[Marxism] In Defense of a Play (letter and article in NYT re: Rachel Corrie play)

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Wed Mar 22 07:29:38 MST 2006

March 22, 2006
In Defense of a Play

To the Editor:

Re "Theater Addresses Tension Over Play" (Arts pages, March 16):

We are Jewish writers who supported the Royal Court production of "My
Name Is Rachel Corrie." We are dismayed by the decision of the New
York Theater Workshop to cancel or postpone the play's production. We
believe that this is an important play, particularly, perhaps, for an
American audience that too rarely has an opportunity to see and judge
for itself the material it contends with.

In London it played to sell-out houses. Critics praised it. Audiences
found it intensely moving. So what is it about Rachel Corrie's
writings, her thoughts, her feelings, her confusions, her idealism,
her courage, her search for meaning in life — what is it that New
York audiences must be protected from?

The various reasons given by the workshop — Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon's coma, the election of Hamas, the circumstances of Rachel
Corrie's death, the "symbolism" of her tale — make no sense in the
context of this play and the crucial issues it raises about Israeli
military activity in the occupied territories.

Rachel Corrie gave her life standing up against injustice. A theater
with such a fine history should have had the courage to give New York
theatergoers the chance to experience her story for themselves.

Gillian Slovo
Harold Pinter
Stephen Fry
London, March 20, 2006
This letter was also signed by 18 other writers.

March 16, 2006
Theater Addresses Tension Over Play

Today is the third anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie, a
23-year-old from Washington State who was killed by an Israeli Army
bulldozer in the Gaza Strip as she tried to protect a Palestinian
home. But the focus of many of the commemorations scheduled by
supporters around the world is a small nonprofit stage, the New York
Theater Workshop, that recently delayed a production of a British
play based on her e-mail messages and diary entries, "My Name Is
Rachel Corrie."

Criticized by celebrities like Harold Pinter, Tony Kushner, Vanessa
Redgrave and lesser-known theater artists for censorship and artistic
cowardice, the leaders of the workshop blame the entire brouhaha on a
simple misunderstanding. In an interview this week James C. Nicola,
the workshop's artistic director, and Lynn Moffat, its managing
director, insisted that they wanted only to postpone, not cancel, the
show — despite declarations by the authors and the Royal Court
Theater, the London troupe that initially produced the award-winning
play, that the workshop pulled the plug on a done deal.

Neither Mr. Nicola nor Ms. Moffat had seen the play in London and
neither would say exactly who they spoke to before they decided to
delay the show. Mr. Nicola originally said that he had spoken to
"religious leaders" in making his decision; this week he said that
the workshop did a "wide reaching out into the complexity of the
community of New York" that included reading Palestinian views on Web
sites. Mr. Nicola did say he had had a conversation with one board
member who said that his rabbi had concerns about the play. An old
friend, who is Jewish, also questioned the play's message.

Ms. Moffat said that she and Mr. Nicola — who are not Jewish — took
advice from members of their in-house artistic staff, as well as
"colleagues and colleagues of colleagues."

Given the sharply divided opinions of Ms. Corrie — idealistic or
recklessly naïve, depending on one's political point of view — Mr.
Nicola said on Monday that the workshop needed "more time to learn
more and figure a way to proceed."

Whether a misunderstanding or not, how the workshop, an artistically
bold and popular company, found itself in such an embarrassing public
jam still baffles Mr. Nicola and Ms. Moffat, who said they did not
know the extent of the public relations damage and financial cost.

But Ms. Moffat was adamant that no outside force — including donors,
artists or potential business partners — had threatened the company.
"Not one person said to us, 'Don't do the play,' " Ms. Moffat said.

Although some details remain murky, what is certain is that
discussions between the workshop and the actor Alan Rickman, who
assembled the play with Katharine Viner, an editor at The Guardian in
London, began late last year. Mr. Nicola said that he read the play
in December and was impressed.

"I read what I think the authors intended for me to read, which was
that this life, in her own words, was an example to Americans, who
are in some fog of avoidance right now," Mr. Nicola said, adding, "I
thought that this, in the voice of this young, pure, innocent woman,
was a very powerful thing to say right now."

Meanwhile in January, the political situation in the Middle East
intensified after a stroke suffered by the Israeli Prime Minister,
Ariel Sharon, and electoral victories by Hamas, the militant
Palestinian group. At the same time, Mr. Nicola said his company's
dramaturge raised some red flags about the symbolism of Ms. Corrie's

Said Ms. Moffat, "As we went deeper and deeper into it, we discovered
what we didn't know was getting to be too great a burden."

Stephen Graham, the founding trustee on the theater's board, said
that one or two board members raised questions in mid-January. "We
asked, 'Was it biased?,' and Jim said, "It's an important piece,' and
we said 'O.K.,' " Mr. Graham recalled yesterday.

Wayne S. Kabak, president of the board, said Mr. Nicola was asked
whether the play's production had a political agenda and that he said
no. "There was no pressure from the board on the theater whether to
produce the play," Mr. Kabak said. "That's how this theater works."

Still, by February Mr. Nicola and Ms. Moffat decided that the
workshop might need to organize nightly postshow talk-backs to
provide context as it had done with plays like Mr. Kushner's

Mr. Nicola said that they soon realized there was not enough time to
work out the concerns and complete the general artistic process and
informed the Royal Court on Feb. 17 that the workshop would delay the
production. Mr. Nicola said that he had not heard from anyone at the
Royal Court since.

The Royal Court, which issued a statement in last week, offers a
different account, saying the deal was definite, an opinion Ms. Viner
seconded yesterday. "They read the play and liked it," Ms. Viner
said. "And then they changed their mind." The play is running in the
West End in London until May 7.

Criticism of the workshop started slowly and gained momentum. Mr.
Nicola, who had traveled to Italy to work on a project, returned to
New York. The tenor was also raised when Mr. Nicola made vague
comments about the delay's cause. Subsequently, other groups in New
York have offered to stage the play.

Last night artists were to read excerpts of Ms. Corrie's writing at a
bar next to the workshop. Other events are planned. But there is also
sympathy for the workshop's plight from other artistic directors who
know the difficulty of trying to be artistically and politically
relevant — as well as sensitive — amid powerful opinions and

Joseph V. Melillo, the executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of
Music, described himself as "a walking target," who is in a "vortex
of information, constantly being bombarded" by people's views on the
academy's work.

Mr. Melillo added that he supported the workshop. "The last time I
looked in the dictionary," he said, "postponement did not mean

Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, said Mr.
Nicola "has a tremendous amount of integrity," but that he also felt
the idea of artistic freedom needed to be at the forefront.

"I think it was a mistake for Jim to postpone the show and I'm sorry
he did it," Mr. Eustis said. "But I think it's important in this
moment that we try to help the workshop and defend the principle that
we don't not do work because it's politically provocative."

Mr. Graham, who founded the workshop in 1979, said he lamented the
postponement, but understood how it happened. "I can see that every
move that happened, step by step, was a rational decision," he said.
"But the sum total, I regret."

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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