Sunday, May 4, 2008

Who was Rachel Corrie? (Part III)

I suppose all plays are political, but to paraphrase Orwell, some are more political than others. Take, for example, My Name is Rachel Corrie (Ms. Corrie, at left) which repeatedly has threatened to unravel the liberal consensus that supports our current theatre - by alienating a substantial number of the Jewish members of said consensus. The show has been delayed and canceled in places like New York and Toronto due to protests, and when the New Repertory Theatre announced its production dates, the theatre packaged it with To Pay the Price, a patriotic meditation on the Entebbe raid drawn from the letters of Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu, older brother of the former Israeli prime minister, and the lone Israeli killed in that famous rescue. Only ironically enough, this time it was the pro-Israel play that got canceled - the Netanyahu family pulled the rights, with youngest brother Iddo Netanyahu stating that "there is an inherent incompatibility in the joining together, in one evening, of a play based on my brother Yoni's letters with the play 'My Name Is Rachel Corrie.' "

So the consensus remained unraveled. The New Rep, however, quickly announced a replacement production: Pieces, by Zohar Tirosh, which, due to its length, would be presented on alternating nights with Corrie - a small separation which may have ameliorated tensions around the project. But when both shows opened, the critics were none too pleased with the "balance" achieved. "It's a pity that New Rep found it necessary to create this kind of balance," sighed the Globe's Louise Kennedy. " . . . no two plays in the world can exactly balance each other . . . They're individual works of art, not position papers, and they must each be judged on their own merits - not just on how they connect to the real political issues they engage, but also on how they succeed as works of art."

Kennedy continued: "Neither is a perfect play, but "Rachel Corrie" is more expertly crafted, more movingly written, and, at least in these productions, more essentially theatrical than "Pieces." Let me emphasize that that's an aesthetic judgment, not a political one . . . "Corrie" is ultimately more persuasive because it starts by allowing us to see its protagonist as a naive, self-absorbed flibbertigibbet . . . the experience of actually watching the play leaves us less interested in [political] questions, and more interested in the development of a specific, flawed, but fascinating human being. The almost giddy young girl we met at the outset has, by the end, grown into a far sadder, more complicated, and yet still resiliently optimistic woman."

Meanwhile over at the Phoenix, Carolyn Clay subtly struck a pro-Israel stance: "There is no doubt that Rachel Corrie . . . offers pro-Palestinian propaganda," she sniffed, but still quickly fell in line with Kennedy: "What makes each [play] compelling is its piquant personal journey, not its political agenda." Meanwhile, over at the Herald, Boston's youngest theatre lady, Jenna Scherer, declared "Art shouldn’t require even-handedness . . . Issues don’t get more hot-button than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a subject on which you’d be hard-pressed to find an objective account. But shouldn’t that be all the more reason to allow an individual voice to ring clear without apology? Isn’t theater supposed to incite people to think and react?"

Of course calls like these from people safely protected from their consequences always ring a bit hollow - "Uh, react how?" one might legitimately ask Jenna Scherer. In comparison to these critics, I was more sympathetic to the New Rep's efforts at "balance," if only because I knew a bit about the threatening edge of Zionist sentiment firsthand: years ago, I directed a production of Sophocles's Antigone which I set on the West Bank, with Antigone burying a fallen brother who had joined the Intifada. I received, of course, threatening phone calls and letters, warning that if I "knew what was good for me," I'd never open the show. Of course, I never do what's good for me - I opened it anyway, and nothing came of the threats. Still, said threats gave me (and the actors!) pause, as something tells me they would Louise Kennedy, Carolyn Clay, and Jenna Scherer.

So "balance" has a certain practical argument on its side - and after all, unlike Toronto, we got to see My Name is Rachel Corrie. But there's a more slippery problem slithering through the critics' declarations about "balance" - as well as what they clearly thought of as an escape hatch from the whole imbroglio, the idea that these plays were compelling not as political statements, but as "piquant personal journeys."

