Surely Americans will not put up with this censorship

March 1, 2006

In News

By Katharine Viner

The flights for cast and crew had been booked; the production schedule delivered; the press announcement drafted and approved; tickets advertised on the internet. The Royal Court production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the play I co-edited with Alan Rickman, was transferring next month to the New York Theatre Workshop, home of the groundbreaking musical Rent, following two sellout runs in London and several awards.

We always thought that it was a piece of work that needed to be seen in the US. Created from the journals and emails of American activist Rachel Corrie, telling of her journey from her adolescent life in Seattle, Washington, to her death under a bulldozer in Gaza at the age of 23, we considered it, in a sense, to be an American story, which would have a particular relevance for audiences in Rachel’s home country. After all, she had made her journey to the Middle East in order “to meet the people who are on the receiving end of our [American] tax dollars”, and she was a killed by a US-made bulldozer.

But last week the New York Theatre Workshop cancelled the production – or, in their words, “postponed it indefinitely”. The political climate, we were told, had changed dramatically since the play was booked. As James Nicola, the theatre’s artistic director, said yesterday: “In our pre-production planning and our talking around and 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.” Rachel was to be censored for political reasons.

It makes you wonder. If a young, middle-class, scrupulously fair-minded, and dead, American woman, whose superb writing about her job as a mental health worker, ex-boyfriends, troublesome parents, struggle to find out who she wanted to be, and how she found that by travelling to Gaza and discovering the shocking conditions under which the Palestinians live – if a voice like this cannot be heard on a New York stage, what hope is there for anyone else? The non-American, the non-white, the non-dead, the oppressed?

Anyone who sees the play, or reads it, realises that this is no piece of alienating agitprop. One night in London, a group of American students came to a performance and mobbed us afterwards, thrilled that they had seen themselves on stage, and who they might, in a different life, have become. Another night, an Israeli couple, members of the rightwing Likud party, on holiday in Britain, were similarly impressed. “The play wasn’t against Israel, it was against violence,” they told Cindy Corrie, Rachel’s mother. I was particularly touched by a young Jewish New Yorker, from an Orthodox family, who said that he had been nervous about coming to see My Name Is Rachel Corrie, because he had been told that both she and it were viciously anti-Israel. But he had been powerfully moved by Rachel’s words and realised that he had, to his alarm, been dangerously misled.

But the director of the New York theatre told the New York Times yesterday that it wasn’t the people who actually saw the play he was concerned about. “I don’t think we were worried about the audience,” he said. “I think we were more worried that those who had never encountered her writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments.” Since when did theatre come to be about those who don’t go to see it? If the play itself, as Mr Nicola clearly concedes, is not the problem, then isn’t the answer to get people in to watch it, rather than exercising prior censorship? With freedom of speech now at the top of the international agenda, and George Clooney’s outstanding Good Night, and Good Luck reminding us of the dangers of not standing up to witch-hunts, Americans should not be denied the right to hear Rachel Corrie’s words – words that only two weeks ago were deemed acceptable.

I’d heard from American friends that life for dissenters had been getting worse – wiretapping scandals, arrests for wearing anti-war 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. What was acceptable a matter of weeks ago is not acceptable now. The New York theatre’s claim that the arrangement was tentative is absurd: the truth is that its management has caved in to political pressure, and the reputation of the arts in New York is the poorer for it.

It is surely underestimating the curiosity and robustness of the American public, many of whom would no doubt be interested in an insight into the reality of occupation that led to the Hamas victory. Artistic communities need to resist the censorship of voices that go against the grain of George Bush’s America, rather than following the Fox News agenda and gagging them before they have even been heard.

· My Name Is Rachel Corrie will now be shown at the Playhouse theatre in London’s West End from March 28; booking number 0870 060 6631