The Play’s the Thing

I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions

Hamlet, 2.2, lines 566-569


There is nothing political in American Literature.

Laura Bush


I. Theatre as a Social Institution

(Let me here express my thanks to Christopher Shinn for reading this essay in drafts and discussing it with me.)

The purpose of serious theatre can be stated simply-to challenge the audience to examine everything that they don’t want to face about themselves and their world. Theatre is that public space with a unique purpose: the public airing of secrets. Other public institutions (Churches, Political forums, the Media) are dedicated primarily to something else: the celebration and perpetuation of ideology, the programming of a mass audience with the beliefs, ideas, and feelings they need to internalize so that ideology will secure its grand function. That function: the creation within subjects of the conditions that make it impossible for them to understand their historical situation. Freedom, if there is such a thing, depends on overcoming the vast weight of ideological beliefs that have colonized one’s heart and mind.

The artist is the bad conscience of a society who calls ideology into question by representing all the ways in which it poisons our lives. The role of serious drama is to represent the disorders of its time not in order to relieve or “cathart” our dilemmas but to make it impossible for us to any longer ignore them. Rilke’s “You must change your life” is the “message” that any great drama delivers as a blow to the psyche of its audience. To appropriate a phrase from Albee, the purpose of serious drama is to “get the guests.” And not I add primarily by getting them to change their ideas about some current political and social situation. Serious drama strikes much deeper. It is an attempt to assault and astonish the heart, to get at the deepest disorders and springs of our psychological being, in order to affect a change in the very way we feel about ourselves-and consequently about everything else. Going to the theatre can be a dangerous act. One risks discovering things one doesn’t want to know about oneself in a way that makes it impossible to remain the person one ways before a play eradicated one’s defenses and shattered one’s identity.

To get the full brunt of this argument the category of the political with respect to drama should not be conceived narrowly. Serious drama since Aeschylus has focused primarily on the family because the family is that social institution in which the contradictions of a society are lived out as the psychological conflicts tearing apart the relationships of those who should love one another. The family is the primary agent of ideological transmission, the process whereby it becomes an internalized psyche. It is also where all the contradictions and conflicts rise to the surface. To dramatize the truth of the family is to reveal the truth of a world. And thus among the classics of political theatre: The Oresteia, Hamlet, King Lear, Ghosts, Three Sisters, Death of a Salesman, Buried Child.

I have developed this theory of drama at length elsewhere. [1] It serves here as prelude to what I want to say about the recent actions of the NewYork Theatre Workshop in canceling (or “postponing” as is now claimed) plans to produce the play My Name is Rachel Corrie and what this event reveals about our historical situation. As an actor, playwright, and cultural critic I am particularly concerned about this event. But I also hope to show that it reveals ­with uncommon clarity-the new ideological situation that defines post 9-11 Amerika.


II. The Only Thing We Have to Fear

Just the facts. The play My Name is Rachel Corrie was developed in the U.K. by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner. Every word of it is derived from writings and tape recordings of the late peace activist Rachel Corrie who was killed on March 16, 2003 when crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer while trying to prevent the destruction of the home of a Palestian doctor in the Al-Salaam neighborhood of Rafah city in the south portion of the Gaza strip. Ms. Corrie was clearly visible to the driver of the bulldozer who ran over her and then backed up over her body. She was 23 years old. (For some readers the above sentences identify me as a foe of the State of Israel, an Anti-Semite, and even a supporter of terrorism. On which see section IV below.)

The play based on Rachel Corrie’s life had an extremely successful run last year at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Plans for a production of the work at the NYTW beginning March 22 were well advanced when the Artistic Director of that Theatre, James Nicola, announced on Feb. 27th that he had decided to “postpone” the production indefinitely. Mr. Nicola’s reasons for this decision-which have evolved over the past few days from naïve frankness to semantic obfuscation-are well worth examining because of all that they reveal both about the state of supposedly serious theatre today and the impact of ideological and religious pressures. Which no longer have to speak in order to be heard and obeyed.

