My Name is Rachel Corrie was first staged in London at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs on 7 April 2005, then on 11 October 2005 at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. It transferred to London’s Playhouse Theatre on 28 March 2006, and has since been performed at many other venues, attesting to the popularity with audiences of a play that clearly goes against the grain of Britain’s pro-Israeli policies.
The play questions why a 23-year-old woman would turn her back on the comfort of her life in America to stand between an Israeli bulldozer and a Palestinian house, one of hundreds of such houses which the Israeli armed forces continue to bring down on their owners heads. Although the play is based almost exclusively on Rachel’s diaries and e-mails, its last two fleeting scenes are scenes are taken from recordings, the first the words of an eyewitness to her murder by the driver of the bulldozer. He describes her face covered in blood, a deep wound running from her cheeks to mouth. Minutes later, on 16 March 2003, she would be dead of a brain haemorrhage. The second recording shows Rachel as a 10-year-old girl in the fifth grade at her primary school, her childish voice charged with empathy for the starving children of the Third World of whom 40,000 die every day. It matters to her, she says, and she cares.
During the time that the play was first being staged newspapers carried the news that the British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith was to visit Israel to discuss the circumstances surrounding the shooting of two British nationals. The families of award-winning cameraman James Miller and student activist Tom Hurndall had accused the Israeli authorities of subverting the investigation into the two deaths. Israeli Defence Force sergeant Taysir Hayb was sentenced to eight years in prison after being found guilty of the manslaughter of Hurndall. Miller, 34, was shot in May 2003 while filming Palestinian children in the Rafah refugee camp; Hurndall, 22, was shot in April 2003, dying in January 2004, after he had been moved to London and had been in a coma for nine months
Rachel Corrie’s murder was the first in this series of assassinations of "Westerners" in Gaza. Both she and Hurndall were activists with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organization that supports non-violent Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. Rachel Corrie, killed two days before the beginning of the attack on Baghdad, was subsequently praised by Edward Said who eulogized her heroism and dignity.
The text of the play, compiled from Rachel’s journals and other writings, was composed by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, with Rickman also directing the Royal Court performances. Viner brought rare artistic insight to the text against all opposition. She mentions that many Israelis considered Rachel at best naïve, meddling in a situation she did not understand, while Americans considered her a traitor, with some websites going so far as to rant that she should burn in hell for all eternity.
While the play was being staged Stephan Walt and John Mearsheimer published their study of the Israeli lobby, exposing a great deal about the ethnic cleansing, massacres and rape of Arabs involved in the creation of Israel between 1947 and 1948. Between 1949 and 1956 Israeli armed forces killed between 2,700 and 5,000 Arab infiltrators, most of whom were unarmed. In 1967 between 100,000 and 260,000 Palestinians were expelled from the West Bank and 80,000 Syrians from the Golan Heights. The Swedish branch of Save the Children has estimated that between 23,600 and 29,900 children, almost all under the age of 10, needed medical treatment as a consequence of violence during the first two years of the first Intifada, while according to Ha’aretz Israeli forces fired a million bullets in the second Intifada.
The demolitions of houses, the scorched earth policy, the murder of citizens, the siege and invasion of villages that Rachel witnessed have already been documented in numerous studies. So what new does the play bring? Is it just one more testimony to the record of horrors that are already in the public domain despite a fraudulent media presided over by the Israeli lobby and its partners in new world order, led by the US?
Like other activists Rachel believed that as a white American woman and a member of an international organization she could operate in relative safety. But activists like her are now routinely deported from Israel, and are often subjected to extreme smear campaigns. Viner cites Rachel’s ex-boyfriend as saying that her friends could not help but wish it was not as the American blonde killed in the documentary Death of an Idealist that Rachel had become famous. All her ideas and artistic projects, he said, had been reduced to "a bullet point".
In My name is Rachel Corrie the two writers seek to recover the young woman occluded by the political symbol. Rickman says that he and Viner avoided casting Rachel as a saint, seeking instead to discover what made her different from the stereotype of today’s apolitical consumerist youth as they assembled and edited some 184 pages of her writings to represent her words in a dramatic work.
Rickman and Viner turn Rachel’s world — as recorded in her journals and e-mails, her bedroom as a child and young woman, and the temporary rooms she occupied in Gaza — into a stage. Her life is played out in scenes on an almost bare stage, with just a few pieces of furniture and curtains in the background. Megan Dodds, who plays Rachel in this monodrama, addresses the audience directly, suggesting that all the world’s a stage and that all the men and women, whether part of the heroine’s life — mother, father, boyfriend, his new girlfriend — or famous people she is influenced by, are merely players who have their entrances and their exits. They are at once actors and spectators watching themselves and others in an assumed dramatic plot.
