(NOTE: Updated for Clarity)
There's been a lot of comment action about the Imagining Madoff fracas here at Parabasis, and as a result, three of the four major players-- playwright Deb Margolin, agent Morgan Jeaness and Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth-- have all weighed in here at Parabasis. I welcome all three's engagement with this site and the issues raised here. Ari Roth's comment in particular is... I suppose "forceful" would be the accurate word... and makes a number of claims about my coverage of this issue and Theater J's performance of Seven Jewish Children.
I would like to discuss this in depth but... well... I'm getting married today, and managing and writing these posts has been done in the context of around the clock wedding and honeymoon planning. I am going to be away from my computer and my life here in Brooklyn for awhile after this weekend, and as I have to get dressed and go to the wedding venue in a bit, I don't really have time to respond here.
So this is what I would like to do: Below the jump on this post, you will find Margolin, Jeaness and Roth's statements, as well as a link to the original article that launched this whole conversation. And let me just say that there very well may be factual inaccuracies in the posts I wrote about this subject and Seven Jewish Children. Posts on both subjects were based on available information at the time. In the case of Seven Jewish Children, it was the press coverage of the event, along with Ari Roth's interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg on the subject. In Imagining Madoff's case, it was through trying to figure out what was going on as each new statement or press story was released.
Roth's statement claims that there are lots of factual innacuracies in Parabasis posts about both Imagining Madoff and Seven Jewish Children. There's one thing I definitely got wrong... my original post on Seven Jewish Children at Theater J mentioned a speaker whose escape to Palestine saved him from the holocaust. In my most recent post on the subject, this got conflated to "holocaust survivor" which was totally inaccurate and a regrettable result of the pace I've been going at this week. I apologize for the error. Much of the rest of Mr. Roth's statement appears to focus on difference between us on the value of providing "context" to a work of art and other topics more related to differences of opinion. I wish I had time right now to sort out the particulars of whether or not I did this case, but I don't. I have a personal life to maintain and enjoy and celebrate and that's what i'm going to go do today. None of this is meant as a dodge for taking responsibility, simply as an admission that I'm a human being and today for me is not about Theater J.
I will also say that Parabasis has always been and will continue to be a journal of opinion, and that the question mark in the post where I asked if this was DC's Rachel Corrie was not rhetorical. It was a real question. I had-- and continue to have-- an opinion as to its answer, but that doesn't make it less of a question.
These few blog posts have generated a lot of heat. Luckily, through the participation of people involved in the actual story, they've managed to generate some light as well. I'm grateful for that.
On a final note, before I go to the jump and post all the statements, is that there's a tacit accusation of self-hatred made against me in the comment thread as well. So let me make this clear: I do, indeed, have pretty deep conflicts about both nationalism and institutions in general. But I focus more heavily on problems and differences I have with Jewish Institutions not because they are Jewish, but because I am, and, thanks to the somewhat-falling-out between the administrations of Netanyahu and Obama, there's been a lot more to discuss on those fronts than in general. Nationalism and the institutionalization of culture are a double edged sword, on the one hand, there's a real sense of belonging and real power generated and new moves that are opened up and created. On the other, there's a creation of a party line and problematic treatment of those who don't adhere to it. Given that part of our intellectual, philosophical and moral tradition is a non-dogmatic approach to religion and the Midrash-- in which multiple interpretations of Torah passages are considered equally valid-- and that i myself come from a line of secular, non-zionist, non-northeastern Jews, this other edge of the sword is particularly visible and particularly galling to me. That being said, the idea that I wrote about this issue simply because I have some kind of grudge against Jewish institutions is offensive and innaccurate. I was not the first person on this site to write about it, the production cancellation I connected it to (Rachel Corrie)was not done by a Jewish institution, and I would've written about a production being cancelled amidst threats of lawsuits regardless of who the players were.
That's about all I have time to write about today on this issue. I gotta, to paraphrase a famous song Get Me To The Secular Commitment Ceremony Venue On Time. Thanks again to all participants in this discussion and Parabasis' readership. I became an adult writing this blog, and even when things get hot and heavy around here, am grateful for its existence.
Please feel free to keep the discussion going in the comments to this post. People, after all, are going to have their own interpretations of what happened, even after reading all the statements involved, and as this conversation was not started by me but was actually started by 99Seats, I'm sure he might want to weigh in as well. And as a wedding present to me: be good to each other and avoid cheap shots.
