The Playgoer: NYT breaks silence

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Monday, March 06, 2006

NYT breaks silence

Ok, just one columnist. Resident Arts-egghead Edward Rothstein--a cultural conservative but pretty erudite critic-at-large--essays a response to the "Rachel Corrie" controversy. And it's a frustrating read because he just refuses to be pinned down. In short, he acknowledges the bungling of it all by New York Theatre Workshop. But, he can't help but end up making Jim Nicola's argument for him (and making it more cogently, I might add) by slamming the play itself as muddled and blinkered propaganda. Rothstein clearly has no truck with the anti-Israeli cause and pretty much says Rickman and Viner are super-selective in their script to make the Palestinians come off better and Rachel more naive and less militant than she was.

Basically, his argument is that it was a bad play to choose....but NYTW looked stupid cancelling it.

How could this happen? How could a theater take on a play like "Corrie" and not know what it was getting into? How could it then postpone the production and not know that the outrage of its colleagues-at-arms would be as fervent as the imagined reaction of patrons and protestors?

But taking any quotes from this serpentine argument out of context is problematic. Don't confuse the above with any denunciation of censorship. Rothstein invokes the "free speech" mantra with not a little distance--saying NYTW brought the accusation upon themselves, but he's not jumping on the bandwagon.

At least Rothstein admits/confirms this is a controversy. And apparently a louder one (within NYTW) than has been reported so far....Also, he seems to have read the play, at least. (Hmm, who gave him a copy?) So what we're getting here is some kind of informed criticism for a change, and a more detailed summation of the play's supposed problems than Nicola has yet done.

Rothstein clearly has sources here inside the theatre. Hence this slightly news-breaking clarification of Nicola's repeated call for "contextualization": "The company discussed staging other plays about the conflict alongside this one; attempts were made to arrange post-performance discussions, too. But that required time." You know how much time it takes to organize a post-show talkback? 1) Get microphone. 2) You're done.

Ultimately what we see here is reducing the fight to the poltical issue itself. If the real-life Rachel Corrie was wrong, then the play is not worth defending. Let's say all of Rothstein's critiques are valid. We've certainly had many equally lame, simplistic, reductionist, one-sided plays in New York about different political issues. (The Exonerated, anyone?) So I'm bothered by the exceptionalism floating around the debate over this play. "Not this issue"-- we keep hearing--"Don't give a biased distorted view of this one. We can't handle that."

Let's leave aside for a sec, Michael Billington's apt reminder that art needn't "tell all sides" at all. Let's leave aside the long tradition of making heros and martyrs in our art out of all kinds of problematic political rebels--which we have survived fine, by the way. If we decide that "Rachel Corrie" is a deeply flawed and misleading piece that would be unnecessarily incendiary...then why did Jim Nicola pick it??? I keep coming back to this in my head. If Nicola cannot dance with the one he brung (to twist a phrase), if he cannot--for better or worse--defend his play selection by giving it a hearing...then he has no business being in a position of artistic leadership.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Vanessa Redgrave in Counterpunch: http://www.counterpunch.org/redgrave03062006.html

Walter A. Davis in Counterpunch: http://www.counterpunch.org/davis03062006.html

Philip Munger said...

I sent this to Mr. Rothstein this morning:

Dear Mr. Rothstein,

Your thorough article about the NYTW's so-called postponement of "My Name is Rachel Corrie" brings up several important points about both the postponement and the play itself. It is good to see some analysis on this by somebody in the US theatrical community who actually read the script!

I'd like to make a few points about your article, though.

Regarding smuggling tunnels, the Israeli Defense Force investigation of the death of Rachel Corrie found no evidence of the existence of any so-called smuggling tunnels anywhere near the house Corrie failed to protect. The large numbers of structures destroyed over the years by the IDF and by Israeli settlers, compared to the very small number of tunnels found, suggests instead patterns of free fire zone creation, and elimination of Palestinian access to water sources then commandeered by the settlers. I suggest you educate yourself from unbiased sources regarding the effectiveness and real intent of Israeli structural demolition, cropland destruction and water source control in Gaza and the West Bank.

Regarding what you term "an apparent effort to camouflage Corrie's radicalism and broaden the play's appeal" and your use of that structural convention to question the seriousness of the play, I can only try to imagine a play about Abraham Lincoln which centers on his well-documented views on the inferiority of African-Americans, or upon his plans to have African-Americans shipped out of the country after the conclusion of the Civil War. I can only imagine, because I know of no such play.

Philip Munger
composer of "The Skies are Weeping"

parabasis said...

I don't know if the Exonerated is really what you say it is, Garrett. Amongst other things, I think you'll have trouble finding people to defend the other side-- that it's a good thing that people are wrongfully sentenced to die.

Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank didn't conceive of it as an anti-death-penalty show. They wanted to tell the stories of a group of people our justice system would wish would just go away.

How is this lame or reductionist?

Keep up the good work!
Isaac

Contrapositive said...

The most interesting thing about Edward Rothstein's column is what it omits:

There are no actual examples of the "outrage in the theatrical community" that he alludes to; none of the third-party arguments opposing NYTW's cancellation are discussed or even cited; James Nicola's justifications for the cancellation go unexamined; and the most relevant recent precedent--MTC's cancellation of CORPUS CHRISTI--goes entirely undiscussed.

I understand that the Connections column is set up as a "critic's perspective." But given that this article represents the first Times reference to this "controversy", you'd think it might make sense to point out who the players are, what they've said, and what the relevant history is.

The Playgoer said...

Isaac,

Indeed Exonerated is probably not the best example since its argument was far less controversial. It just came quickly to mind as a piece of political documentary theatre I happened to "agree" with politically...but also thought was lame. No one (GITMO aside)is in favor of executing innocent people, but that wasn't the only issue at stake in the show. There was also an implied critique of capital punishment itself, and while I'm with them there, many in the country at large would indeed say there are "two sides."
In brief, I felt Exonerated was lamely one-sided more perhaps in production than in text. The staging of the two "guards," if you remember, flanking the actors stage right and left were rendered as cartoon rednecks. Literally, "marginalized" from the story. A more complex exploration of the issue would let us into the minds of those who enforce and justify the death penalty, too, and let us see them as human beings motivated by logic backed up by legal precedent.
Of course, my larger point--pace Rothstein--was to remind us all that plenty of good "political theatre" (like political films a la "JFK") is guilty of all the same "selective" use of history being leveled against "Rachel Corrie".

Mproust said...

Why isn't anyone talking about the most obvious misstep on the part of NYTW? Never mind censorship. We can all agree it's a bad thing. Let's stop preaching to the converted. The real issue is what is theatre. Personally I detest political theatre. But I will concede that theatre is meant to examine serious issues that concern society. What theatre is not meant to do is become agit prop.
Arthur Miller was a highly political playwright. The secret of his success was the fact that he wrote good plays first -- plays that dramatized his political ideas/messages in psychological and theatrical terms. Just look at "All my Sons." "Rachel Corrie" sounds like another well intentioned but awful and inartistic statement of the Eve Ensler variety. What's next? The fascinating diaries of Cindy Sheehan performed by Meryl Streep? The staged reading of the Abramoff trial? Shame on institutions lilk NYTW for debasing the art form!