Mark Steyn

Request of the Week

Vacationing in Someone Else's Despair

Dear Mark,
I'm sure you've been following the controversy in Canada over the Caryl Churchill play "Seven Jewish Children." Now might be a good time to repeat your review of the Rachel Corrie play. It was in New Criterion.


MARK SAYS: Indeed. I mentioned Seven Jewish Children when I gave my little speech at Ezra Levant's book event in Ottawa in front of various grandees from Parliament. It was the day after somebody wrote to The National Post demanding the play be banned on account of its "offensiveness". And I observed that 40 years ago the Lord Chamberlain in London had lost his power to censor - for sex scenes, swearing, jokes about the Royal Family - on account of the fact that such arrangements were self-evidently absurd. And yet here we were a mere four decades later, and "progressive" types were demanding the Crown ban plays all over again, this time in order to prevent "offensiveness". When confronted with a bad play, you don't ban it, you pan it. Which is what I hope I did in the piece below. And don't forget, the SteynOnline Request Of The Week appears each Thursday, so do drop a line requesting a favorite column or even a favourite column here.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie
The New Criterion, June 2005

The latest ill-advised West End compilation show is My Name Is Rachel Corrie, at the Royal Court. Miss Corrie did not sing or dance or front a rock group; rather, she was a young American lady crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza two years ago. But, like Queen and Rod Stewart, she left a back catalogue – miscellaneous writings, from her Fifth Grade "Press Conference on World Hunger" back in Olympia, Washington ("I'm here because I care") to the e-mails she sent home from the Palestinian territories ("Today I tried to learn to say 'Bush is a tool', but I don't think it translated quite right"). Alan Rickman, star of stage and screen, and Katharine Viner, of The Guardian, have turned Miss Corrie's words into a compilation show, a biotuner of her life sent to a contented unison hum of great progressive minds thinking alike. Rachel Corrie is no Sammy Davis Jr, but she surely is a more complex figure than that presented here. After her death made her a martyr for the Palestinian cause, Internet bloggers who disliked the instant beatification began running pictures of a headscarved Corrie, her face contorted in what's either hate or a persuasive facsimile thereof, torching the Stars & Stripes at some Palestinian demo. The Royal Court's playbill prefers another image: a family snap of Rachel in the garden, aged maybe seven or so, wind in her blonde hair, a cute pink T-shirt. She is a child, an innocent, and the play works hard to blur the lines between that photograph and the activist living in Gaza with Palestinian "militants".

Directed by Rickman, My Name... is a one-woman show in which Megan Dodds plays Corrie as an idealized naïf. We meet her as a gawky teen sprawled on her bed in a very messy room. "Each morning," she begins, "I wake up in my red bedroom that seemed like genius when I painted it, but looks more and more like carnage these days. I blink for a minute. I get ready to write down some dreams or a page in my diary or draw some very important maps. And then the ceiling tries to devour me."

Ah, yes. A teen journal by someone who already knows she's going to be a writer. She spends much of her time, she tells us, "imagining I live in a Mountain Dew commercial. I am always on the beach with a bevy of sinewed friends and we are always dancing."

Sometimes she plays like a Lonely Hearts ad that's trying too hard: "Okay, I'm Rachel. Sometimes I wear ripped blue jeans. Sometimes I wear polyester. Sometimes I take off all my clothes and swim naked at the beach. I don't believe in fate but my astrological sign is Aries, the ram, and my sign on the Chinese zodiac is the sheep, and the name Rachel means sheep but I've got a fire in my belly." If you like pina colada and getting caught in the rain, write me enclosing a recent photograph.

And sometimes she isn't so much self-aware as self-aware of her self-awareness. Writing of weekend strolls with an ex-boyfriend, she observes, "Colin always wanted to walk faster and I wanted to trudge and identify ferns."

Miss Dodds and Rickman are canny enough in their sentimental agitprop to play up the gaucheness, to establish it as part of the character's charm. We know how this story ends and that knowledge is supposed to invest the goofy all-American teen rambling with the burthen of fate. It certainly worked with Michael Billington, the long-time heavyweight of The Guardian's arts pages. "What comes as a shock is realising that she combined an activist's passion with an artist's sensibility," he wrote. "Louis MacNeice once yearned for a poet who was 'informed in economics, actively interested in politics'. Rachel Corrie emerges as just such a person. Writing was clearly in her blood... She itemises the people she would like to hang out with in eternity; significantly, they are mainly writers, including Rilke, ee cummings, Gertrude Stein and Zelda Fitzgerald."

Oh, come off it. The significance of those names is not that they're "writers" but that they're an impressionable teen's quaintly clichéd idea of what a hip writer is meant to be, from the lower case cummings to the basket-case Zelda. That's what makes it likeable: The world didn't lose a great writer when Rachel Corrie got crushed by a bulldozer, and, whether or not her parents (who made this material available) appreciate that, Rickman and Viner seem to, and make it serve their purpose. The precocious self-absorption infantilises not just Miss Corrie but ultimately the Palestinians whose cause she champions: like that picture on the playbill, they too are children, innocents in a poisoned garden.