As always contextualization is essential to understanding. The NYTW is an Off Broadway Theatre that prides itself on producing challenging and controversial material. Here is what it says about its special interests in the latest issue of Dramatists Sourcebook, the publication playwrights consult to determine where to submit their work. “Special interests: exploration of political and historical events and institutions that shape contemporary life.” [2] NYTW in short is atypical. Indeed, it proudly identifies itself as one of the few places left where radical, challenging works will gain a hearing. It thus claims independence from those factors that force theatres on Broadway and throughout the U.S. to eschew controversial and challenging material. Three reasons inform the a priori decision that consigns most American theatres to mediocrity and conformity. First, the general ideological assumption that any play one attends should be easier to digest than the fancy diner one ate an hour before. Talk to most people today about theatre or film and the first thing they want to be assured about is that the work won’t contain anything troubling. Art can only have one purpose–Entertainment, the relieving of life’s cares and woes. Second, any theatre that consistently produces challenging material soon finds that corporate sponsorship and season ticket sales have dried up. The powers that be insist that theatre is another one of the things that they own, an institution that must support and celebrate ideological beliefs, especially about the irrelevance of art to anything but entertainment. Third, we in the theatre have ourselves forgotten what serious theatre is. Much written and produced under that label is no such thing. The reputation of NYTW as a cutting edge theatre is a case in point. A study of their Seasons from 1995 to the present provides a good index of how little is radical or challenging in theatres that try to carve out that identity for themselves as their part of the theatrical pie. NYTW has given us some of Caryl Churchill’s fine work, but it has also given us Rent, Dirty Blonde and a number of other plays that are hardly radical or controversial. This third factor is the the most revealing aspect of the NYTW fiasco. Mr Nicola is, supposedly, a serious director with his finger on the pulse of controversial, radical theatre. That is why the explanations he offers for his decision are so revealing not just as signs of bad judgment in this case but of systemic problems facing the possibility of serious theatre in America today.

III. Thus Spake Nicola

Mr. Nicola now insists that the whole thing is the result of a semantic confusion (and the intemperate response of Mr. Rickman who did not appreciate what he termed “censorship.”) Moreover, in hopes everything will blow away efforts are now underway to patch things up with the Royal Court Theatre in London so that NYTW can secure the chance to produce My Name is Rachel Corrie at a later date. (After all why waste all the free publicity on what now promises to be a sellout.) Money is always a factor in such negotiations, but the ethical responsibility of the Royal Court in this matter is clear. Namely, to refuse to allow the play to be produced in America by NYTW! By the same token, our responsibility is to see that this play is produced here as soon as possible. March 16th is the third anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie. On that day a public reading of the play should be held in New York at the most appropriate (i.e., controversial) place by those artist’s willing to stand up and be counted. [3] The worst thing that could happen would be for this all to be swept under the rug and a face saving compromise reached. Actions should have consequences. And once an issue is out in the open it should be discussed with the thoroughness it demands. If we do anything less here we should all go to work for Mr. Bush. After all he is now desperately in need of something we understand better than most. That language was invented so that we could lie.

But to the heart of the ulcer. Mr. Nicola’s explanations of his actions rest on two assumptions, both erroneous and destructive of the very possibility of serious theatre. One is that time was needed to prepare the community for the work. The other is that in the current climate the work could not be appreciated as “art” but would be seen in political terms. [4]

(A) With respect to the first. A work of art is its own preparation. How does one prepare an audience for a work? By calming its fears? By telling it that the work isn’t really a threat? By persuading the “community” that they can appreciate it as “art” and should not see it in political terms? Through such efforts one prepares the audience by depriving the work of everything that might make its performance truly daring. Preparing people for a work of art is and can be nothing but an attempt to blunt the work’s power. Preparation is, in short, the construction of defense mechanisms and thus itself a form of censorship.

Moreover, there is only one way that a work of art prepares its audience for it: by being that provocation that the audience cannot resist or deny. If a work is truly radical the community will never be prepared for it. The work will be a scandal to them-a shock and a wound that produces afterthought and forethought. (If the audience had to be prepared first we would not have Greek drama, the tragedies of Shakespeare, the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, the work of Beckett and Brecht and O’Neill and Shepard.)

