It has come to our attention that the October 26 issue of Sightings ("The Crush of Paradox") contained two misstatements: 1. The article suggests that the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie was "banned" in New York City. Though the New York Theater Workshop, which had planned a production, postponed its premiere, the play is currently being staged at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Manhattan. 2. The article also suggests that the Royal Court Theater in London "withdrew" this play. The play, however, saw two runs at this venue before moving to a larger theater in London's West End. We appreciate our readers' corrections; unfortunately, Sightings cannot do independent checking of facts on every item submitted and published.
October 26, 2006
The Crush of Paradox
— Leslee N. Johnson
Rachel Corrie, a twenty-three-year-old native of Olympia, Washington, died on March 16, 2003, crushed by a bulldozer deployed by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes on the border of Egypt. The bulldozer engulfed her in a wake of stones and earth, and then, shovel lowered, backed over her. Upon her arrival in Jerusalem, Corrie had written in her journal that "the Holy Land is full of rocks and it seems like you could fall off these hills."
This quote appears in the one-woman play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, co-written by actor and director Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner, editor of the Guardian Weekend Magazine. The play incorporates Corrie's journals and letters. During a recent visit to London, I saw the show at the Playhouse Theater. Most Americans, however, will never have the opportunity to see this play. The New York Theater Workshop planned a production for March of 2006, but, citing criticism from the Jewish community, postponed the opening indefinitely. The Royal Court, meanwhile, withdrew the play.
The controversy surrounding the play provides a window onto disconcerting tensions between religion, spirituality, and politics in America. Rachel Corrie put her life into the middle of a battlefield which defies reason and logic -- the Israeli-Arab conflict -- and the play puts us, metaphysically, in a similar position: between a home and a bulldozer.
In the Jerusalem Post, the character of Corrie is described as a shrill young woman who found her middle-class life "dull and unfulfilling," and decided to travel to Palestine and die foolishly. The result is a play "which rivals The Passion of the Christ in its antipathy toward the people of Israel." Katherine Viner responded to the Jerusalem Post: "[The play] is not a vehicle for a political message, but a portrait of one woman and her experiences -- and how she's changed by them, both in the U.S. and in Gaza." In northeastern America, where variations of the play are staged in small playhouses, critics characterize Corrie as a courageous peace warrior, a voice beatified in death. These reviewers echo Viner's insistence that the play is somehow beyond mere politics. But this stance is either disingenuous, or defensive, or both. After all, the play wasn't banned in New York for fear of young women running off to die under bulldozers in Gaza.
This play reveals a conversation at an impasse. Religious vocabulary proves ill-equipped for confronting the political and spiritual battles that rage over the much-coveted Holy Land. The Holy Land is full of rocks, and rocks are good for a couple of things: building and throwing. For some, the play is the cornerstone of a better world for all to live in; for others, it is a stone hurled through the stained glass of a precarious sanctuary. These responses reflect the intractable conflict itself and our tendency to characterize religio-secular agents according to polarities: sinners or saints, terrorists or liberators, vain or heroic. Rachel Corrie stands in between, and becomes, paradoxically, both and all.
Indeed, her words often indicate she may have been blinded by vain idealism -- or idealistic vanity. The play portrays a young woman at odds with herself and her country. Suffering the sleepless nights she causes her parents, and her own sleepless nights punctuated by gunfire, she struggles to understand the violent world and discern her responsibility within it, one moment retrieving a corpse from the DMZ, the next receiving food and grace from people whose lives and sufferings are incomparable to any she has known, and then dispatching helpless emails back home.
In one email she writes to her mother: "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. I still really want to dance around to Pat Benetar and have boyfriends and make comics for my co-workers. But I also want this to stop."
Such words, I believe, constitute the only justifiable reason to fear this play, for they pose the dangerous demand for a genuine political and spiritual crisis. In My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the words suffer the crush of a paradox that would either demonize or deify. But beneath the rocks of the Holy Land, under which Rachel Corrie has fallen, literally and rhetorically, she's singing and weeping, giving voice to something neither solely political nor conventionally religious, but rather sacred -- as much as the sacred can be spoken by a fallible human tongue, or sung by rocks.
Leslee N. Johnson is an instructor in the English and Religion/Philosophy Departments at Mars Hill College.