UPDATE: Small edit below. And Esther at Gratuitous Violins weighs in here.
2nd UPDATE: The playwright responds in the comments here.
Interesting WaPo story via the always useful You've Cott Mail today. Deb Margolin writes a play about an imaginary conversation between Bernie Madoff and Elie Wiesel. (Both Wiesel's foundation and Wiesel personally had millions of dollars involved in Madoff's Ponzi scheme.) When Wiesel first hears about it, he's okay with it. But once the play is finished...
Margolin says the 81-year-old Wiesel wrote a letter to her describing the play as "obscene" and "defamatory" and stating that he would have his lawyer stop the production.
Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth said the Wiesel Foundation was uncomfortable with having its founder's name used in the play, but early on Wiesel had not objected. "It wasn't until Wiesel read the play and found it to be exactly as Deb purported, a work of fiction . . . [that] Wiesel didn't consent to it," Roth says.
The production's been canceled* Deb pulled the play and another play is going to kick of Theatre J's 2010-2011 season.
Aside from the obvious issues of freedom of speech and an organization bowing to a legal threat from a famous figure, this reminds of me of an issue I talked about at my place a few months back: How do you approach that overlap between fiction and reality? When Wiesel objected, Theatre J spoke with Deb about re-working her play and making the Wiesel character a fictional figure (even though the entire play is a work of fiction). It didn't work. I can understand that. There are certain resonances that can only be had if the figure in your play is Elie Wiesel. But should those resonances be off-limits to an artist?
If the play is truly defamatory, or ascribes to Wiesel some action or opinion he finds repugnant, I can see that. Otherwise, though...is it really an invasion of privacy? If it's clearly labeled as a work of fiction? Where are the lines here? The late, lamented Law & Order mothership made its bones on (sometimes very) lightly fictionalizing real world figures. Of course, those stories were about crimes, and often did ascribe some pretty unsavory acts to those figures. Could this play have ventured into that realm? Or maybe it was just an unflattering light and Wiesel is defending his legacy?
The worst part is we'll never know. We'll never know what Deb Margolin has to say about Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme and how someone like Elie Wiesel was so fooled. That might have been an important story. Is protecting Wiesel's reputation more important?
*As noted here and is somewhat unclear in the WaPo story, Deb made the decision to pull the play after attempting to do revisions.