Silencing Rachel Corrie ~ theatre notes

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Silencing Rachel Corrie

Update: James Nicola, stung by criticisms of censorship, has issued yet another statement. Playgoer and Superfluities are giving his third different explanation in as many days short shrift...Also worth noting is the apparent lack of reaction within the press and the NY theatre community. The bloggers are making the running on this one.


The theatrical blogosphere is abuzz with the New York Theatre Workshop's recent decision to cancel or postpone - it's unclear which - the Royal Court's production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a play based on the diaries and emails of the young American activist who was crushed to death by Israeli bulldozers as she attempted to stop Palestinian homes from being razed by the IDF.

The play, devised by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, was first produced in 2005 at London's Royal Court, and the Royal Court production was preparing to take it to the New York stage later this month when NYTW artistic director Jim Nicola pulled the plug. As Katherine Viner comments in an article in the LA Times:

Last week the New York Theatre Workshop canceled the production — or, in its words, "postponed it indefinitely." The political climate, we were told, had changed dramatically since the play was booked. As James Nicola, the theater's 's artistic director, said Monday, "Listening in our communities in New York, what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon's illness and the election of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections, we had a very edgy situation." Three years after being silenced for good, Rachel was to be censored for political reasons.

I'd heard from American friends that life for dissenters had been getting worse — wiretapping scandals, arrests for wearing antiwar T-shirts, Muslim professors denied visas. But it's hard to tell from afar how bad things really are. Here was personal proof that the political climate is continuing to shift disturbingly, narrowing the scope of free debate and artistic expression, in only a matter of weeks. By its own admission the theater's management had caved in to political pressure. Rickman, who also directed the show in London, called it "censorship born out of fear, and the New York Theatre Workshop, the Royal Court, New York audiences — all of us are the losers."

Check out George Hunka's Superfluities and Garrett Eisler at Playgoer for more.

Put this together with ongoing intimidatory campaigns in the US against Arabic or left wing academics, the fuss about Stephen Spielberg's Munich and now Israeli agitation to get the film Paradise Now disqualified from contention for the Oscars, and a pattern begins to emerge... some things, it seems, are not to be discussed. At all. Anywhere.

The implicit equation of bringing Rachel Corrie's story to the stage with support for fundamentalist terrorism is, frankly, absurd. And the kind of absolutism that such an equation expresses is absolutely hostile to the freedoms that art represents.

Now, as regular readers of this blog will know, documentary theatre isn't my cup of tea. But I will defend to the death its right to exist. The disturbing thing is that, were the Royal Court to bring their production here, it quite possibly could be prosecuted under our shiny new sedition laws. Freedom of expression certainly looks under threat in the States, but my suspicion is that it might be insidiously worse here.


Abe Pogos said...

Hi Alison,

I have nothing to add regarding the insidious implications of New York Theatre Workshop's decision to cancel the play.

But I thought some of your readers who are unfamiliar with Rachel Corrie might be interested in some background detail about her and how she was killed.

They can find this on:


Abe Pogos

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Abe, thanks very much for that - I'll try again to put a live link - the url doesn't seem to have come through properly here -

the article is here

Brian Santana said...

Hi Alison,

What annoys me is that NYTW's latest excuse is completely inconsistent with Mr. Rickman's account! It turns out that Mr. Rickman's latest two films (that the NYTW describes as "conflicts" with the Corrie production schedule) are already finished shooting and, while minor post-production work is required, this work would in no way jeopardize his commitment to "Corrie."

Mr. Rickman summed up his frustrations in a Feb. 28 interview with The Guardian when he said: "This is censorship born out of fear, and the New York Theatre Workshop, the Royal Court, New York audiences - all of us are the losers."

Why the NYTW feels comfortable sticking to these bizarre justifications is beyond me. Perhaps this is a sign of the times, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

Alison Croggon said...

One can only speculate what pressures have been brought to bear...since the inconsistency and straight-out nonsense of the NYTW's statements on this suggest that a lot is going on under the surface. It seems most likely that some funding is under threat if the play is performed; but if that is the case, why doesn't James Nicola say so?

Certainly Alan Rickman's film commitments don't seem to have stopped the play having another season in the West End instead of at the NYTW.

Whatever, it's bad news that a company buckles so. I still can't help wondering why they programmed it in the first place. It was always going to be controversial.

George Hunka said...

The NYTW has produced plays on Central Asia and Middle East issues before; they produced Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" in 1991 (an NPR story on the play and the production is here). It may be that Nicola and the NYTW did not expect that the documentary play may have been more potent, that it already came freighted with controversy (Kushner is more a political fantasist, a magic realist, as his plays like "Angels in America" attest). It may have been that Nicola was starstruck, but I must say I doubt that's true; one must give him the benefit of that doubt, without knowing more.

In any case, yes, you'd think Nicola and the NYTW knew what they were getting into and what they were agreeing to present. They're not stupid. Which is why this postponement, or cancellation, or whatever it is, is so egregious: there is something else, perhaps, at work. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing, except that the public statements of Nicola, Rickman and Viner don't add up.

George Hunka said...

Make that date "2001" in the comment above. I was never able to make that leap into the 21st century gracefully.

Ben Ellis said...

I've made a comment (with added mea culpa on another case of censorship) on George Hunka's site - having trouble with active links, myself.

Gist of it? Mr Nicola's linguistic fogginess and lack of specific details for the play's removal from NYTW's schedule does no one any favours. It means that people can speculate on shadowy "powerful interest groups", allowing all sorts of racist, po-mo variations on Protocols of Zion to perculate.

Alison Croggon said...

George, you operate with considerable grace... I expect a lot of the upset over the NYTW decision comes because of its brief: it makes it worse, not better, that the company has a tradition of hosting controversial work.

Hoping for a clearer statement (or maybe a date for this postponement) soon.

Ben, an answer on George's blog - I won't repeat it here.