Girlish Figure

23rd Nov 2006

The staged legacy of Rachel Corrie.

Of all the subjects for a 90-minute, one-woman show, Rachel Corrie ought to have been at the bottom of the list. Corrie was the 23-year-old Evergreen State College student crushed in March 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer that was either set to raze a Palestinian home or clear brush that could conceal explsovies, depending on whom you believe. She trekked all the way from Olympia, Washington, to the Gaza Strip with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM)–which, despite claiming the mantle of a “peace” movement, has nonetheless abetted Palestinian suicide bombers. And now, New York’s Minetta Lane Theater is telling her story in “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” which brought the largest advance for any show ever performed there. It is based on Corrie’s e-mails and diary entries, and it paints her as a saint who died for a worthy cause by eliding all of the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In locales from Corrie’s dorm room to the streets of the Rafah refugee camp, “My Name is Rachel Corrie” takes us into the mind of its namesake. But there is hardly any mention of the Palestinian people she was so committed to. Corrie looks either like one of the upper-middle-class kids who take Latin American latrine-digging vacations to buff up their college resumes, or one of the “political pilgrims”–to use Paul Hollander’s phrase–of the cold war (Paul Robeson, Ramsey Clark, Susan Sontag) who ventured to totalitarian lands and returned to boast of slumming it with the liberated natives. The selection of Corrie’s writings on display never adequately explains why she would so determinedly seek out a dangerous place she knew little about, other than that she had a deep antipathy toward “injustice.” A telling indicator not in the play was a photo circulated after her death; in it (and in her diary), Corrie flaunts her hatred of the United States by burning a mock American flag while Palestinian children crowd around her.

If the Palestinians in this play are props, the Israelis are sound effects. As this is a one-woman show, we obviously do not see either the Palestinians or the Israelis, but we sense the latter more than the former. We hear machine guns, helicopter blades, and tanks (though never the sounds of suicide bombs). If you watched “My Name is Rachel Corrie” knowing little about this decades-long crisis, you would leave thinking that Israelis are sadistic monsters who kill Palestinians at random, destroy olive groves, and harass women and children for the sheer thrill of it. The few mentions of terrorism or suicide bombing are vague, and only in reference to “the right of people to legitimate armed struggle.” Never is it suggested that these acts take place against civilian targets, not soldiers (though, in her diary, Corrie excuses that, too)

In prostrating herself before an Israeli bulldozer, Corrie actually became that which she was (unwittingly, perhaps) protecting: the Palestinian suicide martyr. She received the martyr treatment–in both Palestinian propaganda and far-left protest circles–becoming a pieta of the anti-Israel movement. Or, as her ex-boyfriend put it, “she has become her death.”

The actress Megan Dodds, who plays Corrie, does so accurately. She alternates between two personas in the play: on the one hand, an exuberant girl we see at the beginning (jumping about her messy room, perkily talking about boys) and, on the other, a self-righteous college activist espousing platitudes about the state of the world and the evils of U.S. foreign policy. Dodds, to her credit, is an honest performer: She does not bend to the (no doubt difficult) temptation to make Corrie less grating or sanctimonious than her diaries make her seem.

For a one-person show to sustain itself, its subject must either be humorous (think Elaine Stritch), possess some sort of intellectual severity (Spalding Gray), or both (Hal Holbrooke as Mark Twain). Rachel Corrie did not have any of these. Corrie’s bouts of moral indignation overshadow a few moments of humor, which are nothing more than girlish flightiness anyway. She was a simpleton when it came to world politics, and yet the play sanctifies her as some sort of sage witness to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In part, due to the epistolary basis of “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” comparisons have been made to “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This is partly true. The villains in both plays are heard from but, for the most part, not seen; they are nevertheless omnipresent and threatening. But the comparison ends there: With Corrie, the bad guys are Israelis; with Frank, they are Nazis–hardly equal purveyors of horror. And Anne Frank was a probing character whose blameless observations of fascist Europe demonstrated the cruelty of a period in which children were perfunctorily murdered. Rachel Corrie was a know-it-all who deliberately placed herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s more, there is an issue of moral culpability among antagonists. Obviously, Frank’s murderers had it. But Corrie died, accidentally, after giving intellectual (and actual) cover to those who are, essentially, the heirs of Frank’s killers.

Bereft of gravity, a sympathetic character, or a compelling story, “My Name is Rachel Corrie” ignominiously turns to emotional blackmail. The image on the playbill is of a pre-pubescent Corrie smiling with wispy blond hair blowing across her face. Much of what the editors selected from Corrie’s diaries reflect upon her childhood innocence. (Those editors are the venerable British actor Alan Rickman and, less shockingly, Katharine Viner, a writer and editor for The Guardian.) The last segment in the play is a video, taken when Corrie was in the fifth grade, decrying the state of world poverty and declaring her intent to personally “save” the poor. “I’m here because I care,” she says in the video, and no doubt she was in Gaza because she cared. (What exactly she cared about is something the play, and Corrie herself, obfuscates.) But this adorable video is meant to convert your sympathy for Corrie into sympathy for her cause. How dare we ridicule such an precocious and idealistic young girl who now lies dead because of her devotion to world peace? What right do any of us have to question the cause for which Corrie gave her life? This is Cindy Sheehan politics.

But what the video unwittingly reveals is that Corrie never outgrew the naïve little schoolgirl. Corrie at 23 was just like Corrie at ten. And that is what’s so tragic and so telling about those who wish to change the world without really trying to understand it.

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