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May 19, 2010


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Suddenly shy, RVC?


Although, the play very well could be done someplace else. Margolin's agent simply withdrew the play from Theater J, the leadership of which has the relationship with Weisel.

I suspect we will see it as written sometime in the future. There have been lots of plays written about living celebrities in "fictionalized" situations: Nixon's Nixon and Matt and Ben are just two more high- profile examples.


The follow-up question, though, especially now that there's been some attention brought on it, is this: will Wiesel allow it at any theatre? Obviously, given Theatre J's mission and constituency, his voice carries maybe a bit more weight than it might somewhere else, but the threat to sue is a threat to sue. Would he have a leg to stand on, or is he a public figure open to this kind of use? In the cases of plays like Nixon's Nixon or Frost/Nixon or Matt and Ben, I don't recall a threat to sue being put out there by any of the participants.


You're right. It would depend on the fortitude of the individual theater's leadership. In this case - though I admit I am reading a lot between the lines - this was a case of Weisel asking a personal relation to not do the show and then the "legal action" was a cover for the friend.

But, like I said, we'll see.


Thank-you for the shout-out to my blog post.

Like I said, for me it does raise an interesting question about the whole fictitious meeting genre. What obligation does a writer have if the participants are living and the events took place in very recent memory?

Obviously, the playwright wanted to use Elie Wiesel because his name does evoke something for an audience. It's kind of a dramatic shorthand, I guess. She doesn't have to create a character out of whole cloth. I can certainly understand Wiesel objecting to being used in this way, to have a meeting and conversation fabricated.

I'm not familiar with Matt and Ben but Nixon is a disgraced former president. You'd have to compare this to someone who actually had a good reputation to lose!



I do get the sense, from the sequence of events as described, that he wasn't necessarily against the idea of having a fictitious conversation written involving him, but that something in the content of this particular play upset him or he thought would be damaging. And it is a hot button issue, of recent vintage, that might still be fresh for him.

I just wonder if it's expecting too little of an audience to think they won't understand what's fact and what's fiction.

D. 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


Thank you, Deb, for clarifying and sharing. I'm really, really glad you did. It's much appreciated.


Hey 99, that was very gracious of Deb Margolin to weigh in and I also appreciate her making the effort.

As to whether audiences can separate fact from fiction, how would they know that a meeting between two people was fabricated? Especially a meeting that sounds like it "could" have happened.


Esther, you need look no further than the nearest political blog, rally, or television channel to realize that people cannot separate fact from fiction. At least theater usually reminds people of its fictions via an Author's Note in the program . . . although I seem to remember Frost/Nixon taking some flak for a conflated scene or two.

It boils down to this (for me). Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Margolin's description of her play sounds terrific, if a little dry, and I'd like to see it. Shame on the too-easily offended.


From Ms. Margolin's comment it seems clear this was a case of a person exercising the power available to them to silence an artist.

I hope we get to see her play in the near future and I trust we will.

I'm with Aaron. As I said above, the fictionalizing of the relationships of actual, living people is not all that radical.

In Boston this past year we have a seen an opera that about Sarah Palin's rise and a musical, (You're a Good Man, Scott Brown,) about the Senator's now famous campaign. Scott Brown actually attended the musical, which fictionalized not only him, but his wife. Of course, these are parodies.

A few years ago we had a reading of Tony Kushner's play Only We Who Guard the Mystery Will Be Unhappy at the American Repertory Theatre. The play took some flak from conservatives because Laura Bush was a character in the play. You can read local conservative columnist Alex Beam's reaction: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2004/02/03/trashing_the_first_lady_at_the_art/

Talk radio was all abuzz about it. The ART continued with the reading.

And I think people might be confusing my earlier reference to Nixon's Nixon. This is not to be confused with Frost/Nixon. Nixon's Nixon is a very popular play by Boston playwright Russell Lees that has been done around the world. The play is a dramatic imagining of that famous visit . Here's a Time's review: http://nyti.ms/9gA2gE


I'm going to be crass, and ponder whether Wiesel wouldn't have had an objection to this work if he didn't have ongoing litigation concerning his losses.

He might have had his own opinion, for good or ill, but felt he had to edit this play due to advice from his Foundation's legal counsel.

Sadly, he's teaching us the same lesson Madoff did: Principles are easy to overlook, when money's involved.


Ok, I'll be crass, too. I'm assuming Margolin was getting paid and Theater J was charging admission. So they were hoping to benefit financially with a play about Madoff and Wiesel.

(And I'm assuming using the names of two real people would be a bigger audience draw, garner more attention, than using fictitious names.)

The question is, does Wiesel have the right to say how he's portrayed in a dramatic work or does his status as a public figure give the playwright unrestrained artistic license?

For example, speaking hypothetically, could a playwright depict someone doing something clearly illegal or obscene or immoral or unethical when they've never done anything of the sort?


