Catching the Conscience: Lessons Drawn from My Name is Rachel Corrie
“The play’s the thing in which I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” – Shakespeare, Hamlet
Most people who know about New York Theater Workshop’s recent cancellation (or “postponement”) of My Name is Rachel Corrie know that this unfortunate news also led to a lot of useful discussion – about access and the arts, funding and corporate sponsorship, political theater in the current US landscape, and, most important of all, about the continuing violence that Palestinians face under an Israeli occupation relentlessly maintained by the world’s fourth largest army with the help of over $6 billion dollars in US aid yearly. The cancellation also galvanized people world-wide to organize readings of the words of Rachel Corrie on the third anniversary of her death, March 16th. From Tel Aviv to Bethlehem, Bosnia to Afghanistan and New Orleans, people gathered to read words of this 23-year old member of the International Solidarity Movement (a nonviolent movement of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals who serve as human rights observers in Palestine) who was crushed to death by an Israeli army-driven Caterpillar bulldozer as she attempted to protect the home of a Palestinian pharmacist and his family.
Here in New York, with only three weeks to prepare, we organized a three -hour evening of readings of Rachel’s writings accompanied by music, poetry and testimonies from a wide array of writers, artists and human rights advocates including Maya Angelou, Suheir Hammad, Alice Walker, Patti Smith, Betty Shamieh, Brian Avery (a fellow American human rights observer who was shot in the face by the Israeli army a few weeks after Rachel’s killing), Hedy Epstein (a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in Auschwitz but was saved by the kindertransport), Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, and a long list of others. Over 1,000 people packed into to Riverside Church for the evening. The event took place on March 22nd, the day the play was scheduled to open at NYTW.
In the midst of this renewed dialogue and activism, we have managed to decipher what feels like a few basic truths about the questions of “balance” and “contextualization” that have come up repeatedly in discussions about the cancellation. These perhaps point to the answer to a question that has been plaguing a lot of people, most notably Rachel’s mother Cindy who asked: Why are people so afraid of Rachel’s words? 1. Palestine/Israel is an inherently unbalanced situation. One can assess this imbalance in a myriad of ways – by looking at the number of demolitions of Palestinian homes (since 1967 Israel has demolished almost 12,000 Palestinian homes, leaving some 70,000 without shelter and traumatized, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions); by comparing the current average income of Israelis ($22,200) versus the average income of Palestinians ($1,327); or by examining the numbers of Israeli and Palestinian children killed over the past 4 years (129 and 691 respectively) to see this radical imbalance. Underlying all of this is the basic injustice of the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their land and the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. To try and present, therefore, a “balanced” view of what is going on in Palestine and Israel is actually to de-contextualize what is actually happening to the Palestinians. Israeli-American playwright Zohar Tirosh points to this in an email to her colleagues in Theaters Against War, “Rachel’s words deal with suffering, unimaginable, horrific suffering; and it is exactly now, during these days of uncertainty and transition that the world needs to be reminded of horrific, unjust acts… By this I don’t mean to take away from any other suffering. Having been there, I can tell you, that though different as night and day, Israeli suffering is real and tangible and fraught with nightmarish history. But Rachel’s words are incredibly fair and honest and effective and beautiful and urgent.”
2. A central reason why so many people – activists and otherwise – were outraged about the cancellation was because it pointed to a constant failure of the broader US public culture to speak about “the last taboo in American discourse”, as Edward Said termed it; Palestine. From the US media and the mouths of most US politicians, it is always “Palestinian violence or terrorism” and “Israeli defense”. In reality, however, Israel is occupying and colonizing Palestinian territory. That is the most important imbalance which is constantly ignored – even the phrase “occupied territories” has been changed to “disputed territories” and “settlements” to “neighborhoods” in much of the US media. “What we’ve seen so far are only the previews,” Israeli journalist Gideon Levy recently reported, quoting the head of Israeli army operations, referring to mounting civilian casualties in Gaza. And here in America we’re not even getting the previews. That the world of art – which many cling to as one of the last bastions of free speech in an increasingly corporatized culture – should shut down or even “postpone” real discussion about the violence and injustice that Palestinians continue to face was unconscionable.
3. Given the imbalance in the situation in Palestine and in Israel and the imbalance in media coverage of the conflict, what kind of “contextualization” would best befit My Name is Rachel Corrie? . If “contextualization” is meant to help an audience better understand the world of a play, perhaps appropriate context would be program notes about on-going human rights violations and details about the violence of the Israeli occupation, or guest speakers from Human Rights Watch or the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. But when all is said and done, it is the ultimately the play itself which is the art and no amount of hand-wringing about being able to contextualize a play properly should serve as an excuse on whether a company does or does not do a play. In suggesting that the reason for their “delay” was that they needed more time to “contextualize” the play, the NYTW seems to have mixed up priorities. But whose priorities were the NYTW listening to that led them to rank contextualization as more important than the play itself?
So why are people afraid of Rachel’s words? Because she urges independent critical thinking and she urges people to act – to leave their comfortable lives and bear witness to what is happening in the world and to do something about it. In an email to her mother, Rachel wrote, “I know that from the United States, it all sounds like hyperbole. …I really can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry about it. It really hurts me, again, like it has hurt me in the past, to witness how awful we can allow the world to be. I felt after talking to you that maybe you didn’t completely believe me. I think it’s actually good if you don’t, because I do believe pretty much above all else in the importance of independent critical thinking. And I also realize that with you I’m much less careful than usual about trying to source every assertion that I make. A lot of the reason for that is I know that you actually do go and do your own research. But it makes me worry about the job I’m doing.” She goes on to say, “This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do anymore.” People who see this play will be faced with a choice — now that I’ve seen this, what do I do?
For those who are frightened by the idea of people thinking critically and taking action on Palestinian human rights, “contextualization” could be the key to undermining the clear power of Rachel’s words. It could mean an experience after the play which diminishes the power of its essential truths, so people can go home feeling that the situation in Palestine and Israel is too complicated and upsetting for them to understand. The de-contextualization that could easily occur by providing audience members with “balanced overviews” certainly might mollify those people who are afraid of Rachel’s words. And for that reason, we argue that Rachel’s words can and should stand on their own – and the discourse should arise out of the writings themselves, not out of attempts to re-frame them.
To return to Hamlet: it wasn’t “the play and several talk-back sessions and liner notes” that could “catch the conscience of the king”. It was just the play.
Sally Eberhardt, Jen Marlowe, and Ann Petter are three of the founders of Rachel's Words, an initiative that came out of the cancellation of My Name is Rachel Corrie. Visit them at www.rachelswords.org.