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May 20, 2010

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Gabe

I think you have this wrong. Wiesel has the right to decide if he is being defamed and mischaracterized, just like any citizen. And then he has the right to sue. The JCC obviously did not want a law suit and pulled the play. End of story. Except you want to show some kind of trail of censorship with Rachel Corrie. Not the same.

cgeye

Not just like any citizen -- there is a dual standard involving public figures that has been established in US libel law. Is he a public figure, through his writing and Foundation, or a private one?

99

Just the point of fact (or at the very least, Deb Margolin's side of the story): Theatre J didn't pull the play; they agreed with Wiesel and his foundation to have the play re-written to satisfy his concerns, apparently without her consent to that arrangement. That is actually censorship.

And cgeye asks the right question: is he a "private" citizen? Is he a public figure? If Jeffrey Skiling or Andy Fastow threatened to sue the Royal Court over their portrayals in Enron, do you think that would have been treated the same way?

Esther

I raised the point about Fastow and Skilling in my blog post. But the difference is, they're both convicted felons serving jail time. Unlike Elie Wiesel, they could hardly argue that a piece of theatre maligned their reputations.

Also, I don't know if Wiesel would be considered a limited public figure - public for his humanitarian efforts but private when it comes to his financial matters. Either way, I would not want to go to court over this.

You do raise a good point, though, about the JCC being the landlord and the uneasy relationship when a theatre is too close to a community. On the one hand, that relationship is a good thing, helping to build an audience. But it can also have drawbacks, I guess.

isaac

Gabe,

Actually, Wiesel does not have the right to decide if he is being defamed or not. he has the right to claim he is being defamed and seek damages. A court has the right to decide whether or not he is actually being defamed. What's going on here is Wiesel using the threat of a lawsuit to intimidate someone from exercising their free speech rights. This is exactly the same as what the Church of Scientology does.

Gabe

You all make good points. Believe me, I am in theatre and certainly support freedom of speech to make political, socio-historical and cultural points. But the question is not just what is legal but what is right. A man is a public figure through his work (we're not talking about Lindsey Lohan here) and certainly must answer to many characterizations of his work and writings all the time, some of which are positive and some negative. But he is a living person, going on 82 years old and a very private person at that and doesn't even talk about his family in interviews. All of a sudden his personal affairs are revealed. What would have been so wrong about changing his identity to make the same points? Why would this not have been an honorable thing to do? What kind of society have we become in this Facebook Age (which is totally alien to Wiesel), that every part of our lives must now be on public display? BTW-Thanks for this civil discourse.

Ian Thal

The similarities between the pulling of Imagining Madoff and the pulling of My Name is Rachel Corrie are superficial at best.

My Name is Rachel Corrie was written under close supervision by the Corrie family, and, is such, something of a propaganda piece, in that it was by design meant to represent Ms. Corrie as unquestionably heroic, her ideology as unquestionably principled, and her causes as unquestionably just. The question in that case, is whether a community wants to support a propaganda piece. (And note, Rachel Corrie has been produced in American theatres.)

Simply taking Ms. Margolin's word for it, the circumstances are radically different.

99

Gabe- Part of my issue with this is that not only have we heard not quite enough from the theatre (though Isaac's update sheds some light on their situation) but not quite enough from Wiesel himself. We have the quotes calling the play "obscene," but it's unclear what he's objecting to. Did Deb use some very, very personal anecdote or story? From her description and the reporting so far, it doesn't seem so. It's a fictional story, created out of whole cloth.

I absolutely appreciate Wiesel's desire for privacy, but as a public figure, he surrenders a larger portion of that than you and I do, even in the Facebook Age. I definitely don't support him wanting to be a public figure, but to wholly control the way his image is used.

My biggest issue with this whole thing isn't his objection. Like Isaac points out, he has every right to be offended, every right to sue, every chance to prove his case. I object strenuously to the idea that Deb and Theatre J needed to gain his approval in advance or the play couldn't go on. That's why this is a censorship issue. And frankly, what makes it similar to the Rachel Corrie issue. Should there be sentiments that because a segment of the population, no matter how large or small, finds unpleasant or even abhorrent that they shouldn't be seen? Is that the hallmark of a free society? Of good discourse?

Ian Thal

I think that the key thing to remember in this matter is that neither Theatre J nor Ms. Margolin expected to have any conflict with Professor Weisel and were, in fact, hoping that he would have been honored by their efforts. Playwright, theatre, and subject attempted to reach a compromise to which all three parties could agree, and that was unable to happen.

(And for reasons I can't go into, this is probably as much as I can say on that issue.)

Rachel Corrie is an entirely different beast in that its composition was micro-managed in order to fit the non-aesthetic political agenda of the Corrie family.

All you have in common here is that a play was pulled and that there were Jews involved.

99

If that's all you want to see, that's all you'll see.

Mark S.

"But he is a living person, going on 82 years old and a very private person at that and doesn't even talk about his family in interviews."

Is it consistent for someone to put themselves in the public eye and then insist that they not be looked at? Is it laudable? Is it defensible?

If he's attempting to maintain some control over public perception of his image (perfectly fine), this action will just lead to loss of any control he might have had or might like to have.

Moreover, a lawsuit represents the appropriation of state/public power for some desired end, public or private. The threat of a lawsuit is often enough to produce the desired end--in this case, a private end is given the force of state/public power in order to suppress an act of artistic expression. What I am interested in is this: what about this situation makes recourse to state power necessary? And how does Mr. Wiesel expect to emerge from it unscathed or umblemished by it?

-M

RLewis

Am I wrong, or wasn't the Corrie play pretty much what actually happened, and the Madoff play is a purely fictional account of what someone else imagines could happen? To me, that's a pretty big difference. If I were in Wiesel's place, I'd probably have a problem with fictional truth, too.

Deb is a terrific person, and an okay playwright, if a bit cerebral, but this story could be told many other ways... just wouldn't have gotten such terrific publicity. I'm jealous.

Ian Thal

"wasn't the Corrie play pretty much what actually happened...?"

Depends on what you mean by "actually happened."

The Corrie play is the Corrie family's authorized version of what happened. They dictated to writers Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner what was to be included and what was not to be included. The writers were very agreeable to the conditions.

So by my definition, it's a blatant propaganda piece.

That's why I find the similarities between these two cases superficial.

99

So. The Corrie family dictating to the writers what the piece can and can't say is propaganda. But Elie Wiesel wanting to dictate what the piece could and couldn't say is a defense of free speech?

Yeah, there's no possible comparison to be made between these two situations. Nothing to see here.

Ian Thal

Rickman and Viner signed on to adapting Rachel Corrie's diaries and email into a play that presents the Corrie family's public position (and leaves out anything that might be potentially embarrassing to the family.) It was the condition of the commission. Rickman and Viner are, on the other hand, representing the Corrie family; they are propagandists. Any objections to the play are due to the propagandistic nature, and the writers are not concerned with addressing criticisms.

Margolin, on the other hand, is not beholden to Wiesel and is producing her work elsewhere after she made what she views as a good faith effort to address Wiesel's objections.

So yes, I do think the similarities are superficial.

On the other hand, J., I do get the sense that you are attempting to attribute to me additional positions in the case. Sorry: not this time.

isaac

Thanks for the clarification, Morgan (And break a leg with the show this summer).

I still have to say, on the fundamental issue of a theatre's artistic director telling a foundation that a play will be rewritten to satisfy the foundation's concerns... i still think that's troubling. really, deeply troubling.

Ari Roth

Dear Isaac Butler, (part 1)
Your original posting about Theater J and our critical inquiry concerning Caryl Churchill's SEVEN JEWISH CHILDREN, and your discussion of it again here, contains some factual inaccuracies. I didn't know about your blog 14 months ago when you wrote about our "flawed" presentation. And reading your blog only for the first time this week and noticing the recycling and compounding of factual inaccuracies about the Churchill evening here did not compel me to respond, but rather roll my eyes, and moreover, I was stuck in auditions for 3 solid days while this media issue broke. But now I find out that you're actually Susan and Dixon Butler's son - and there couldn't be nicer or smarter people in the world than them and they are intimately connected, of course, to the Washington theater scene. So you are owed a response. Especially since this is a big weekend for you. Who you are in relation to your family (a family which means something to me) will inform my response to you as it informed my response to Elie Wiesel (who's known my parents since the mid 1960s at least; who sang hebrew and yiddish folks songs with my mother at the university of chicago and who came to hear me sing "adon olam" at my synagogue when i was 12, and who read my family play GIANT SHADOWS in 1986 and corresponded to me on his Boston University stationery, making an impression at the time). In short, it matters who's making the complaint, even if you disagree with the person complaining. Elie Wiesel had a troubling, troubled, and traumatized reaction to Deb Margolin's play when he read it. He threatened legal action vowing to stop any production of it. I didn't agree with his reading of the play and I wanted to disabuse him of his harsh critique of it. I corresponded to him and conversed with his foundation in the most principled and sensitive way I could, given my family's connection to him, and given his larger importance in our community. Deb's play would go on, and I was committed to protecting its soulfulness, its dramatic integrity, its reason for being, even I wanted to be respectful of the tremendous invasion that Wiesel felt in reading this counter-factual counter-narrative - which is to say a wholly made up dramatic encounter between two men who never actually met, never stayed up late studying, never shared stories about sex. There was a way to broker an understanding between aggrieved author/witness Wiesel and the now aggrieved author Margolin who was as devastated by Wiesel's angry response to her play as Wiesel was horrified by her depiction of him. The solution, as proffered by Deb, was change Wiesel's name. Remove his literal presence and replace him with the ficitonal Rabbi Solomon Galkin of Long Island, friend of Bernie Madoff's father and but one another several thousand of aggrieved investors who would lose the bulk of their wealth to Madoff.
As both a courtesy and as a demonstration to everyone at Theater J and the DCJCC, I offered to send Deb's promised rewrite back to the Wiesels to prove to them that the promised rewrite would in fact remove him from the play, as we were saying it would, and I sought assurance that they would not find anything legally actionable in the revised script. I expected a two week turnaround. I wasn't asking for approval. I wanted to assure the many concerned parties on our end that we wouldn't be sued.

Ari Roth

(continued...)
This is the extent of the disagreement between Deb, Morgan and me. I was making a commitment to show the Wiesel's the script to prove to them Deb was doing what we were promising in our letter to him (and the proof would be in the script, not in the promising; we'd written flowery letters to him in advance of the first submission of the script and Deb's words of deep respect and reverence had fallen on deaf ears). There is a legitimate question: What if the Wiesel's had read the new draft--scrubbed clean of any reference to him--and they still would object? Or perhaps they'd ask for a delay in producing? What would we have done then, believing in our bones that there was no longer an issue of "libel-in-fiction" or an invasion of privacy through the writing of graphically fictionalized fantasy attributed to a character named Elie Wiesel; if we were now convinced that there was absolutely no legal ground for him to stand on in this new draft (whereas in the original draft containing his name the case law is perhaps a bit murkier--where at least you could be assured that, if taken to court, you might stay there for a while), we would have, I suspect, delayed the production by a few months, swapping in a spring show into the fall slot, and worked to sort this thing out, outside of court. But 8 days after receiving a copy of Wiesel's angry letter to Deb, the play was withdrawn from Theater J. We lost our chance to present the revision--at least for this current season.

Now back to SEVEN JEWISH CHILDREN and then I'll call it a night and wish you a congratulations on your upcoming Big Event. In the posting above you write "an after-show discussion with a holocaust survivor railing against it and three different "Response" plays taking either pro-Zionist or anti-Palestinian views (one of them, ironically enough, written by Deb Margolin)." Amitai Etzioni is not a Holocaust survivor. Elie Wiesel is. Like my father, Etzioni was born in Germany in the same year of 1929 but did not spend time in a camp (at least as far as I know from him or from his writing or writing about him). Further, of the two other 4 and 7 minute response plays presented that night at Theater J during our critical inquiry about SEVEN JEWISH CHILDREN, Deb Margolin's contribution (SEVEN PALESTINIAN CHILDREN) can neither be called "pro-Zionist" nor "anti-Palestinian." Why would anyone describe it as such? It is pro-humanitarian, anti-suffering, and tries to extend a warm heart to its Palestinian subjects (in a style, Deb would suggest, I think, that was more open hearted, ultimately, than Churchill's writing of her Jewish characters). Still Deb's playlet is more of a companion to Churchill's than a refutation of it. They are of a related piece with each other. And so the role of that "response" play was not to argue angrily against Churchill, but rather to show a Jewish artistic voice writing "in response" to Churchill's work.

And Churchill's work was all of 8 minutes long. My opening remarks were 15 minutes long. So sue me! The evening itself, with all the discussion, was 90 minutes long. The evening was centered around Churchill's play but at 8 minutes, that center could only be the touchpoint for a wide-ranging discussion. "Deeply flawed?" Whatever, dude. You gather 180 people for 8 minutes, talk about it for 3, and then go home. Wouldn't be the greatest event. But at least the proportions would be more to your liking.

Okay, that was bad tone. I'll stop. I respect your engagement on this issue and appreciate everyone's support of Deb Margolin's important new play. Soon we'll get to see it and it will finally live. And hopefully, (god willin and the crick don't rise, as my production manager likes to say), you'll see it on the boards in Washington (at Theater J, not Studio !) and no one will be the worse for legal wear.

Ari Roth, artistic director, Theater J

Ian Thal

I think that there's a pretty consistent picture presented in the statements by Margolin, Roth, and Jenness.

This is not "DC's My Name is Rachel Corrie" as Isaac suggests. This is something far more complex, even tragic.

Isaac (based on his blog posts over the last few months) just has a compulsion to paint all Jewish institutions nefarious.

99

I join Isaac, in his post above, in thanking and welcoming your thoughts, Ari. I don't know you personally or Theatre J's work, but have heard good things over the years. I always think it's good to get responses straight from the sources. I admire your and Deb and Morgan's willingness to jump in here. And your comments shed a lot of light on this whole issue, which is obviously complex. The original Washington Post article didn't really do the depth of the issue justice. I hope there's follow-up on it.

Aaron Riccio

Silly question, perhaps, but can you be sued for defamation if what you've written is clearly titled "a fiction"? Oddly enough, this made me think of "Collected Stories," in which an author threatens to sue her student for appropriating her life for fiction, so I guess there's plenty of precedent.

99

I don't think that's a silly question at all, especially since it's at the core of the issue, really. In one of the threads, somebody mentioned the David Leavitt/Stephen Sender case that inspired Collected Stories. It's worth noting that, although Spender alleged that Leavitt used parts of his life without permission, he only sued on the basis of plagiarism. I'd think that this was even hazier, really, depending on the content. It's a real, living person in a made-up situation. Can someone be defamed by fiction?

ArtHennessey

Somebody certainly can be defamed by fiction. However, after hearing from all these parties involved, it doesn't seem to be the case here - at all. In other words, I can't imagine that Mr. Wiesel would really have a leg to stand on legally.

Defamation, from my understanding, takes the form of specific statements, intended to be perceived as factual.

In fiction works that don't use real names - Law & Order - it is almost impossible to show defamation. In fiction that does use real names there is a small opening for a defamation charge to stick, but, once again, it has to deal with specific statements.

But even if you have a fiction with real names and some specific statements you still have another hurdle in the mix - you must prove that the work is NOT CLEARLY demarcated as fiction.

I'm sure there are people more versed in this than I am, but from this basic understanding I just don't see that (a.) a lawsuit would even have any teeth and (b.) that there even was any defamation.

esthermiriam

Helpful to hear from Ari and Deb -- unfortunate we cannot hear from Weisel -- if somewhat bizarre that no one else writing here has read the play...

And no one here seems to aware of the challenge to his credibility Weisel has taken recently for his "letter on Jerusalem," in which he attempted to use his moral standing in a political context about which he was uninformed and in which one might suggest he was being used by others, not unlike his spending his credibility in support for Christian Zionists.

Ian Thal

Esther, your points about those two particular political positions taken by Elie Wiesel are valid and I share them. Whether it is putting religious ideas about Jerusalem over the people who actually live there, or the courting of the "Christian Zionists" these initiatives are, at best, contentious even amongst Jewish American supporters of Israel, and seem to head only to disaster.

It's just that, as near as I can tell, neither Margolin nor Roth are addressing those issues: Whether they politically agree or disagree with Wiesel, they've repeatedly stated that they do not want to be seen as showing disrespect to him as a person and that's why this situation is particularly complex: there were good faith efforts to ease tensions and to appease Wiesel's stated objections.

Whether he has the legal right to shut down the production because he is offended (I doubt such a right would hold up in court) both the playwright and the theatre were surprised that he was offended. No one was thinking "this is going to make Elie Wiesel angry."

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