This, of course, is the kind of diversity boilerplate that Kennedy, and to a lesser extent Clay, are always deploying - I'm still waiting for the Kennedy review that concludes "the tragedy of Hamlet is that the prince dies before he has the chance to become the warm, wise woman he has the potential to be." The trouble with boomer boilerplate, of course, is that this time, decoupling the "personal journey" from its politics is trickier than it seems - for both Rachel Corrie and Zohar Tirosh.

As I've pointed out in earlier posts, My Name is Rachel Corrie goes heavy on the young Rachel's quirky, appealing idealism - we see her bouncing around in tank top and boxers (Stacy Fischer, at right), yearning for some purpose beyond corporate materialism - but then omits her most extreme statements and actions once she gets to Gaza: we never see Rachel burn a mock American flag, for instance, as she was photographed doing, nor does she ever actually thrill to the killing of Israeli soldiers, as she did in her journal. Likewise, the organization she joined to get to Gaza - the controversial International Solidarity Movement, which many Israelis claim (with some evidence) has ties to Palestinian terrorism - is barely mentioned, much less analyzed. And the possibility that the homes Rachel was defending might have been camouflage for a network of terrorist tunnels (again, there's some evidence, which provides a neat explanation for that bulldozer) is likewise never cited.

So what kind of a "piquant personal journey" is this - toward empowerment, or pawndom? We can't really tell, because it occurs in an echo chamber - and not merely the one within Rachel's head, but the political echo chamber constructed by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner, who generated the piece. Let me say right here that I'm probably in sympathy with Rickman's and Viner's political aims - while I don't deny Israel's right to exist, I also support a Palestinian state, and view Israeli settlements in the occupied territories with skepticism (one very welcome aspect of My Name is Rachel Corrie is that it decouples opposition to Israeli policy from anti-Semitism). So I suppose I should love Rickman and Viner's play. But the actual artistic questions posed by Rachel's life, which might be illuminated by her writing, must include ones like, "Why didn't the idealistic young Rachel end up fighting hunger in Darfur rather than dodging bulldozers in Gaza? Why didn't this candid, talented kid, whose journals crackle with insight into her cozy, crunchy home, ever ponder what exactly she was getting into?"

There are a few poignant hints that Rachel knew she was in over her head - "I'm really new to talking about Israel/Palestine," she admits, after she arrives in Gaza - which, as one wag put it, is a bit like stepping off the plane and announcing, "Me llamo Rachel!" Yet at the same time Corrie can state, without irony or qualification, that “the vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance." Ah, but what a difference a single suicide bomber makes! Essentially, Corrie never wonders whether the Palestinians are perhaps contributing to their own oppression; she only knows what she sees, and what she sees is admittedly terrible, and rarely contemplated by American audiences. But this gap in her awareness - which the authors refuse to illuminate - makes her death terribly sad, but not tragic, as she never reaches self-knowledge, or sees the possible flaws in her stance.

And thus, with apologies to Louise, Carolyn and Jenna, it's hard to applaud My Name is Rachel Corrie as a "piquant personal journey" - unless said journey is into the Stockholm Syndrome. On the other hand, it's also impossible for me to agree that Corrie and Pieces "are simply not balanced at all," because they are balanced in their respective blind spots. In Pieces, Zohar Tirosh as studiously avoids the political flip side of her actions as Rickman and Viner do Corrie's; Pieces does indeed "balance" My Name is Rachel Corrie; it just doesn't engage with it.

Pieces (with author/actress Zohar Tirosh, above) is a more gently pitched "personal journey" - in fact, it's the time-honored one through military service, here thoughtfully and gracefully enacted by Tirosh herself. The story sports the usual d├ęcor - the oppressive superior officers, the boyfriend who proves unfaithful, the brush with danger, etc., but the Palestinians, of course, are once again the elephant in the room. They're "over there," Tirosh often says, but she never goes there - so exactly what she's defending, and from whom, is never addressed. Of course her stint in the army occurred under Rabin, when rapprochement with Palestine still seemed possible, and her piece ends with his assassination (by an Israeli extremist sympathetic to the West Bank settlers). So in the talkback, the question inevitably arose - would Tirosh serve in the Israeli army today? Today, after the Second Intifada, and the advent of the suicide bomber, and the Wall? Today, when even as Israelis cry foul at the term "apartheid," they must face the fact that if current trends continue, they will soon be a Jewish minority governing a territory by force?