In presenting herself, the heroine plays her allotted roles nonchalantly while also standing outside them, as if controlling the performance, picking roles for both herself and us. The boundaries between the stage and life, between theatrical performance and politics, are flexible from the first scene of the play, in Rachel’s room in Olympia, Washington, strewn with books and clothes amid which she lounges. She had painted the walls red — it seemed like a great idea at the time, but now they look tragically prescient as she gets ready to jot down dreams, write in her journal, draw the maps she sees as somehow important. In the opening scene the security of her bedroom in the US foreshadows and anticipates her tragic end in Gaza, beneath the Israeli bulldozer.
Rachel recalls other roles, other aspects of her personality, the lazy double who leaves clothes in messy piles, turns over ashtrays, loses all the pens and scatters glossy magazines on the floor. She spends time painting the walls and sticking up posters, a labor of love that she is astonished she had never noticed would result in an ugly room. She screams that she sees her reflection distorted in the mirror and tries to recreate herself from pictures, by collecting books and imbibing them. The character who says "my name is Rachel Corrie", fashioned from art and thought, is shot through with contradictions that turn life itself into a terrifying mirror raised in front of her, a reverse of the traditional metaphor for mimesis. She acts the parts of her life as if it is were drama, borrowing the metaphors and perspectives of the stage, drawing on all the literature she has read.
Addressing the audience in lines taken from Rachel’s journal, Dodds asks where the story begins: is the attempt to impose order on her life, on the psychotic fast forward merry-go- round, the first step towards arriving at a blue space? And if this is the story how does it end, she asks both her boyfriend and best friend. She urges him, if he seeks thrills and suspense, to go elsewhere rather than listen to her tale.
Yet what she sees as meaningless details allow the audience to gain a gradual insight into the heroine’s image of herself and her understanding of her actions as flexible, full of potentials and possibilities. She recalls discovering boys as a young girl, and how they made her life at once more exciting and more difficult; later, falling in love with a man who is always leaving her.
She lives in a town known for its liberalism, a refuge for hippies and rebels. Borrowing much of her identity from this context, she speaks of her sense of self as a collection of conscious and unconscious constructions. Although she does not believe in astrology, she delves into her zodiac sign, into the meaning of her name and the mythology it has collected.
Though the character presented appears liberated from social constraints, the two writers have not shied away from including extracts from Rachel’s journals implying that many of her apparently independent choices are grounded in the influence of her family and social milieu. She learned in second grade that people need to feel secure in themselves and in their bodies to be able to say what they think. She had considered her father the wisest person in the world but will later criticize his neo-liberal positions as ultimately conservative.
So what does she want to do when she grows up? Certainly not to become a mutilated corpse. Some of her classmates opt for respectable professions — doctors and engineers. But Rachel’s choices range from wandering poet, first woman president of the Republic to Spiderman. Ten years later she will still refuse to cross out Spiderman. There is no dividing line in her mind between imaginary and real roles.
Following a trip to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, she decides to be an artist, writer, poet, playwright, regardless of whether she ends up starving or meets with little or no success. And with her growing awareness she comes to play a "role" in anti-war and pro-justice activities, criticizing her government’s policies funded by tax-payers’ money.
In the formation of her identity there is admiration and identification with famous people. She mentions five who are dead that she wishes she had met — Salvador Dali, Carl Jung, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy and Empess Josephine. She also mentions the five people she would like to hang out with in eternity: e. e. cummings, Rilke, Jesus, Gertrude Stein and Zelda Fitzgerald. Finally, as an afterthought, she puts in Charlie Chaplin. The human attributes she identifies with are wide-ranging, yet all these figures have in common the fact that they wrestled with the monsters of their times and dreamed of a new humanism worth the name despite the sway of the monsters.
Her name is Rachel Corrie. So what’s in a name? Her mother was keen to bring her daughter up on liberal values, and in doing so inadvertently opened up the door to greater independence. The daughter wants to see life and write about it, but of what shall she write if she remains in the doll’s house in which she was raised. The liberal world represented by her mother ultimately gave her the potential to overcome and outgrow it. She asks her mother allow her wrestle with her own monsters.
It is not possible to set aside the bigger issue. My Name is Rachel Corrie does, however, present the drama of life and the issue of personal identity in an exceptional manner.
© 2006 Al Ahram Weekly