The hidden assumption in Nicola’s position is that the community has a right to insist on what amounts to veto power. His view that the beliefs and values of the community must be served inverts the very relationship that makes art the conscience of its community. Mr. Nicola states that he made his decision after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work. Why was this done? The first thing any serious theatre must do is proclaim its autonomy-especially from religious and political leaders. There is a simple way one does so: one does not poll anyone. Moreover, the minute one feels the temptation to do so one knows one thing for sure: the play one is thinking of producing is something that the community needs.

There is of course something disingenuous here. One can imagine the travails of running a theatre in Peoria, Illinois or Columbia, South Carolina. But here the community is no less than The Big Apple itself-one of the three major theatre centers in the World. Or is it? Mr. Nicola says he was less worried about those who would see the show than by those who would not. This is a fascinating development. Shows now are and will be cancelled not because the people who come to the theatre don’t like them but because the people who don’t attend won’t.

(B) With respect to the second. The deeper error derives from Mr. Nicola’s second assumption, the belief that some way must be found to separate art and politics. By his own account his initial assumption that NYTW could present this play “simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was a fantasy.” But the separation of art and politics is a bogus one, especially for a theatre with the stated mission of NYTW. Mr. Nicola bewails the fact that he didn’t have time to create an environment “where the art could be heard independent of the political issues associated with it.” It is hard to imagine a clearer case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too; i.e., of wanting to proclaim that one’s theatre is politically daring while assuring oneself that one will never face a situation where this daring isn’t safe and acceptable to the community.

For Nicola presenting the work “with the integrity it deserves” requires removing it from the political context that is essential to it. This play, after all, is about how and why Rachel Corrie lived her life and died the way she did. By falling back on an aesthetics of preserving art qua art as a defense Nicola has allowed a bulldozer to be dragged back and forth across his theatre, but he is too blinded by an archaic aesthetic to realize it; or at least to admit that separating art and politics is antithetical to a theatre dedicated to exploring the “political and historical events and institutions that shape contemporary life.” At the very least NYTW should remove this statement from the next edition of Dramatists Sourcebook.

I’m sure that Rachel Corrie would be glad to hear that the artistic quality of her words is being preserved from the taint of politics and that the beauty of her prose transcends the political context in which she penned her impassioned commitment to an ethic of human responsibility.

In fairness to Nicola we must include reference to the particular events that he cites as the reasons why production of this play was deemed inappropriate at this time. Those events: the electoral victory of Hamas and the illness of Ariel Sharon. One can of course always find the current event that warrants postponing or canceling a production but the ones cited by Nicola are especially significant. Let me see if I have this right: My Name is Rachel Corrie must be postponed because the Palestinian people exercised their democratic right in a way that “we” find repugnant and coincidentally at about the same time that the career of one of the primary architects of the apartheid conditions under which they live ended. If this is the wrong time for a play reexamine the issues here one wonders when the right time will be.

Whether he knows it or not Nicola has defended his decision by embracing a theory of art and its relationship to politics that has been refuted by virtually every literary theorist since the demise of the new criticism in the early 60’s. The split between art and politics is, in fact, the primary gesture whereby ideology tries to impose limitations on art. Fortunately, since religion is behind this whole fiasco the best example of this fallacy comes to us from religious quarters. Many College and University English Departments feature a course called The Bible as Literature. Such courses-and the textbooks such as Alter and Kermode’s The Literary Guide to the Bible (Harvard UP, 1987) that provide their theoretical rationale-rest on an impossible dichotomy. The idea, you see, is that it is one thing to believe that the Bible is the revealed word of God and to read it in that spirit. But one can also supposedly read the Bible in a purely literary fashion, paying attention to all the aesthetic qualities found in the great march of Biblical prose. Belief has nothing to do with this “reading.” In fact, belief is precisely what must be bracketed or put aside in order to perform this operation. Contra right-wing pundits, we thus need have no fear that such courses will undermine the faith of our children nor that those who teach such courses will be deluged with in class proclamations of student’s religious dogmas or (perish the thought) their desire to question what they’ve been forced to believe. All that is conveniently put aside as out of place when we discuss the Bible as Literature. The larger ideological purpose is thereby served. The Bible can never be discussed in the way it should be-as a work full of psychological disorders that need to be confronted as such.