I think context is all. Because, let's face it, famous people and public figures are depicted doing all sorts of illegal and immoral acts on a regular basis. James Ellroy has written four books that essentially allege that RFK knew that JFK was going to be assassinated and was blackmailed into keeping silent by the Mob. And that's just the tip of the iceberg: that same book alleges that Joe Kennedy and Gloria Swanson had an illegitimate child together. But it's a work of fiction, clearly marked right on the cover. Or clearly labeled in the Playbill.

You can't say in a newspaper that such-and-such happened, but in a work of fiction, you should be able to.


I think that Typepad is eating my comments, so this might be a double post.

But authors of all kinds do exactly that on a regular basis. In one of James Ellroy's recent books, he spins a whole web of conspiracy around both the JFK and RFK assassinations and the MLK assassination involving a lot of actual historical figures doing some pretty illegal and immoral things. But it's clearly marked a work of fiction. Just like a play is clearly labeled "a play" in the Playbill. If Wiesel wanted to write an essay making sure that the audience knew he never said or did those things, that's fine by me. But telling the playwright she can't write them is another matter.


Of course the people you mentioned are no longer with us and you can't libel the dead. What about if someone is alive and still has a reputation that could be harmed?

For example, the poet Stephen Spender objected to the way novelist David Leavitt fictionalized his life.


Margolin is free to write whatever she wants but having chosen two living subjects, does that give her a greater responsibility along with that freedom? I don't know, I'm just asking.

I have no idea whether Wiesel overreacted. Apparently his response devastated the playwright. I'd like to know what his objections were. In fact, I'm more interested in the play than I would have been otherwise!


And his objection causes the Streisand Effect: What would have happened if he'd ignored it? Discussed his concerns quietly with the author, after its first run?


No, it's a good question and a good point on not being able to libel the dead. I always forget about that point.

Spender sued for plagiarism, but not for defamation or libel. I don't know, either, and I'm certainly curious to see the play, but I think that, if we're talking about a piece of work that is clearly fiction, the author does have a responsibility to treat the subject with respect, but should still be free to create as she sees fit.


I wrote on the last blog and I want to reiterate on this one which has other people's attention. The question to my mind 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 either explicitly or implicitly. 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? Even as artists we have responsibility in our portrayals, which means responding to change not just plowing forward. BTW-Thanks for this civil discourse.

Morgan Jenness

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.


Thank you for your clarifications, Morgan. Very much appreciated.


I appreciate your comments, Morgan and if, as you write, all that was done then I understand the conundrum. Tricky and yet sticky. I hope things go well this summer and look forward to hearing about it.

Morgan Jenness

For those of you interested in the continuing story..

HUDSON -- Stageworks/Hudson has done it again.
The troupe's artistic director, Laura Margolis, has a long track record of finding exciting new plays and giving them strong, even-handed direction.
With "Imagining Madoff," she has another hit on her hands.
Playwright Deborah Margolin actually came to the attention of Stageworks through the company's annual "Play by Play" festival of short works. She penned "This Is What I Wanted" for last season's batch of one-acts.
But "Madoff" has brought both Margolin and Margolis more attention than they bargained for -- as a recent New York Times story discussed a controversy around the playwright's original concept of using Elie Weisel as a character in the play.
That the famous writer is not in the work now doesn't hinder the property one bit.
The title suggests what Margolin is up to here as she conjures a fantasia about the Ponzi schemer, Madoff. There are only three characters in the play, Madoff, his secretary and a noted poet and synagogue trustee named Solomon Galkin.
The latter is one of the many Madoff bilked.
Because it's a fantasia, Margolin is free to fiddle with the facts to tell the story she wants to tell, and she tells it beautifully. Each of the characters exist within their own bubble, but are allowed on occasion to interact as well.
The Secretary (Stageworks' vet Robin Leslie Brown) is bearing witness at Madoff's trial. The writer (Howard Green) is musing in his office, where he also meets Madoff (the fantastic Mark Margolis, who is not related to the director). And Madoff is talking with a journalist in his jail cell.
Margolin's dialogue is wonderful, and Margolis' cast makes it sing.
There are surprisingly few monologues, as the actors are addressing others rather than simply speaking their minds. But the structure feels electric and highly theatrical.
John Pollard's thrilling set, which reaches deep into the bowels of the building, seems to set the story in the present and in the biblical past all at once.
Andi Lyons' lights are simple and bright, like an interrogation.
And Jeffrey Lependorf's spartan sound design makes itself feel present when needed.
Again, Margolis' cast is excellent, with all three players offering top notch turns.
At Sunday's matinee a few lines were stepped on, but the intensity never wavered, and each found the dark comedy in Margolin's lines, too.
"Imaging Madoff" bears all the earmarks of a classic Stageworks presentation. It addresses a hot-yet-difficult cultural topic. It stirs all kinds of pots, with Judaism, for example, being a strong subplot here. And it asks more questions than it answers in all the right ways.
It's too bad the troupe's first notice in the New York Times had to be about a minor controversy rather than Stageworks' long history of major work. Recommended.

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