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On March 16, 2003, 23-year-old Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while acting as a "human shield" against the demolition of a Palestinian home in Rafah. She immediately became a martyr and a political symbol for the Palestinian cause. To many Israelis, however, she naively intruded into an enormously complex political situation of which she was largely ignorant. Others, here and abroad, considered her an aid to terrorists and a traitor. Mostly, however, her death has transformed her into an almost mythic figure. The web is bursting with tribute sites, and there have been documentaries about her life and death.
Now, three years after her still contentious death, Rachel Corrie is at the center of a new controversy, one that has turned into a spirited and often virulent debate over the nature of art, propaganda, freedom of expression and censorship.
Last year, Katherine Viner, an editor at The Guardian, and actor Alan Rickman (best known for roles in Sense and Sensibility and Love Actually) adapted 184 pages of Corrie's journals and emails, beginning at the age of 10, into a stage play.
"We wanted to uncover the young woman behind the political symbol, beyond her death," writes Viner in The Guardian. "We've tried to do justice to the whole of Rachel: neither saint nor traitor, both serious and funny, messy and talented, devastatingly prescient and human and whole." Rickman adds, "The activist part of her life is absolutely matched by the imaginative part of her life. I've no doubt at all that had she lived there would have been novels and plays pouring out of her."
"My Name is Rachel Corrie," directed by Rickman and starring Meghan Dodds, ran to mostly great acclaim in London. It was scheduled to arrive on March 22 at the New York Theater Workshop, known for typically embracing more controversial material. It is, for instance, the home of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," "Homebody, Kabul" and the original, pre-Broadway, "Rent."
At the end of February, just weeks before the play was to begin, the theater's artistic director, James Nicola, announced in a statement that the play would be "postponed indefinitely."
"In our pre-production planning...what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon's illness and the election of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, we had a very edgy situation." Nicola also said that he wasn't so much worried about potential audience reaction, but "about those who had never encountered her writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments."
On March 1, Viner wrote an Op-ed for the Los Angeles Times blasting Nicola's decision as an act of censorship. "Since when did theater come to be about those who don't go to see it? If the play itself, as Mr. Nicola clearly concedes, is not the problem, then isn't the answer to get people to watch it, rather than exercising prior censorship?" She also asserts that "anyone who sees the play, or reads it, realizes that this is no piece of alienating agitprop.
The reasons for the cancellation are indeed dubious. First it was an "edgy political situation," then it was the desire for more preparation time, and then it became an argument over the meaning of "postponed" versus "cancelled."
"As we listened to various opinions and read thousands of entries on Web sites and blogs, we realized we needed to find ways to let Rachel's words rise above the polemics," Nicola tells The Jerusalem Post. "We regret that requesting more time to achieve that goal was interpreted as failing to fulfill a commitment and, worse, as censorship. No outside group has ever or will ever participate in the artistic decision-making process at NYTW."
"I've read everything about this," Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother, tells The Post from her home in Olympia, Washington. "I've read everything James Nicola has said, but it's hard to piece together exactly what happened. They were advertising tickets on the Internet, they even asked us to come to New York to do after-show talks. We don't really understand what happened, and we're very disappointed."
Why then, was the play cancelled? Was it indeed political pressure? Was it, as actress Vanessa Redgrave exclaims, "censorship of the worst kind" and the "blacklisting of a dead girl and her diaries"? Theater critic Edward Rothstein thinks it might be more complicated than that.
"In an apparent effort to camouflage Corrie's radicalism and broaden the play's appeal," he writes in the New York Times on March 6, "the play's creators elided phrases that suggested her more contentious view of things-cutting, for example, her reference to the 'chronic, insidious genocide' she says she is witnessing, or her justification of the 'somewhat violent means' used by Palestinians."
He also points out that there is "no hint about why such [house] demolitions were taking place." The play doesn't mention, for instance, that "tunnels leading from Egypt under the border into homes in Gaza were being used to smuggle guns, rocket launchers and explosives to wield against Israel."
Neither Viner nor Rickman responded to The Post's requests for an interview, but Jen Marlowe, co-founder of the Rachel's Words Initiative (www.rachelswords.org), answers The Post saying: "I would not assume any motivation on the part of Viner and Rickman-they had a lot of text to edit-the material is not just what Rachel wrote in Gaza. I don't think her views are whitewashed. You could make arguments about any line that was cut and use it to support an agenda. They chose words that allow us to see the evolution of a young person who made the decision to go to Gaza." She adds, "It's not the responsibility of the play to show the Israeli army's perspective. It's the responsibility of the play to show Rachel's perspective."
Cindy Corrie agrees. "Whether it's a play, a piece of art, or a lecture, nothing can present all points of view. I don't think there's an obligation to show every point of view. This play isn't only about a political conflict, it's about Rachel, a human being who lost her life."
Naomi Ragen, the novelist and playwright whose work has been critical of the Hasidic community, has a decidedly starker view. She has not seen "My Name is Rachel Corrie," but tells The Post: "As a playwright whose own play, 'Women's Minyan,' is no stranger to controversy, I applaud this [decision to cancel the play]. It is one thing to bring to light controversial subjects, it's quite another to play into the hands of propagandists who use the arts to promote lies and half lies and outright lies in the service of a trendy and often dangerous agenda to convince rational people that those who support terror are complex and worthwhile human beings."
"Everything in this play screams the opposite of propaganda," says Marlowe, whose organization planned two large events in New York City, on March 16th and March 22 respectively, to commemorate the third anniversary of Corrie's death. "It saddens me that a writer wouldn't realize the importance of not stifling other people's words and experiences. Nothing in this play serves the terrorist cause. The play is all about resisting violence and oppression. Rachel was not against anyone."
"In the U.S. especially, there are often efforts to discredit people who address these issues," says Cindy Corrie. "This is harmful to everyone: Palestinians, Israelis and Americans. Sometimes there is a sense of 'You shouldn't be talking about this.' But there is a lot to address here, from all sides. So many people in America don't know about this issue, and it's a big problem. We had really hoped people would see the play here, come away with lots of questions, and seek answers for them."
"Let dialogue arise from the content of the play," says Marlowe. "Let it spur open discourse about very difficult issues."
"When we were at a performance in London," says Corrie, "Alan Rickman introduced us to an Israeli couple, who were members of the right wing Likud Party. They said, 'This play isn't anti-Israel, it's anti-violence.' Doesn't this show that people coming in with certain expectations can leave the play with something entirely different?"
Ragen doesn't think so. "I've done extensive research on Rachel Corrie," she explains. "She was a member of ISM (the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement)... A photo of Corrie burning a U.S. flag was widely distributed before her accidental death which took place as she was attempting, once again, to prevent the IDF from carrying out its life-saving task... The New York Theater Workshop, which decided to bring this play to New York, very wisely decided to scrap the project. Understandably, those who stand to benefit from this twisted piece of fiction are upset to have lost such a prestigious venue."