IV. The Cartoons Made Me Do It

Religion is, of course, what the suppression of My Name is Rachel Corrie is all about. Nicola’s decision can in fact be seen as the first fallout from the recent cartoon fiasco. The failure then to do the right thing and publish the cartoons in all our newspapers and other media now reverberates in the suppression of a far more substantial work of art. As Art Spiegelman (the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Maus, the cartoon narrative about the holocaust) noted in the latest issue of The Nation (March 6, 2006), the cartoons should have been published widely or, failing that, our media should have admitted their cowardice. Moreover, Spiegelman takes the correct position in anticipation of the forthcoming anti-semitic cartoons: “There has to be a right to insult. You can’t always have polite discourse. I am insulted (by anti-Semitic cartoons). But so what?”

The cartoons-most of which are frankly stupid; one (that of Muhammad with a turban that is a bomb) well within the tradition of provocative editorial cartoons; and one (that of the prophet saying “Stop the jihad, we’ve run out of virgins”) an instant comic classic-were not disseminated however because of the primary ideological assumption of our time. Thou shalt not criticize Religion! Religious belief is supposedly so precious and inviolable that the mere possibility of giving offense to anyone’s religious beliefs demands censorship of the offending idea. (The religious reader will note that I have now criticized both Judaism and Islam. I thus hasten to refer the reader to my far harsher critique of Christianity previously published in Counterpunch. [5]

Thou shalt not criticize religion. Thereby the thing most in need of criticism today escapes critique. And thereby the secret that the three great religions of Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam share is protected from the critique that is now more necessary than ever. That secret: that their current fundamentalist incarnations are not aberrations but revelations of the truth-that these three “great” religions are psychological disorders rooted in an apocalyptic hatred and fear of life and dedicated to the infantalization of the hystericized subjects that they create. If Nietzsche were shopping it today he would find On the Genealogy of Morals a work that should not be published at this time. On second thought-one that must be postponed indefinitely!

Like the cartoon fiasco, the NYTW event is primarily about religion; and, significantly, about the connection between religion and the state, a problem that has grown to alarming proportions in the rise of Christian fundamentalism (including Catholic) here in America, of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world, and in both locales a fatal equating of Judaism with unquestioning support of any and all actions taken by the State of Israel. There is no way to prepare such communities for anything that will question any of their beliefs or the fanatical attempts to which they will go to prosecute them. The banning of My Name is Rachel Corrie is really the command to deny what happened to Rachel Corrie.

But an even more disastrous assumption makes it well night impossible for us to know this. Thus for example the predictable charge that the author of the present essay gives unquestioning support to the Palestinian cause. He must therefore be an Anti-Semite who is sympathetic to or in league with Islamic fundamentalists. This kind of argument is inescapable today-in fact peremptory for most people because we all labor today under the belief that one’s religious allegiance is and should be the ultimate source of everything one thinks, feels, and does. The position one takes on any issue and the reasons one gives in support of one’s stand are merely covers for one’s religious allegiance, which exerts a priori control over everything one thinks and does. Thus, a good Jew must be against the production of My Name is Rachel Corrie. A good Muslim must revile the cartoons of Muhammad and persecute those responsible for them. And a good Christian must be moved to an equally fanatical extreme when experiencing a sado-masochistic piece of sacred snuff porn such as The Passion of the Christ or regress to the appropriate stupidity when encountering the fear and hatred of sexuality that informs Pope Benedict’s first Encyclical. The notion that one can get free of all this religious nonsense and hysteria let alone subject it to the psychological critique it so richly deserves is the last illusion of those of us who labor under the idea that we can combat the psychological disorder that defines our times. There are only ignorant armies clashing by night. Armies of the saved marching in goose-step to the orders given them by fascistic fanatics.

