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.”
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@example.com. I plan to have it first-draft-ready by next winter and, with luck, to submit it the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival.