Writing a Play About Elie Wiesel and Deb Margolin

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Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout is mildly, if rather unmistakably, right-wing. This time he’s also right: Elie Wiesel did the First Amendment a disservice by issuing a threat to sue Washington, D.C.’s Theatre J and playwright Deb Margolin, who used Wiesel as a character in a play about Bernard Madoff and how Madoff swindled Wiesel and scores of others out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Margolin, in the initial version of Imagining Madoff, asked a question — how did Madoff do it? — and used the question as dramatic ignition. Given the high profile of Madoff’s crimes, given the high profile of Wiesel himself, it all seems fair for the picking. True, Margolin did herself few favors by not alerting Wiesel to the creation or mounting of the play before Ari Roth, artistic director of Theatre J, slated it, but that’s about personal politics and politeness, not law. Legally, as noted by Teachout, Margolin didn’t need Wiesel’s permission — or blessing — to create a character named “Elie Wiesel.”

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But we’ll come back to that in a moment.

For it’s important to note that Theatre J backed down from producing the play because Wiesel threatened to sue; he never actually took the next step and filed an injunction. Denied a production berth in the nation’s capital, supposedly an altar of American freedom, the play was produced in upstate New York, where at least one critic gave it a rave.

That Imagining Madoff was ultimately produced isn’t the issue. Indeed, the play produced at Stageworks/Hudson (the production ran July 21 to Aug. 7) wasn’t the play Roth yanked off the Theatre J schedule, for Margolin had rewritten it, changing the Wiesel character’s name to something fictional and out of the realm of litigation. So, Wiesel won; he went the way of professional intimidation and succeeded in bullying an American playwright into submission. As Margolin pitifully confessed to the New York Times last month:

This has been a profoundly painful experience, and I’m still scared to talk about it, because I can’t get sued, there’s no way I could afford it.

So, one of the world’s great defenders of human rights has proven to be a feckless narcissist. Only the dysfunctional judicial system — and the costs associated with litigating within it — gave him cover. The hed and dek for Teachout’s column couldn’t be more straightforward:

Shame on Elie Wiesel
He trampled on a playwright’s freedom of speech

That Margolin has openly acknowledged being “devastated” by Wiesel’s response is even more depressing. But, as we opined earlier this year, the issue is actually bigger than any of this. Rather than repeat my words, though, let’s give a hand to Teachout, who frames the matter succinctly:

Why on earth did Mr. Wiesel, of all people, threaten to drop the big one on Ms. Margolin and Theater J? Not only is he prominent and admired, but he is also a celebrated human-rights advocate who has famously declared that “indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.” Yet he has proved himself utterly indifferent to the rights of a serious artist and a well-regarded theater company to make art as they see fit, merely because their art portrays him in a way he doesn’t like. I wouldn’t go so far as to call that hypocritical-not quite-but I have no doubt that it’s unworthy of a great man who ought to know better.

Now, why am I retreading all this ground? Because I have an idea. If anything, I have even less money than Margolin does, so I have little to lose. And I happen to think this subject is worthy of a dramatic exploration itself.

I want to write a documentary theater piece called, tentatively, “A Play About Deb Margolin and Elie Wiesel.” I wish to co-author it with someone. It would include interviews, if obtainable, with the players in this drama, as well as a look at the press coverage of the situation and how it framed the matter to the public.

Please send expressions of interest or revulsion to me at [email protected] I plan to have it first-draft-ready by next winter and, with luck, to submit it the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival.

Shame on Elie Wiesel

He trampled on a playwright’s freedom of speech

  • Deb Margolin

    For the record:

    Well before any production of Imagining Madoff, or any announcement of such a production, I sent a very respectful letter to Professor Wiesel telling him about myself, my Jewish background, my love of theater and my use of it for the investigation of human character, and telling him that I had juxtaposed him, in a fictional dramatic work, in a room with Bernard Madoff for the purposes of teasing out certain moral complexities inherent in the enormity of Madoff’s crimes in the current social context. Through an intermediary, he agreed to read the script. I sent him the script, again with a profoundly respectful letter welcoming his comments. He responded very soon after receiving the script via letter informing me that he considered the script defamatory and would alert his attorney.

    As Professor Wiesel’s character was fictionalized, and his name merely a recognizable icon of moral rectitude, it was effortless for me to refictionalize this character and give him a different life and a different name. The play was never meant to be an indictment of Elie Wiesel, or even a character study of him. Imagining Madoff is a work of fiction, and its purposes are beyond a look at any one man, aspiring instead to a look at the inner life of a liar, and at the rest of us who, in presuming in others the generosity that is native in ourselves, or through other forms of social blindness, can allow crimes of this nature to occur. It is a play about the rapture as well as the danger of complete faith in others, or complete faith in God.

    D. Margolin
    August 12, 2010

    • Dear Deb,

      I want to thank you for such a considerate reply. One thing, though: Are you suggesting that Wiesel, in essence, did not deny you, on at least some level, your First Amendment rights?

      And seriously, I really appreciate your comment. It was very kind of you to write (and to clarify).

      LJ

  • Thomas Garvey

    I’m hoping Leonard will take me up on my offer to co-author “Imagining Imagining Madoff,” which, needless to say, will feature characters named “Deb Margolin” and “Elie Wiesel,” as well as “Terry Teachout,” “Isaac Butler,” “Leonard Jacobs” and “Thomas Garvey.”

    • Love the title. I just don’t know who that fourth person is.

  • SPOILER ALERT!

    I enjoy the comedic “Isaac Butler” in that it shows a child of privilege inserting himself into the fracas (even getting himself cited as an authority in journalistic accounts) by deliberately circulating his speculations and simply refusing to consider that the accounts provided by the major players had a kernel of truth. only to be shut down when one of the players asks “Isaac, you do realize that I know your mother and father?”

    Seriously though, Wiesel appears to have a very ambivalent relationship to theatre. Even with regards to the three plays he has written, he appears to only allow performances under very controlled circumstances. I suppose that the collaborative aspect of theatre is something that makes him uncomfortable to say the least– even when he’s the playwright.

  • Betsy Salkind

    I can only hope that all of this has brought more people to know of Ms. Margolin, and incredibly generous and gifted artist.

  • Dr. Wroe

    I saw “Imagining Madoff”. I loved the play, the players, and the production. I came away wondering if, (and this is pure speculation as I have never worked with him,) Mr. Wiesel objected to there being references to some men’s having sexual feelings for women, and to the life-affirming, even life-saving experience of feeling desire and an appreciation of human beauty. I wonder if, these things seemed frightening, or inappropriate to the point of feeling ‘defamatory’ for a gentleman who has the need to control his image in the world, as clearly Mr Wiesel does. This is all ‘speculation from the psychiatrist couch’ – for no one escapes the horrors of war without a practice which enables them to have a degree of self-awareness, and a plan of action as to what to do when feelings of once again being-in-danger arises. As I said, I do not know Mr. Wiesel nor have I any sense of the time and work he may have explored so that he might come to have reasonable human relationships after enduring such suffering as he has. He clearly has taken feelings of fury, shame and sorrow and used them as fuel in this most valuable pursuit; bringing to the world consciousness the identity of killers and torturers who otherwise would have escaped having to take responsibility for their heinous actions. And here, it would APPEAR to be clear that Mr. Wiesel was conscious of employing his threat of a lawsuit as a tool to deny this (important) playwright her First Amendment rights. Turning this fierce energy on a playwright seems all but insane to me__so yes. I’d much enjoy writing a play with you__! And a post script; I wonder if the play, the same play had been penned by a male writer, say Tony Kushner, if the outcome would have been the same?

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