There is a further irony here that we should not miss. Preventing the production of My Name is Rachel Corrie proves that the great Iranian Ayatollah who plans to sponsor a contest for the best cartoon ridiculing the Holocaust is right in his basic contention. Not only do we refuse to permit any cartoons that represent Judiasm or Christianity in “offensive” ways. We take the proscription one better. We have our holocaust deniers too; among them those who would deny what was done to Rachel Corrie out of their mistaken belief that allegiance to Judiasm means that the State of Israel can do no wrong and that any and every blemish on its history must be whitewashed. Among the stakes in the current controversy: the possibility of making memory what the Holocaust has taught us it must be-an act of mourning in which facing the truth is the agent of genuine change. That possibility too must be banished from our stages. And apparently from our movie houses as in the current campaign against the Palestinian film Paradise Now, a film fraught with doubt and anguish that in no way condones terrorism.

V. Self-Censorship: the True Haven of Ideology

However, getting outside ideology depends on the most exacting critical self-consciousness, the willingness to examine one’s most cherished beliefs and ideas. It may also be an impossibility, since detecting the ways in which one is operating within ideology is so difficult. Thought itself and the self that thinks may be no more than a reflection of prior ideological formations that have not and cannot be detected.

This points to what may be the deepest lesson we can begin to learn from the NYTW fiasco. Perhaps there is not and never was anything radical or controversial about the operations of this theatre nor of many of the other theatres that appropriate terms such as radical, daring, controversial, and cutting edge for themselves. Maybe such labels are yet another way in which we in the arts delude ourselves that we are radical when we aren’t. (As Marx said,” to be radical is to go to the roots; but the root is man himself.”)

Ideology is not primarily the system of beliefs, values, and feelings that are shoved down our throats by the powers that be. It’s the very way of being and of having a “self” that one must deracinate in order to cleanse the doors of perception. Serious art begins only after that effort has become one’s innermost imperative. For ideology is primarily the way we regulate our relationship to ourselves and our experience. It operates habitually as that which goes without saying and therefore cannot be questioned. To do so is to exist in an anguished recognition of what existence is. Ideology is first and foremost an activity of self-censorship. The reason that fact goes undetected is that most of the time we aren’t presented with material that really challenges us. It is easy to think one is radical when the material one praises as radical never really disrupts one’s psychic constitution.

As Herbert Marcuse demonstrated long ago, even our tolerance is repressive. We tolerate things that reinforce the ideological economy on which our self-identity depends. We are intolerant of and censor whatever fails to conform to it. This is a true in the theatre as it is everywhere else. But in the theatre it presents itself to artists as a problem that must be overcome! That is what radical art does.

VI. A Thought Experiment.

There is a censorship prior to the censorship of My Name is Rachel Corrie. And it is far more devastating, pervasive and difficult to combat because it limits the very possibility of theatre performing its social, political function. I want to try to illustrate the point by a thought experiment. Picture yourself as the Artistic Director of a (supposedly) left-liberal theatre who wants to stage works that explore the “political events and institutions that shape contemporary life.” From that perspective, consider the following sketch of a play submitted for one’s consideration. (The play described here does not yet exist though one can imagine something like it coming into being soon.) At what point or points does this sketch describe a work that goes too far? In identifying these points does one identify what must be rejected and/or postponed-indefinitely or in perpetuity? Or, in making that judgment, does one discover one’s complicity in political, ethical and aesthetic beliefs and ideas that as artists and thinkers we must interrogate and perhaps reject as historically outmoded. What follows constitutes an effort to activate such an act of reflection


Act One-The Conclave

Set in a bunker. A meeting of leading U.S. and international CEO’s with the President of the U.S. and major members of her Administration along with key representatives from the media. (For reasons that will become apparent the CEO’s treat the latter two groups with contempt.) The background situation: a number of CEO’s have been assassinated in isolated hits in a number of cities in the U.S. and in the “colonies.” All efforts to pyramid information and thereby track down the leaders behind this “terror” have failed. A Nobel mathematician presents a meticulous analysis of the data in order to demonstrate the only possible conclusion. There is no group behind these actions. They are spontaneous acts by isolated individuals who have no contact with one another. There is no group behind the terror. And yet it continues. New hits are now taking place every day. Corporate America no longer has any safe haven. The deliberation in the Bunker focuses on how to put a stop to this. The conclusion reached: the need to arrest and put on Public Trial the non-existent ring-leader behind the terror, the notion being that this will break the back of the movement while enabling the powers that be to regain control of a media that “has for too long indulged the populace in images of violence and terror.”