The Middle East pops up casually – "Yesterday I heard from Chris in Gaza. I am being invited there..." So Rachel sets off to be a "human shield", leaving her home phone number with The Olympian in case they want to contact her and giving a word of advice to Mom on dealing with the press: "If you talk about the 'cycle of violence', or 'an eye for an eye', you could be perpetuating the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a balanced conflict, instead of a largely unarmed people against the fourth most powerful military in the world."

Fair enough. Those empty phrases are used to avoid hard choices: equivalence is mostly false and the plague-on-both-their-houses line is the lamest refuge of pompous commentators. And at least we now know where Rachel stands. There's no sense of any political journey: as presented here, her views on Palestine emerge fully formed from the jumble of random thoughts on boys, great writers and endangered owls. And suddenly it's January 2003 and she's flying to Jerusalem.

In a spirited if somewhat underpowered performance vocally, Megan Dodds can't quite make this transition work, because it feels fake. Rachel Corrie was born in 1979 and is just shy of her 24th birthday for most of the action of this play. Yet Rickman and Viner choose to introduce her to us as an adolescent. Other 23-year olds are doing dull jobs, or exciting jobs, or finishing up college on the other side of the country, or raising babies, but Rachel seems still to be a high-schooler letting us in on the giggly confidences of her teen diary. For her parents in licensing this production, this is an understandable choice: they've lost a child and it's the child in her they want to hold on to. But for the authors and director it seems rather more calculated. Indeed, Hildegard Bechtler's set – a kid's bedroom in her parents' house piled with the debris of adolescence – seems explicitly designed to prevent us regarding Rachel as a fully-formed adult.

Bechtler and Rickman pull off the transformation in the narrative very adroitly: she pushes aside her teenager's bed and the mounds of trainers and sweatshirts and kiddie posters, and walks along ugly bare concrete to a new mound – rubble this time, and a parched tree: the ruins of Israeli-oppressed Palestine. We're meant to see this as a revelation, a literal broadening of the horizon, an end to pampered parochialism. Wandering round the Holy Land as a terror tourist, she reads to us random jottings from her journal: "January 27th: An attack in Gaza the night before last killed 14 and injured around 30."

Which is true. Except that it's not quite the whole story. The statistic is relayed to us as a typical night in Gaza City, whereas in fact it was the launch of an unprecedented offensive by the IDF against the town's terror nests: it was exceptional, not routine.

Perhaps it would make no difference even if we knew that. The British columnist Melanie Phillips reported recently that a friend of hers had gone into Blackwell's, Oxford's famous university bookshop, and asked if they had a copy of Alan Dershowitz's book The Case For Israel. "There is no case for Israel," replied the clerk. Just so: in Britain as (for different reasons) in the rest of Europe, there is no case for Israel. Even those who are pro-Bush and pro-war incline – like Tony Blair – to the Palestinian side when the question of "the Middle East peace process" rears its ugly head. As for the patrician right, they've never cared for the Jew, especially the Zionist Jew: too pushy and self-reliant, they make hopeless colonial subjects. "All British officials tend to become pro-Arab, or, perhaps, more accurately anti-Jew," wrote Sir John Hope-Simpson in the Twenties wrapping up a tour of duty in mandatory Palestine. "Personally, I can quite well understand this trait. The helplessness of the fellah appeals to the British official. The offensive assertion of the Jewish immigrant is, on the other hand, repellent."

Exactly. Progressive transnational humanitarianism, as much as old-school colonialism, prefers its clientele "helpless", and, despite Iranian weaponry and Saudi money, the support of a 300 million-strong Arab Muslim bloc and the depraved human sacrifice of their own schoolchildren, the Palestinians have been masters at selling their "helplessness" to the west. When Rachel Corrie talks about "a largely unarmed people against the fourth most powerful military in the world", she's peddling the standard line: the Palestinians have no tanks, so they have to improvise with what they can lay their hands on – plastic explosives, schoolgirl delivery systems. In fact, not too long ago the Gaza and West Bank Arabs had plenty of tanks: the only reason they're living under "Israeli occupation" is because in 1967 their then governments in Jordan and Egypt sent their heavy machinery into action against the Zionist entity once too often. Indeed, the first 25 years of Israel's existence were spent fending off Arab tanks. Alas, ever since King Hussein fired his British general, Sir John Glubb, the Arabs have been total flops at conventional warfare. Fortunately for them, they discovered that, when it comes to undermining Israel, playing helpless and recruiting western patsies like Rachel Corrie is actually far more effective.

For me, the essence of the Arab/Israeli conflict is summed up in those periodic announcements that Yasser Arafat, the Saudi Crown Prince or whoever it is this month has agreed to recognize Israel's "right to exist". The fact that the "right to exist" is something to be negotiated gets to the heart of the problem. But I learned long ago that Britons and Europeans are impervious even to the politest debate on this issue. When one looks at the reviews for My Name Is Rachel Corrie, it's not the effusions from The Guardian, The Independent and other Fleet Street lefties that depress one, but the fact that the conservative press shares all their assumptions. Take the Telegraph, which mainly on the grounds that it employs me and (until recently) Barbara Amiel is frequently dismissed as a Zionist shill. If only. The Sunday Telegraph's reviewer, Emma Gosnell, wrote as follows: "Corrie was murdered two years ago, only two months after joining a non-violent Palestinian resistance organisation in Gaza."

"Murdered"? She was run over by a bulldozer while playing "human shield" in a war zone. Sad and regrettable, but murder? Did no Telegraph editor query that word? To be fair, Miss Gosnell's characterization of the International Solidarity Movement as a "non-violent Palestinian resistance movement" is less offensive than slippery dissembling formulations like "peace movement". The play, in fact, does not mention the organization by name. The reality is that nobody in Britain or Europe is interested in hearing these arguments. If they were, you might have a livelier show. Indeed, My Name... is a classic example of George S Kaufman's definition of a success d'estime – a success that runs out of steam. It got great reviews, was widely admired, but simply because its one-sidedness is taken for granted by all right-thinking people it never really took off as a bona fide "controversy".

Nonetheless, while undoubtedly distressing to those who think there is "a case for Israel", Rickman and Viner's play is a fascinating study in the lengths one has to go to to keep the Palestinians in their approved "helpless victim" state. For example, when Rachel arrives in Gaza to begin her activities as a human shield, you notice that her "writing" voice settles into two distinctive styles. When she's discussing Israel, she's all business – very reportorial:

We stopped and Jenny requested to talk to the commanding officer. A white truck with a blue light rolled up and the person in the truck spoke over the loudspeaker. Told us to leave, stated, 'You'll get the body later...'


But, when she's discussing the Arabs, it's vague, elliptical, impressionistic – all images:

February 4th.

In Dr Samir's garden.

Fig tree with small buds. Dill, lettuce, garlic. White plastic chairs, deflated soccer ball, blanket drying on a line. Patchy lawn, long shadows. Two bulldozers, tanks.

The effect is to make you wonder why, when Miss Corrie is determined to bring the IDF into sharp focus, she's even more determined to make the Palestinians a blur, forever smearing the Vaseline over the lens as if the Arabs are a Hollywood actress of a certain age. What's she worried about? That if you fill in the gaps, connect up the local color, toss a verb or two into that vegetable patch, the wispy evocations might harden into something more complex and disquieting?

Rachel Corrie was a telegenic naïf who died needlessly while vacationing in someone else's despair, and neither Shakespeare nor Sophocles could upgrade that bleak precis into a big statement on the Palestinian cause. "Theatre has no obligation to give a complete picture," wrote Michael Billington in his Guardian review. "Its only duty is to be honest." True. But the lack of "completeness" here borders on the freakish. Miss Bechtler's teenybopper set is, presumably, intended to contrast both the innocence and comfort of Miss Corrie's young life with the brutal reality of "occupation". Instead, it suggests that the play's creators will go to any lengths to avoid presenting their protagonist as what she is: a grown-up woman. If you'd been killed at 23, would a play restricting you to your childhood bedroom capture the reality of your life at that point? Of course not. But, in that sense, Rachel herself becomes an unintentional metaphor for how progressive opinion views the Palestinians' – confined to her bedroom in her parents' home even though she's a woman in her mid-20s, just as the equally eternally child-like Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza are confined to their "refugee" "camps" under the benign tutelage of the UN. Given the western progressive's long condescension to the Palestinians with whom he so sympathises, it seems appropriate that the most successful London play about this subject in years should end with a Fifth Grader's speech about world peace.

Sixty years ago, Europeans thought Jews shouldn't be in Europe. Now they think they shouldn't be in Palestine. It seems reasonable to conclude that on the whole they'd rather Jews weren't anywhere. That's why it's so important to keep everything soft-focus and child-like and innocent. But the beatification of Rachel Corrie is only possible if you ignore anything above Fifth Grade level. "The vast majority of Palestinians right now, as far as I can tell, are engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance," says Rachel. That's not the impression I've ever got from my brief visits to the "occupied territories" where, "as far as I can tell", every aspect of daily life – from the glorification of "martyrs" on the walls of the grocery store to the "I Want To Be A Martyr When I Grow Up" competitions at the schoolhouse – exists within a culture of death. It's not about "independence" or "resistance" but something more basic. As Tom Gross and Robin Stamler noted in a withering Internet post, there are some plays you won't be seeing at the Royal Court any time soon:

1. My Name Is Rachel Levy (Israeli girl age 17, blown up in a grocery store)
2. My Name Is Rachel Thaler (Israeli girl aged 16, blown up in a pizzeria)
3. My Name Is Rachel Levi (Israeli girl aged 19, murdered while waiting for the bus)
4. My Name Is Rachel Gavish (killed with her husband and son while at home)
5. My Name Is Rachel Charhi (blown up while sitting in a cafe)
6. My Name Is Rachel Shabo (murdered with her three sons aged 5, 13 and 6 while sitting at home)

Billington is right: Theatre has no obligation to give a complete picture. But, when the part of it you choose to show has to be quite so cosseted and insulated from anything that might challenge or question it, something is badly wrong.

from The New Criterion, 21 May 2009


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