T hough there’s still time for a protester or counterprotester to do something really dumb, l’affaire Corrie seems, finally, to be at an end. Since word of it reached the papers in the spring, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a show based on the writing of a young American activist killed in Gaza, has provided the city with its noisiest theatrical scandal in years. Now that the play has opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre, it’s at last possible to see what the fuss was really about.
On March 16, 2003, Corrie died horribly beneath an Israeli bulldozer, and her appropriation began. Yasser Arafat seized upon her as a martyr, and the Israeli right denounced her and the International Solidarity Movement. But Corrie had left behind some eloquent diaries and e-mails, from which actor-director Alan Rickman and Guardian editor Katharine Viner decided to fashion a script that would “uncover the young woman behind the political symbol.” The play they assembled scored a hit in London and was headed to the New York Theatre Workshop. That was the idea, anyway.
I’ve never considered Jim Nicola—artistic director of NYTW, producer of Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner plays—fainthearted or unwise. Still, it seems extremely naïve to read a script that calls the situation in Gaza “truly evil” and not expect supporters of Israel to object. When Nicola belatedly discovered those sensitivities among his constituents this past spring, he postponed the show to better “contextualize” it with talk-backs and things, then compounded his trouble through inexplicably clumsy handling of the announcement. No sooner did a brief news item turn up in the Times than the full, happy cataclysm of denunciations began. Bloggers leaped into the fray, boldface names followed, most dumping scorn on Nicola. “We believe that this is an important play,” declared Harold Pinter and twenty other writers in a letter to the Times.
The whole debate seemed slightly tinny at the time, as if there wasn’t quite as much at stake as all those partisans seemed intent upon discovering. Seeing the play confirms the impression: Corrie’s death was important, and the subject is excruciatingly important, but the play is not important. It’s a well-meaning wisp. As Corrie describes her girlhood in Washington State, she shows a sharp eye and a flair for language. (“He pronounces his words like rubber bands stretched and snapping,” she says of a boy she likes.) Once in Gaza, she’s astute to worry about a generation of children who will grow up knowing only this violence, and she flashes a blistering eloquence in a climactic speech (forcefully delivered by Megan Dodds) in which she vents her “disbelief and horror” at the carnage.
But the play develops no cumulative power. For all the gravity of the material, her observations feel curiously weightless, offering no sense of why these bad things are happening all around her. In fact, the play is so thin that anybody who might have told Nicola not to proceed because of its politics seems misguided. For the love of John Stuart Mill, are these journal entries really damning enough to merit suppression? The e-mails of a young outsider who says “I’m really new to talking about Israel-Palestine” don’t seem terribly hard to refute, if you’re so inclined.
Corrie’s diaries are more valuable in describing a budding idealist’s growth than in bearing witness to the world’s knottiest conflict. Even here, though, unlovely notes intrude. More than once, Corrie takes an oddly detached view of Palestinian violence, doubting that it could have “any impact” on the Israelis—a surprisingly clinical tone for such a sensitive advocate of social justice, as if it’s the body count incurred in a bus bombing that matters. I didn’t pick the example at random. While Corrie was in Gaza, a suicide bomber destroyed a bus in Haifa, killing fifteen people—mainly children—including an American girl even younger than Corrie, one involved in a program to reconcile Arab and Jewish students. There’s something poignant in the ways these two sad stories parallel each other and diverge. I can even imagine a drama using their deaths to tell us something new about the conflict, or help us better understand its whole horrible complexity. This play doesn’t.