Act Two-Show-Trial

Setting: a public trial being televised; i.e., O.J. out of Orwell. A key figure in the act will, in fact, be a foxy female reporter for FOX who will offer asides to the audience in the form of news flashes and commentary as the trial proceeds. The central actor, however, is the philosopher-activist on trial, a man who has published a great deal of “leftist” thought on culture, history, and politics. The act focuses on the questioning of him by the lead prosecutor. The drama lies in the way the accused responds to baited questions. Following the model of Brecht when he testified before HUAC, each response will be an ironic attempt to turn the question back against the questioner in order to reveal its ideological agenda. In the process virtually every assumption both of right-wing and of liberal discourse will be exposed. The audience is thereby put in the proper theatrical condition: all of their ways of thinking and responding are turned back against them. The theatre has become a place of interrogation and anxiety. Which does not prevent the forseen result: the philosopher-activist is convicted and sentenced to death. The Act concludes with the TV reporter describing this execution, one that compares favorably with the execution of Daumier as described by Foucault.

Act Three-Inside the Mind of a Suicidal Terrorist

This act presents the monologue of a woman as she waits to assassinate a group of CEO’s at an emergency conference they have called. She is situated throughout in a closet of the room where the conference will soon begin. One key difference distinguishes her from the many acts of isolated terror that provide the starting point of the play. She has no plans to fade into the background after her deed. On the contrary, she plans to die with it. Such is her ethical nostalgia-and she knows that nostalgia as such. It is the through-line of her monologue. The monologue begins with an evocation of the Smoky Mountains the way they where years ago contrasted to the way the trees there now look as a result of acid rain. She has struggled against the conclusions on which she is about to act. That struggle continues here as she moves once again from the Thoreauian love of nature that has defined her life to the rage that informs her coming deed. The monologue thus takes the audience deep into a consciousness that will at times appear insane and at others prophetic. Such is perhaps the “deep ecology” of one who has suffered and internalized the horror of our time. For two allusions repeatedly mark her monologue: one to Hamlet’s soliloquies (the parent text of theatrical monologue as practiced here); the other to Faust’s effort at the end of Goethe play (part 2) to reclaim land that was ruined, this project being the only thing in life to which a restless spirit of existential self-overcoming can say “Stay, thou art so fair.” Theatre here thus takes the audience inside the tortured conscience of our time and refuses to offer them any exit from that space. The space of theatre has become the space of a tragic questioning that has rejected all humanistic and religious guarantees. That is where we now must live, for as Rilke revealed “What is Beauty but the beginning of terror?”


WALTER A. DAVIS is an actor, playwright, and cultural critic. His primary theoretical book on theatre is Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama and the Audience (U of Wisconsin P, 1994). His plays include An Evening With JonBenet Ramsey (Authors Choice P, 2004). His most recent work of cultural criticism Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche since 9-11 has just appeared and can be ordered in the U.S. at The U of Michigan Press and in the U.K. at Pluto Press (London). For further description of his work see He may be reached at:



(1) WALTER A. DAVIS Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama and the Audience (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994).

(2) Dramatists Sourcebook. 23rd edition. (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2004), p. 71.

(3) A number of actions in New York and internationally are apparently in preparation both for March 16th and March 22nd. On this see: Given the purpose of this article I will say nothing here about My Name is Rachel Corrie as a play. I will offer a separate article on that later this week. I’ll also take that occasion to address the ideologically self-serving and misleading article on all of this by Edward Rothstein published in today’s (March 6) Arts section of The New York Times.

(4) For Mr. Nicola’s statements see the following and in the following order:
For ongoing coverage of and commentary on all of this see:
And for the latest statement by Mr. Nicola see the NYTW website:

(5) See: