Review of "My Name is Rachel Corrie"

Culture Watch

Ms. Fay is an associate professor of Middle East history at Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD

The controversial play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, closed the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to sold-out houses on the final weekend of the festival. Produced for the first time in London at the Royal Court Theater in April 2005, the play has met obstacles and provoked heated debates in the U.S. when theater companies have attempted to mount productions of the play, and its inclusion in the CATF was no exception.

The play is based on the diaries and emails of Corrie, an idealistic young woman from Olympia, Washington, who, as a volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), was killed at the age of 23 by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip on March 16, 2003. That much – and little else – is agreed upon by those who think that the play speaks truths about the 40-year Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank that audiences, particularly in the U.S., need to hear and those who have criticized the play as the writings of a dangerously naïve young woman who served as a front for “terrorists” who have taken the lives of Israeli civilians. Rachel Corrie’s life and death have become a template on which opposing sides in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis write their narratives of the past and contemporary events.

As we witness Corrie’s political awakening during her short time in Gaza, her words take on significance beyond the immediate because they go to the heart of the conflict and the debates about the nature of the Israeli occupation, the rights of the occupied to resist occupation, the definition of terrorism and the responsibilities of the occupying power toward the civilian population. The play demonstrates the power of language to construct reality and Corrie, by leaving behind a written record of her time in Gaza, has now become part of the historiography of the conflict.

At the performance on Saturday, July 28, the closing weekend of the festival, Anne Marie Nest, the actress portraying Corrie, was speaking passionately about the violence perpetrated against the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army. When she said that most of the Palestinians are civilians who just want to live in peace, a member of the audience jeered loudly enough to be heard by Nest, who immediately turned toward the sound and continued to speak as though addressing that person directly. Perhaps nothing conveyed so succinctly the yawing chasm between those like Corrie who assert that Palestinian civilians are supposed to be protected by international law and have little if no defense against one of the strongest militaries in the world and those who support Israel’s claims that it is fighting terrorists and defending Israeli civilians who have been subject to suicide bombings and rocket attacks.

When Corrie arrived in the Gaza Strip on January 25, 2003, she was by her own admission unschooled in the conflict in which she was intervening as a volunteer with the ISM. However, it would probably be inaccurate to describe her as politically naïve, since she is clearly aware of the power imbalances within the global system and of her own privileged position as a white woman from an upper-middle-class American family who, unlike the residents of Gaza whom she meets, befriends, and lives with, can leave at any time and escape the danger and hardships of occupation.

Although the play runs without an intermission, it has two parts. The first takes place when Corrie is still in Olympia and a student at Evergreen State College who is thinking back on her childhood and wondering about her future. She is also playful and funny, talks about boys and dating and pastes pictures of family and friends on her bedroom wall. In short, she is an idealistic American teenager trying to figure out where she belongs and what she should do with her life. Eventually, she decides to become an ISM volunteer and leaves for Israel.

The second part of the play opens with her arrival in Gaza during the third year of the Second Intifada or uprising of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank against the Israeli occupation. As a volunteer for the ISM, which has declared itself committed to non-violent support for Palestinians living under occupation, Corrie and other “internationals” as the volunteers are called, are supposed to use their status to protect Palestinian civilians by living with them and attempting to protect them, their homes, wells and vegetable gardens by standing between them and the Israeli soldiers and bulldozers.

The Israeli occupation forces have a history of demolishing the homes of those suspected of aiding or participating in acts they define as “terrorism” and Palestinians call “resistance.” At the time Corrie was in Gaza, Israeli bulldozers were also destroying homes in the path of the wall under construction along the border with Egypt. She and other volunteers were attempting to protect the home of a local pharmacist, Dr. Samir, who lived there with his wife and three children, when she was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer.

Although there were eyewitnesses to Corrie’s death, one of whom, Tom Dale, also an ISM volunteer, is heard at the end of the play recounting the details, there are alternative versions as well. Those alterative narratives from supporters of Israel contend that the driver could not see Corrie, that he was clearing brush and not attempting to demolish a home or that he was looking for tunnels used to smuggle arms from Egypt to Palestinians in Gaza. One version of the events surrounding Corrie’s death appears in the program for the CATF theater production as a paid advertisement produced by www.RachelCorrieFacts.org, which placed a similar ad in the playbill for the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of the play in the spring of 2007.

Ed Herendeen, the founder and artistic director of CATF, who directed the Corrie production at Shepherdstown, said he was not unaware of the controversy surrounding the play. The play originally performed in London in 2005 was co-written by Katherine Viner, an editor for the Guardian newspaper, and the British actor, Alan Rickman, who also directed the London production. The play was supposed to have its U.S. premiere in October 2006 at the New York Theater Workshop when, after considerable opposition to its performance, it was postponed and then cancelled. Herendeen, who was following the controversy, stepped in to purchase the rights for CATF. The London company eventually staged the play in New York by bringing its company and production to the Minetta Theater. According to Herendeen, there was concern among the members of the CATF board about mounting a production of the play. However, only one trustee, Alan Young, ultimately resigned and, according to Herendeen, withdrew his verbal pledge of $100,000 to the theater.

Although Herendeen thought he was prepared for the controversy, he was shocked at how vitriolic it became, particularly when he was called anti-Semitic by some of his critics. Herendeen said he was drawn to the play not because of its politics but because he was reminded of his own youth when, like Corrie, he was idealistic and wanted to change the world. As for those who argue that My Name is Rachel Corrie is a “biased and unbalanced” work, Herendeen said, “Art is not supposed to be balanced … It is a forum not a debate.” The controversy did not hurt CATF’s 2007 season because, according to Herendeen, attendance was up 3 percent and contributed income was up by $21,000. As Herendeen said, CATF might have lost some supporters, but it has gained a new audience for its productions.

  • The website of the Rachel Corrie Foundation, created by her family and friends, at: http://rachelcorriefoundation.org/
  • The International Solidarity Movement website at : http://www.palsolidarity.org/
  • The Electronic Intifada with a Palestinian perspective on the occupation at www.electronicintifada.net
  • www.rachelcorriefacts.org. The website of the Seattle-area group that alleges the play distorts the fact and gives an incomplete version of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The group organized when the Seattle Repertory Theatre staged a production of My Name is Rachel Corrie in March through May this year. The website includes links to other sites including the Anti-Defamation League at www.adl.org

Related Links

  • Ronald Radosh: The Myth of Rachel Corrie

  • comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    art eckstein - 8/29/2007

    Instead of bien-pensant blather from a journal that thought that Mearsheimer's and Walt's anti-semitic screed on "the Jewish Lobby" was too lacking in Marxist analysis, I suggest instead, for those actually interested in the real story of the rise of Rachel Corrie, the article "Martyr" by the award-winning novelist
    Cynthia Ozick, in The New Republic for 12.11.06

    Thomas Reimer - 8/29/2007

    For those still willing to learn, some articles on Rachel from the New York Observer, a middle-of-the-road publication

    Serge Lelouche - 8/28/2007

    But Those are JOOOOS! Don't you see, Corrie was an upper-middle-class red-headed Christian!

    art eckstein - 8/28/2007

    Rachel Thaler, aged 16, was blown up at a pizzeria in an Israeli shopping mall. She died after an 11-day struggle for life following a suicide bomb attack on a crowd of teenagers on 16 February 2002.
    Even though Thaler was a British citizen, born in London, where her grandparents still live, her death has never been mentioned in a British newspaper—and meanwhile the British media plunged full-steam into an idealization of the ignorant nincompoop Rachel Corrie (of which the play is one example)--Corrie, who was (after all), killed accidentally, and while trying to protect terrorists.

    Other innocent Rachel-victim of intentional Palestinian attacks on civilians include
    Rachel Levy (aged 17, blown up in a grocery store),
    Rachel Levi (19, shot while waiting for the bus), Rachel Gavish (killed with her husband, son and father while at home celebrating a Passover meal),
    Rachel Charhi (blown up while sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe, leaving three young children),
    Rachel Shabo (murdered with her three sons aged 5, 13 and 16 while at home)
    and Rachel Kol, 53, who worked at a Jerusalem hospital and was killed with her husband in a Palestinian terrorist attack in July 2005 a few days after the London bombs

    No one is writing plays about THEM.

    Serge Lelouche - 8/28/2007

    "I generally do not get involved with any discussion involving the Middle East (too many armchair zealots--to put it mildly--out there"

    That's right Tom, you're usually too busy apologizing for Nazism and marginalizing Jewish suffering in WWII.



    Thomas Reimer - 8/28/2007

    You guys are morally sick. Attacking Rachel is like attacking Anne Frank!

    By the way, for Americans to support the utmost right wingers in Israel does not help Israel at all in the long run. Unlike YOU (and me), they will have to come to terms with the neighborhood, as Rachel hoped. The crusaders were like that, too. Then came the Horns of Hattin, and all was lost, and the long agony began, lasting another century. Israel is not even as old as that battle, with still 28 years to go. Who can predict the future? Make peace now!

    I generally do not get involved with any discussion involving the Middle East (too many armchair zealots--to put it mildly--out there), but this is a new low. Do you have any shame?

    AGNES V FREUND - 8/28/2007

    Ms.Fay's review is most kind. I would like to add that Mr. Herendeen chose this play for the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in spite of the fact that it should not even have been considered: it is the work of two Britons - not American theatre at all.

    As to the explanation for his choice, there is good reason, by all accounts, to dispute that this is worthy 'art' and further doubt regarding his 'idealism'. It could be argued that he knew full well that controversy equals free publicity equals larger audiences. If he was motivated by idealism it surely would not have hurt to add at the end that the conclusion that this young activist was deliberately murdered by the Israelis is not self evident, to say the least. What cause was he really serving?

    Joseph Mutik - 8/27/2007

    She was so brainwashed that she decided to follow the suicidal culture of the Palestinians. It isn't martyrdom but hatred to the extreme.
    I wonder why the International Solidarity Movement doesn't send people to Darfur?

    Serge Lelouche - 8/27/2007

    Since Corrie's death it's become abundantly clear that she was being used, perhaps without her knowledge, to protect tunnels from Egypt. These tunnels were used to smuggle in rockets and bombs that, in turn, have been used to murder other girls named Rachael. But those Rachaels aren't upper-middle-class Christians, so their fate remains unimportant, I guess.