We saw My Name is Rachel Corrie at the matinee yesterday afternoon in the Seattle Rep’s Leo K theater. My wife had wanted to go during previews, but it was The Stranger’s review that finally got me to consent with its intriguing observation, “funny thing for a play—to try to de-fictionalize a person.”
After seeing Rachel Corrie I agree that, rather than fictionalizing historically existing people as is more usual in the theater, this play does indeed succeed in de-fictionalizing a figure whose tragic death has been swept up in political controversy, and restoring some sense of her quirky, individual, actual humanity to her. As someone said in the post-play Q&A, it was more like a memorial service to the real Rachel, than a play about her brief life and scandalous death beneath an Israeli bulldozer in the occupied territories.
And it was especially so this Sunday afternoon, with her parents and a sister in attendance, as we found out after.
They were also part of the Humanities Forum that followed hard on the Q&A in the Seattle Rep lobby. How to talk about this play as theater with the actual grieving family in attendance was a question for which I had no answer, and so refrained from making any contribution myself.
Others had no such compunctions. The first person called on after the panel’s presentation was an Arab American who said the case of Rachel Corrie was not complicated at all, it was just a simple murder. Among the last was one of the Jewish-American leafleteers who circulated before the show, objecting to the aid and comfort Rachel gave to Palestinian suicide bombers. Both wanted nothing more than to reclaim Rachel for propaganda purposes.
All the more impressive, then, the theatrical work this performance does so well, as evidenced by the responses of some people who had actually seen and paid attention to the play. One woman spoke up to say that the play didn’t seem to be primarily about the Palestinian issue at all, but rather about the issue of our common humanity, and how Rachel’s deep appreciation for it drove her to the activism she embraced.
A University of Washington student activist spoke up last, praising the play’s many resonances for her, and its celebration of the impulses that lead some to take direct action for social justice, whatever the cause.
What I would have wanted to discuss, if there had been the opportunity, was how My Name is Rachel Corrie seems a throwback to the most ancient form of drama, back to when Thespis legendarily first detached an actor from the chorus to speak in the character’s own voice – or even before that, to when the chorus told the story alone. Except that in this case, as befits our more individualistic age, it’s all Rachel – she speaks in her own name, and serves as her own chorus, except for the brief voice over at the end that tells the one thing she could not say for herself, the manner of her death.
And when all is said and done, the drama made from her letters, journal entries, emails, and a final video of her at age 10 or perhaps 11 reading from what must have been a prizewinning essay on social activism, does indeed play very much like an Aristotelian tragedy, albeit with other resonances that would be better theorized by a Rene Girard or Bertold Brecht. Rachel’s noble example inspires much pity in all of us, and doubtless even some real fear in audience members who can most easily identify with her, like the UW activist: a young woman swept up by her activist sympathies, studies and commitment into an action that, tragically, results in her death, through no real fault of her own.
True, she does make some crucial errors that lead up to it – first in going to Israel on a bit of a whim, then, after the reality of the situation confronts her, in thinking her privileged white internationalist status will still probably keep her, unlike the Palestinians she tries to protect, safe from the Israelis. Alas, it probably would have, if a government could control all its solidiers actions, which it can’t. Rachel’s final error lies in thinking that the best way to regain her footing and prevent the tractor driver from running her over is to hop up on the mound of dirt he’s creating to get his attention – since as a fellow moral human actor, he of course wouldn’t run her over if he could avoid it, right? – when that seems only to have put her in the immediate path of a violence that by that point had gotten out of even his own control.
Rachel also estranges our ideas of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, turning it from the quotidian headlines we ignore into a situation we agree is intolerable, and should be made to stop before it claims another victim as blameless as Rachel, if not as recognizably American – someone actually, in fact, stateless – before it claims another dispossessed Palestinian like those Rachel was trying to protect.
As such, perhaps the pro-Israeli leafleteers are right to protest this play – it will do much to discredit the tactics they’ve used against innocent Palestinian settlers, out of frustration at not being able to stop the suicide intifadaists who, pari passu, are busy making innocent victims of some poor Israelis on the other side of the conflict.
Yet even so, I think they are wrong to. This play could just as well inspire another Rachel Corrie to mount some kind of non-violent direct action against those very suicide bombers – or, more likely, given the difficulty of getting close enough to that kind of bulldozer in time to have any effect, against those that organize and fund them. Rachel Corrie is just that even-handed in its humanity.
After all, it was the Israeli government’s error – or at least its bulldozing representative’s – that transformed the now-historical Rachel Corrie into that kind of thing from which anti-Israeli – and even anti-Semitic – propaganda is made.
Those who support Israel – maybe not precisely as it is, but as it could be – should be happy that, finally, here’s a play that restores Rachel to her common humanity – in all its precocious, exhuberant, naive, conflicted, committed glory – and makes all who see the play glad we share our own little bit of it with someone like her.
Such a character, properly considered, is almost by definition useless for propaganda.
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