Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rachel Corrie is not Anne Frank

The Second Life of Rachel Corrie
By Jason Fitzgerald


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 segu├ęs 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 rather drama.

Presenting activism 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.

4 comments:

Ron said...

I appreciate your comments on the play- I saw it a few weeks ago.

QuakerDave said...

Wonderful post. Very thoughtful. Thanks.

geo said...

I first heard Rachel Corrie's parents speak a little over a year ago and then saw the play about a month ago. After the play her parents and sister were on a panel discussing the play with its director, a rabbi, and a playwright/Middle East activist. A Palestinian was unable to be a part of the panel due to getting a performing job in NYC - 3000 miles away starting just before the panel date.

My partner and I both found the play very, very inspiring - both for its political message and for how it portrayed Ms. Corrie as a fascinating individual.

Per Corrie's sister the words are all her words, but their order is changed in parts of the play.

It was somewhat sickening and ridiculous for us hearing a "mainstream" Jewish man (a member of the rabbi's congregation) say during the discussion that the Israelis would love to negotiate a peace but that there is No One to Negotiate With! He droned on and on with his "brief balancing of the discussion" - while the two Palestinians responded succinctly with anger, but a humaneness in their words.

My partner who is Black and Jewish identified - said to me that people such as this man are filled with White Privilige (and more) - that gets in their way.

Obviously Israelis and Jews are scared - that peace - will instead be another Holocaust. When one thinks and speaks out of fear, rational discussion becomes virtually if not totally impossible.

Peace is "dangerous" but necessary. The issues are Not complex. Making peace will, of course, be complex.

It is very sad to see Jews allying themselves with rightwing Evangelical Christians - whose vision of the future is of "the end" being the Death of all the Jews who don't convert to "the true religion" - similar to the Middle Ages.

I am Jewish and proud of being Jewish. I'm also aware of how the U.S. Government is really the key to peace. Where Israel has made moves towards peace in recent decades the U.S. has always gotten in the way and prevented it for "strategic reasons".

I hope that you (Chuck) will succeed in getting the play performed in Madison and perhaps elsewhere.

Locally it took a lot of courage for the theater and others to make the play happen. Though there were plenty of denials of this, censorship (silencing) was sought by parts of the mainstream Jewish community.

Thanks!

poodledoc said...

Thanks, Geo. As aways, your comments are stimulating and thoughtful. I still want to see the play performed in Madison. I'm working with my friend Luminiferous Ether, who is much more connected to the theater community in Madison, so I'm hopeful........