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
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.
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
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
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 rather
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.