Thoughts on My Name Is Rachel Corrie
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
When the New York Theater Workshop recently
postponed its run of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a controversial
play about pro-Palestinian activist killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer,
it did so apparently at the behest of a concerned Jewish community.
There is no doubt that many Jews would be uncomfortable with the political
message of the play -- but are there really significant numbers of American
Jews whose discomfort would lead them to call for its cancellation?
It's true that Hamas's recent electoral victory has made Israeli-Palestinian
politics especially tense, and Jewish voices in favor of censorship
do exist, as evidenced by the recent calls of an Israeli group for the
film Paradise Now to be removed from the Oscars because of
its portrayal of Palestinian suicide bombers. But I doubt that views
like this represent the majority of even mainstream Jewish communal
leadership, to say nothing, of course, of the many Jews who support
the right of anyone to criticize Israel and, more to the point, oppose
censorship of any kind. Caving in to those few who favor censorship
is not only unfair to the play's creators and potential audiences, but
also to those in the Jewish community and outside of it who are working
against the circle-the-wagons mentality.
Of course, it's hard to speak accurately on Jewish
public opinion on this issue since, despite the Jewish community's ostensible
role in the postponement, little press coverage of the issue has conveyed
the responses of members of the Jewish community. Writing in the New
York Observer, John Heilpern quotes from an interview with NYTW
artistic director Jim Nicola in which Nicola declined to cite any Jewish
protestors but mentioned that several Jewish friends had "degrees of
discomfort" with the play. "Degrees of discomfort," then: it does not
sound as if AIPAC was pounding down the door.
Even if a Jewish majority was antagonized, though,
postponement comes down to freedom of expression, and if that value
is to be upheld then no group can be allowed a veto over content about
which it is sensitive. As Heilpern writes, "Plays written in blood are
not meant to be 'acceptable' or 'reach consensus.'" Yet consensus and
acceptability -- the politics of the play -- have become the crux of
the debate, obscuring discussion on the play itself. Both supporters
and detractors of My Name Is Rachel Corrie argue on the merits
of its political content alone: signatories of the online petition protesting
the NYTW's decision comment over and over again that Corrie's is a voice
that needs to be heard, that it is crucial that the American public
understand the situation in which Palestinians live and the brutality
of the Israeli occupation. Those few on the record as being opposed
to the play's production in New York also engage only with its purported
political content. An Israeli who signed the online petition against
the NYTW writes that the play shows "misinterpretations of how Israel
responds to terrorists" and that the large Israeli population living
in New York would be offended by it.
All of this misses the fact that it is a play.
If co-creators Katharine Viner and Alan Rickman had wanted to use Corrie
to advocate on behalf of Palestinian rights, or to secure humanitarian
aid for Palestinians, they might have written an Op-Ed about her, donated
to the foundation that's been set up in her name, or lobbied the U.S.
government not to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority. The fact
that they chose to engage with Corrie's legacy onstage suggests that
they were hoping to turn her story into a specifically theatrical experience
-- which raises the question of what kind of theatrical experience it
is, or would have been: good or bad, saccharine or poignant, riveting
Opinions vary on whether My Name Is Rachel
Corrie was good. It won Best New Play prize at the London Theatregoers'
Choice Awards, but Edward Rothstein, writing in the New York Times,
suggests that it is naively one-sided, showing demolition of Palestinian
homes without any hint at broader context. Of course, these opinions
shouldn't have anything to do with the NYTW's right to produce it. The
big question that is going unnoticed has to do with the purpose of political
theater. Is the job of a play like My Name is Rachel Corrie to
compellingly communicate one point of view, to make activists out of
a theater audience? Conversely, should political theater always take
all sides into account? Can there be a theater whose political effects
are specifically theatrical, in a way that they could not be if the
same sentiments were expressed in writing or in a tax-deductible donation?
New York audiences can't know -- at least for now -- whether My
Name Is Rachel Corrie has complexity, because questions about its
theatrical qualities, and ultimately its politics too, are now masked
behind questions of freedom of expression that shouldn't need to be
fought over again.