in the Palestinian parliamentary elections would extend to liberal,
democratic New York City? The controversy triggered by the cartoon
imbroglio that started in Denmark--an alleged attempt to focus on
self-censorship re criticism of Islam--is now mirrored by the
self-censorship that is endemic in this country, i.e, of anything that
might put Israel in a bad light.
The author of this piece argues that the play is one-sided because it
doesn't explain that the house demolitions that resulted in Corrie's
murder were designed to stop smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza.
Excuse me? It was plain to all that the bulldozer operator who killed
Corrie could see her plainly atop the partial rubble of the house he was
demolishing. So it was her fault. She shouldn't have been there!
In January I was a member of a Council for the National Interest
Foundation delegation that observed the Palestinians elections in Gaza.
While there we visited the site in Rafah where Corrie was murdered. We
stood in the rubble of the house and interviewed, on camera, a number of
local people familiar with the event. The demolished house had stood
several hundred yards from the border (now delineated by a high wall),
so it would have been one very long tunnel to reach the Egyptian side.
All of the houses in that area were demolished by armored bulldozers, as
well as other houses overlooking a (former) Israeli settlement. The
local people had erected two monuments to Corrie, but both were
demolished by the Israelis. Now that the latter have withdrawn from Gaza
a local leader has a plan to raise a new monument, for which funds must
From the rubble of the house she was trying to protect I collected
seven small pieces of bathroom or kitchen tile as souvenirs for the
members of our delegation to remind them of their visit there. Even
better will be to see this postponed play, if and when and where it is
March 6, 2006
Too Hot to Handle, Too Hot to Not Handle
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
The polemics and outrage in the theatrical community last week after the
New York Theater Workshop postponed its production of "My Name Is Rachel
Corrie" might have been as intense as the uproar the company feared had
it actually presented the play. The postponement of this one-woman drama
about a 23-year-old pro-Palestinian American activist killed by an
Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003 has been attacked as an act
of censorship. One of the play's creators compared the decision to
backing down in the face of a McCarthyite "witch hunt." Hundreds have
sent e-mail messages accusing the theater's directors of everything from
cowardice to being "Zionist pigs."
Think of what might have happened had the theater actually presented the
play later this month, fresh from its sold-out success at the Royal
Court Theater in London. Then the controversy might have been over other
forms of political blindness. There might have been assertions that the
company was glorifying the mock-heroics of a naif who tried to block
efforts to cut off terrorist weapon smuggling. Donors might have pulled
away. And the New York Theater Workshop might have been accused of
feeding the propagandistic maw of Hamas
just as it came into power in the Palestinian territories. Is it any
wonder the company got jittery?
The surprise, though, is that there was so much surprise on the
theater's part: surprise, first, that the play might cause controversy,
then surprise that the postponement actually did.
That much should have been clear from other conflicts over artworks and
images ranging from Andres Serrano's photograph of a crucifix submerged
in urine to the Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad. First,
there is outrage, followed by either defense or retreat. Then there is
much discussion of censorship and freedom of speech (which in many cases
— the cartoons aside — is really more about public financing). And
throughout, intermittent fear of giving offense mixes with frequent
eagerness to give it; there is name calling and, occasionally, nervous
Of course, there are some important distinctions in this case: the
postponement was not in response to riots but to worry over what might
happen to the theater's reputation or to donors' enthusiasm. The theater
also suggested that the postponement was just that — not a cancellation
— and that it was in response to sensitivities expressed by Jewish
leaders and to the rawness of these issues given the electoral victory
of Hamas; more planning, the theater said, would be needed to present
the play in a broader context.
But what made it a more volatile act was that by declining for now to
offend with the play, the theater violated the most sacred principles of
our artistic temples.
Those principles are: Thou shalt offend, thou shalt test limits, thou
shalt cause controversy. If there is an artistic orthodoxy in the West,
it is that good art is iconoclastic and provocative, and that any pull
back from this orthodoxy is cowardly and craven. In this distended
context, the New York Theater Workshop's act was heretical.