Would she serve? Would she want her daughter to? The actress, visibly distressed, slowly, sadly, shook her head "no." And several members of the audience immediately bristled.

The consensus, apparently, remains unraveled.


  1. Thomas-

    This was a great series that asked a lot of difficult questions-- that not only should have been asked by the critics but the playwrights themselves.

  2. Thanks, Ian - I know how passionate you are about these issues. I hope what the series finally conveys is that the New Rep's strategy of "balance" may have helped bring Rachel Corrie to Boston, but that "balance" is not as high a goal as "engagement." But how to actually effect that engagement? Surely the talkbacks, newsletters, and discussions at the New Rep were a step in the right direction, but still not quite the same thing as a successful artistic response to the situation in the Middle East. But who could pen such a response? Perhaps Tony Kushner? I don't know.

  3. I'm passionate about treating the situation with the complexity it deserves; all else is propaganda that incites passions and shuts down thought and dialogue.

    Theatre is well suited as a medium for presenting an authentic dialogue-- a struggle between opposing points of view that reveals the short-comings of each (perhaps I say this because the first theory of tragedy I read was not Aristotle's but Hegel's)-- but too few playwrights take that option-- choosing to present one point of view and ignore any troublesome details. Perhaps this is because of the lack of money in theatre-- plays with large casts are financially speaking, un-stageble. But even this, and I think you point out very well, does not excuse the fact that the Rachel Corrie play is a hagiography when it could have been a nuanced biography that included all the troublesome facts that you mentioned.

    Honestly, I have no idea who is up for the challenge of staging a complex, nuanced (and artistically successful) play that deals with these issues. I've just seen many many failures-- sometimes willful failures.

    Kushner maybe-- but at the same time, no artist owes us a play on any given subject matter.

  4. Hey Thom,

    Here is another thing that I know rears its head lateley with regards to "total show experience."...

    I guess that a program like the New Rep's presents a new challenge for critics in that the talkbacks, preshow, events, etc, must be folded into assessment?

    As an example, your three part series tries to tease it all out in a critical manner.

    Whereas, Scherer, Kennedy and Clay are left with the diminishing column space. They can do the preshow piece and the review, but sussing out what it really all means can be difficult.

    I am becoming fascinated with the idea of pre-show, or post show events and their place in assessment of the work.

    Even Avant Gard performances are starting to try and have preshow events to contextualize for audiences, what they are about to see.

    Good job on the series.

  5. Hi Art -

    Your comment on the question of pre- and post-show events is an interesting one, and particularly appropriate to this circumstance. But I don't think I relied too heavily on those events in my analysis of the plays themselves - or at least, my main arguments could be derived from the central performances. Even my final point, which relies on what Tirosh said during a talkback, is still suggested by the obvious gaps in her play. Still, it's interesting to ponder that Clay and Kennedy's reads were so incomplete because they tried to parse the plays as "artistic" experiences apart from their political underpinnings. I think that effort was misguided, and considering the talks, position papers and discussions might have helped them see that.

  6. Rachel Corrie gave us an eyewitness account of Gaza under Israeli occupation, which is more than I can say for most of the pundits writing blogs. Calling her account propaganda is itself propaganda designed to deflect legitamate criticism of a horrendous occupation which I too have seen and experienced with my own eyes. Allegience to Israel is no excuse for condoning mass violation of human rights.

  7. But I'm afraid I have no "allegiance" to Israel, nor did I call Rachel's account itself propaganda - I only pointed out that by deleting her most extreme comments and actions, the authors of My Name is Rachel Corrie had produced a piece of propaganda. (And btw, one can support a Palestinian state and still offer a critique of Rachel Corrie.) I agree, however, that there was great value in simply putting forth for an American audience the crushing living conditions resulting from Israeli rule over the Palestinians.

  8. I just reread this series after reading an essay about another production of the play. Yours still stands as the best writing I've seen on the topic.