The Playgoer: Elie Wiesel Gets Mad

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Elie Wiesel Gets Mad

I'm way behind on this, but in case you didn't know, there's a bizarre love/hate triangle going on down in DC at Theatre J, the small but popular Jewish-themed troupe run by Ari Roth.  Roth was preparing to present a new play by experimental theatre icon Deb Margolin about the Bernie Madoff story.  Sounds like an exciting project, right?

Well, not to one Elie Wiesel who objected to being depicted, by name, as a character in the play.  Even though Margolin claimed the Wiesel character was respectfully--if fictionally--drawn, the noted author, philanthropist, Holocaust survivor, and probably most famous victim of Mr. Madoff just outright objected and threatened to sue.  Since the Wiesel character was a major role in the play, Margolin could not cut it entirely, but agreed to change the name.  Artistic Director Roth offered to send Wiesel the revised script, but Wiesel was still not satisfied and still threatened legal action.  Roth then decided to pull the play.

Isaac Butler and his pinch-hitter Mr. 99 Seats have blogged the hell out of this story, so at this point I'll turn you over to them for all their links and commentary.  (Including exclusive statements from Roth, Margolin, and Margolin's agent to boot!) Start here, then here, then here, then here.

Basically at issue is whether it was, um, kosher for Roth to send a playwright's play to one of the play's subjects for some kind of approval.  Roth denies he was deferring to Wiesel's approval--only showing him the revised draft to "prove" that Wiesel would not be named.  But, I guess, at the end of the day, Wiesel did not approve and Roth withdrew the production.  So you make the connection.

Wiesel may not be literally a "patron" of Theatre J (though with the involvement of his Wiesel Foundation, that question is a little murky apparently).  But he sure is a patron saint of the American Jewish community.  So I can understand that if you're a company called "Theatre J" it probably doesn't look good to be sued by the man.  Then again, how far should Artistic Directors go just to avoid controversy?

There's also the issue of how much leeway playwrights can take with dramatizing "public figures" in their work.  I think the courts have been pretty clear and consistent on this.  (At least in regards to satire and parody, but I hope judges don't start playing drama critic and try to distinguish between genres.) But will AD's support them, too?


George Hunka said...

Before we start crying intimidation or censorship, there are several issues here that remain unclear, not the least of which are these two:

(1) What was the financial relationship, if any, between Wiesel's foundation and Theatre J? (Not immediately relevant, I know, but it could have played a role in the dynamics between Wiesel, Margolin and Theatre J.)

(2) What was the understanding between Wiesel and Margolin/Roth regarding the play? Was Wiesel solicited for his opinion about the use of his name at the outset of the project, and did he give tentative approval pending his reading of a draft of the play? Did this reading include an implicit or explicit expectation of approval, or was it merely for information?

Because Wiesel is a living public figure -- as was Richard M. Nixon when the play Secret Honor was written and produced, as is George W. Bush now that Oliver Stone's film about him has been around for a year or two (both of them, like Imagining Madoff, biographical fantasias rather than parody or satire) -- it may be unlikely that any claims of defamation or libel that Wiesel might pursue in court would be successful, but yes, it would cost money that Theatre J could ill afford (and that Wiesel could easily afford). And though Nixon and Bush may be notorious figures who stood accused of various malfeasance, they were never convicted on any counts, unlike a character like Enron's Jeffrey Skilling.

Perhaps it is just a matter of women and men lacking wisdom -- in Margolin or Roth seeking an unnecessary approval from Wiesel; in Wiesel unwisely making public threats of legal action when a stoic silence might have said more. But it also sounds like there were various agreements of a legal or semi-legal nature in play, and before we can judge any of these parties, it would be nice to know these details. Of course, they may only emerge in a court of law, and it looks unlikely that any kind of public airing will come to pass. In which case, a stoic silence might be appropriate here, from bloggers as well as the players involved: though there's nothing like trying it in the Court of Public Opinion, from which there is no appeal and for which no rules of evidence exist.

Playgoer said...

All points well taken, George. And by just posting about the story at all, I did not mean to imply that it's some kind of automatic outrage. (Indeed, had I felt more urgent about it I would have posted earlier.)

But since it's a story that seems to have legs (not just on the blogs but in the DC press) I feel it's worth knowing about if you want to stay on top of things.

You also can't deny that this story has some very interesting players!

But no, for the record, I'm not crying censorship. The parting of playwright and theatre here does not seem entirely amicable, it's worth pointing out. But no one is making such a charge.

Anyway, I'm referring readers to Parabasis because I trust Isaac to be fair to this story and to follow all the legitimate (fact-based, not gossip) reporting that ensues.

George Hunka said...

Oh, no, Garrett, I wasn't talking about you! Yes, it's an interesting story -- Madoff's betrayal of the Jewish community is something I hear quite enough about at work, thank you, though it's inherently dramatic. But this seems far from a Rachel Corrie case, more like something ineptly handled by at least a few of the principals involved. I'm not sure why the DC and national press would be so interested in this except for the gossip value -- though this value is high enough in our line of work.

Perhaps it would be best if Wiesel just called off his legal hounds and allowed the play to proceed as written (since, as I mentioned, he may not have a legal leg to stand on anyway when it comes to claims of libel or defamation). It may take some courage at the point in the proceedings to do so, especially when vanity and self-image is involved, but Wiesel has proven to be courageous enough in the past.

Jason Zinoman said...

You really only see this story as interesting because of gossip? And you think we don't know enough to claim there was intimidation? I suggest you read the Washington City Paper feature and then compare to Rachel Corrie again.

The fact that a suit would cost Theater J money that it could ill afford (and how do you know what they can afford? it's a successful, well-respected theater) seems to make this more urgent. You say it would nice if he didn't make legal threats, but you see, he did make them. Then it's the job of the press to explore what happened. This is a big, meaty theater story about free expression, the relationship between the playwright and the artistic directors, the responsibilities in portraying still-alive people in a fictional play -- maybe Theater J made the right decision, maybe not, but the idea that the answer is stony silence from bloggers and the press seems rather odd to me. Especially on this blog with its history of covering rachel corrie.