First Parabasis entry by 99Seats.
Statement from Deb Margolin:
My most recent play is entitled Imagining Madoff. It is a play in which I try to console myself about the crimes, the betrayals, committed by Bernard Madoff, a prominent member of the Jewish community, by searching inside my own humanity for what might have gone wrong in his. Madoff’s depraved indifference to the suffering he caused so many who trusted him, besides being a tragedy, is a human mystery, and the language of drama seemed the proper place for the investigation of it, and the healing that such investigation can bring. As I conceived the play, I imagined Mr. Madoff in prison, and I imagined him remembering a fictional all-night meeting with Professor Elie Wiesel, a man on the absolute opposite end of the moral spectrum from this criminal. He contrasted deeply in nature with Wiesel, who has spent his life trying to replenish the spiritual wealth and strength of a population robbed of it. Apart from being purely dramatic, this juxtaposition seemed to have the potential to expose moral complexities that are beyond simple description, as two Jewish men so unlike one another sit and discuss Talmud, Midrash, finance, baseball, desire, everything. The dramatic arc of the play finds Madoff beginning to yearn after his humanness in Wiesel’s presence, to see himself invidiously by the light of Wiesel’s grace, and realizing that redemption will only come by confessing his crime to Wiesel. However, this fails to happen; it cannot happen. The subject of the Abraham and Isaac story in the Torah comes up, and the character evoked by Wiesel quotes from Talmudic commentary on the story, which concludes with the statement: …such is the punishment of a liar – even when he tells the truth, no one listens. I am proud of the play, and devastated by Professor Wiesel’s response to it. I approached his fictional character with the most profound respect. The character bearing Elie Wiesel’s name is present in my play for metaphorical rather than biographical purposes, and I intended the play as a deep investigation into the mind of Madoff, a man from whom we have heard almost nothing. The play had a reading at Theater J in Washington DC, and pulled the audience into an important meditation on morality and issues of trust within the Jewish community, which is why Ari Roth, Artistic Director, expressed a desire to present the play in his theater. The collapse of this arrangement, precipitated first by Professor Wiesel’s frightening letter to me threatening litigation and secondarily by Roth’s promise to the Foundation that I would edit the play and submit it to the Wiesel Foundation for their assurances that they would not litigate, saddens me deeply. This sequence obliged me to pull the play from Theater J’s season. I was not averse to editing the play, to removing references to Wiesel’s fictionalized character; I could not, however, bring myself to submit a play for approval to a man who has for years stood for the struggle for human rights and freedoms, including the freedom of speech. --Deb Margolin May 20, 2010
Statement from Morgan Jeaness:
As Deb Margolin's agent I feel I do need to clear up a few things. Deb did not categorically refuse to make changes - as the character was never meant to be biographical but metaphorical, functioning as an iconic representation of the opposite end of the moral spectrum from Madoff. She was more than happy to honor Prof Wiesel's wishes in terms of not using his name, since he was someone she and everyone involved with the show deeply respected. He stated to her that the character was not him, did not sound like him - which was true - as it wasn't meant to be him literally but an imagining of him used iconically as a means to have a deep discussion about morality. As one actors agent said to me when he heard Prof Wiesel was upset - \"really, I thought he would be flattered\". The issue that emerged here is that while Deb was willing to change the identification of the character (and it is mainly issues of the name and some quote usage and a few details) out of respect, she was not willing to substantially rework the character - because there was no need. The character is a deeply moral man who does not have to be Prof. Wiesel (other such men do exist). She was also willing to make the appropriate changes out of deep respect for Prof Wiesel,but not because he, being a public figure, really had the legal right to have any impact on the play so that when vetting became a condition for continuing, with action against the theater still potentially a threat, we found ourselves in the sticky situation of trying to maintain rights to artistic freedom, honor Prof Wiesel's wishes and not jeopardize Theater J - which started to feel like contradictory choices ...which is when we chose to withdraw the play since the situation really did seem like it could not be resolved in a way which could honor all those elements which we felt did truly need to be honored. Happily, the production of IMAGINING MADOFF at Stageworks Hudson in New York, under the direction of Laura Margolis, is still happening in the summer so I do hope that everyone will be able to come see the play then and see what it really is.
Statement from 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.
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
So that's it for now. Hope this is clarifying, or at the very least, interesting.