How could this happen? How could a theater take on a play like "Corrie"
and not know what it was getting into? How could it then postpone the
production and not know that the outrage of its colleagues-at-arms would
be as fervent as the imagined reaction of patrons and protestors?
To understand this a little better, consider the play itself. At first,
it must have seemed a safe choice: safe with its aura of leftist
frisson, and safe too in that its championing of a pro-Palestinian
activist had become so mainstream that the London press hardly
recognized anything was at issue. The play's political stance was
treated as invisible, something its creators — the actor Alan Rickman
and Katherine Viner, an editor of the newspaper The Guardian — seemed to
desire. "The play is not agitprop," Ms. Viner wrote last week in The Los
Angeles Times. "It's a complicated look at a woman who was neither a
saint nor a traitor."
And indeed, judging from the script — edited from Corrie's e-mail,
letters and journals — Corrie's is an unusual voice, engrossing in its
imaginative power, hinting at adolescent transformations and
radicalization. "My mother would never admit it," she says in the play,
"but she wanted me exactly how I turned out — scattered and deviant and
She names the people she would like "to hang out with in eternity":
Rilke, Jesus, E. E. Cummings, Gertrude Stein, Zelda Fitzgerald and
She announces to her accomplished older brother that instead of high
salaries, she is "steadfastly pursuing a track that guarantees I'll
never get paid more than three Triscuits and some spinach." Midplay, she
is a budding literary bohemian who suddenly finds herself on Gaza's
What could be less controversial than this heroine, with her Utopian
yearning to end human suffering and her empathy for Palestinians living
in a hellish war zone, their homes and lives at stake? Her death becomes
a tragic consequence of her compassion and, apparently, in performance,
has the power to spur tears.
But there is something disingenuous here. In an apparent effort to
camouflage Corrie's radicalism and broaden the play's appeal, its
creators elided phrases that suggested her more contentious view of
things — cutting, for example, her reference to the "chronic, insidious
genocide" she says she is witnessing, or her justification of the
"somewhat violent means" used by Palestinians.
As a dramatization of a young woman's political education, the play also
never has to hold itself accountable for what seems naïve. "I'm really
new to talking about Israel-Palestine," Corrie says soon after arriving
in Israel, "so I don't always know the political implications of my
words." She is also earnest. Children "love to get me to practice my
limited Arabic," she says. "Today I tried to learn to say, 'Bush is a
tool,' but I don't think it translated quite right."
But while she fails to see things fully, the play wants us to think she
ultimately does. We are not meant to doubt the thoroughness of her
account or to think too much about what she notices but does not
explain. Though Corrie went to Gaza with the Palestinian-led
organization the International Solidarity Movement to act as a human
shield and to prevent Israel from destroying Palestinian homes, and
though she died while trying to stop a bulldozer, there is no hint about
why such demolitions were taking place.
But dozens of tunnels leading from Egypt under the border into homes in
Gaza were being used to smuggle guns, rocket launchers and explosives to
wield against Israel. These demolitions often caused controversy, even
in Israel, but the play's omissions make them seem acts of systematic
evil, rather than acts that were, at the very least, part of a more
complicated and contested series of confrontations.
That is where the disingenuousness comes in: not in the stand the play
takes, but in how it cloaks it as not really being a stand at all, but
only high moral sentiment. Ms. Viner, asked what she wanted audiences to
come away with, said: "To feel inspired to go and do something about the
world's inequalities themselves."
It would have been more interesting to imagine an activist's growing
awareness of nuance, particularly given what is at stake. Is it possible
that a growing awareness might also have been behind the postponement?
When the directors of the New York Theater Workshop began to hear from
staff members and outsiders that the play invoked issues it did not
explain, and when the election of Hamas provided proof that all was not
simple, perhaps that was when the play became more clearly understood.
The company discussed staging other plays about the conflict alongside
this one; attempts were made to arrange post-performance discussions,
too. But that required time. So, awkwardly, the company betrayed
aesthetic orthodoxy — declining, for now, to give offense, and in the
process doing just that.
Connections, a critic's perspective on arts and ideas, appears every
* Copyright 2006
New York Times Company <http://www.nytco.com/>