes at least the
journalistic side of Corrie's mission, not to mention being the closest
she could ever come to being published.
Her death is depicted in an epilogue, an audio
recording of an eyewitness account followed by a video clip of 10-year-old
Corrie speaking at a "Fifth Grade Press Conference on World Hunger,"
both shown after Dobbs walks offstage, the available diary entries having
expired. These final moments, combined with an image of Corrie as a
young girl in a field with a toothy smile--used on the posters, programs,
and published script--are by themselves emotionally manipulative. The
death of an innocent child is much less complicated than the death of
a headstrong and flawed woman who chose to put herself in harm's way.
The epilogue confronts us with the story of Corrie-as-martyr
that has hovered over her death, but in counterpoint to the rest of
the play it forces us to consider that story's relationship to the woman
Corrie became, and to our own conflicted feelings about her death. What
My Name is Rachel Corrie has that The Diary of Anne Frank
lacks (both works depend on child-murder for their emotional and dramatic
power) are Rachel Corrie's politics. While Anne Frank protests Nazi
cruelty, as uncontroversial a position as one could take, Corrie protests
the behavior of the Israeli government against Palestine. While she
is careful to "draw a firm distinction between the policies of Israel
as a state and Jewish people," this disclaimer only licenses her unapologetic
distaste for Israel's government. She is equally unafraid to criticize
her own government, shaking her proverbial fists over the "thousand
people [who] are still, as far as I can tell, being held somewhere in
the United States." In short, Corrie holds relatively clean, black-and-white
attitudes towards a conflict that is decidedly gray and contentiously
disputed throughout the world.
Corrie's strong beliefs keep her story from being
a predictable, value-neutral narrative through which we can all cry
over an innocent girl who just wanted to help. In the theater, as in
life, Rachel Corrie resists definition. While she may still be, for
some, a tool for bipartisan catharsis, for many others she is a catalyst
of political division. The night I saw the play, at least two audience
members left the theater after Corrie's comments against the "balanced"
nature of the fighting in Israel, missing (among other remarks) her
attempt to say "Bush is a tool" in Arabic.
For Corrie, though, her understanding of the
political situation in Palestine gives her the drive to travel around
the world and support families in need, to make sacrifices (even before
her death) that few would consider making. Such ideological clarity,
flawed though it may be, is prerequisite for activism. Beyond its mimetic
resurrection of the historical Corrie, My Name is Rachel Corrie
is also a meditation on activism. The two different girls she sees co-existing
inside her prefigure the many contradictions inherent in the activist's
life. Corrie's own awareness of this split, and the decision on Rickman
and Viner's part to make it the center of her dramatic journey, are
what make the play neither agitprop nor emotional manipulation, but
as the condition of a divided self locates Rachel Corrie within the
gap between the girl who loves to "swim naked at the beach" and the
global activist sacrificing her life for others, the gap between necessary
optimism and the awareness that it might not be justified. Duality structures
all Corrie's concerns in Gaza. There are the possibilities and the limitations
of effectiveness--"I get really worried that it [a protest] will just
suck." There is the sweeping generosity of reaching across cultural
boundaries combined with the problem of authority in representation.
Who is Rachel Corrie to intervene in, and to speak for, the lives of
people whose experience is so different from her own? "If I lived in
Bosnia or Rwanda or who knows where else," Corrie admits, "needless
death wouldn't be a distant symbol to me, it wouldn't be a metaphor,
it would be a reality." What is the difference between activism and
emotional tourism? "I have no right to this metaphor," she continues,
"but I use it to console myself." Finally, there is the difficulty of
activism as a lifestyle, and the problem of learning how to return home.
"Let me know what you want me to do for the rest of my life," Corrie
writes to her father.
Onstage, if not in real life, Corrie finds her
sense of wholeness by embracing her fracturedness. In the play's final,
longest, and most moving monologue, after describing multiple horrors
she has witnessed, she says:
I'm really scared, and questioning my fundamental
belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop…I still really
want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics
for my co-workers. But I also want this to stop. Disbelief and horror
is what I feel. Disappointment. I am disappointed that this is the
base reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it.
This is not at all what I asked for when I came into this world…Coming
here is one of the better things I've ever done.
These words are a far cry from Anne Frank's "I
still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at
heart." In the end, Corrie embraces both halves of herself, and she
sees clearly that they inform each other. The betrayal of the innocent
young girl laughing in the fields took place not in her eventual murder
but in her empathy with the pain of others. The resolution of her identity
is in its dissolution, in seeing that she wants to be "the
bad other girl" but, because cruelty continues to thrive in certain
parts of the world, she cannot be. This betrayal may have benefited
the lives that the real Rachel Corrie touched, but it is a betrayal
nonetheless. In a perfect world there are no activists.
In this recognition of her failure to live the
happy life of a girl from Olympia, there may be indeed something dangerous
about Rachel Corrie, something to justify all the hullabaloo over her
story and her play. While Anne Frank condemns the Nazis, Rachel Corrie
condemns us. The former leaves us feeling comfortable, maintaining
the myth that responsibility for evil belongs to a former generation
or to a distant country. The latter leaves us unnerved, demonstrating
a level of empathy and a will to sacrifice beyond the reach of many
of us, and revealing our own complicity, however small, in her death.
Rachel Corrie condemns us as complacent, and she condemns us as Americans.
Perhaps this is why, at the end of the performance, the audience's applause
was strong but not explosive. There were few tears except in Dobbs's
eyes, and no sense of release.
Alisa Solomon, in a recent panel at Barnard College
on the Rachel Corrie censorship scandal, pointed out, "this
[American] theater community is upset, justifiably, about this play
not going on, but this same theater community was never upset about
a 23-year-old woman being crushed by a bulldozer in Gaza." What My
Name is Rachel Corrie reveals is that both narratives of Corrie's
martyrdom--IDF vs. ISM and NYTW vs. the anti-censorship petitioners--need
to be reexamined in the light of Rachel Corrie herself. By celebrating
Corrie as a symbol of peace, we miss her call to action and
her implicit condemnation of our inaction. By holding up her up as a
victim of American theater's conservatism, we turn the Minnetta Lane
production into a victory rather than a challenge.