by Francine Zorn Trachtenberg
Theater J has been in the crosshairs of the press in the past few weeks, the subject of a controversy between a playwright and a world citizen, with an artistic director caught in the middle. The crux of the matter is two-pronged: whether or not a public figure can be the subject of a work of fiction without his consent; and whether or not a community theater should ever bow to pressure in making artistic decisions. Two heady issues, indeed, are on the table. Let’s look at them one at a time.
A new play has been written by Deb Margolin titled, “Imaging Madoff.” Madoff is of course the infamous Bernie Madoff, a.k.a. gonif of the Western World, who duped his friends as well as strangers, stole billions of dollars and upset the financial network of hundreds of families, foundations and social organizations around the world. His escapades have come to symbolize chicanery and evil. His misplaced sense of entitlement ruined lives, set back programs and epitomizes the phrase, “it is a shanda fur die goy” – he is a Jew who did something embarrassing and wrong in front of non-Jews.
The setting of the Margolin play is a fictional (made-up, never happened, imagined) encounter between Madoff and Elie Wiesel. Mr. Wiesel, of course, is the most famous writer, thinker and spokesperson for understanding the Holocaust. He has won the Nobel Prize. He is a survivor. He is the symbol of righteous indignation about all that is evil in the world and how to make wrong right. He and Madoff are opposites, the extreme edges of morality.
Ari Roth, the Washington DCJCC’s artistic director of Theater J read the play, liked it and placed it at the beginning of next season’s lineup. Like almost everything Theater J presents, this play, Roth believed, would get people thinking and talking. Theater J is known for its provocative productions.
Ms. Margolin sent her script to Elie Wiesel. She is proud of her work. She believed her pairing of good vs. evil – Wiesel vs. Madoff – showed the Nobel Laureate in good light. Mr. Wiesel, however, though a writer of fiction himself, took her play literally not figuratively and said in a letter back to Margolin, “This is not me.” And then, with all the melodrama of the movie Casablanca, he went to say, “I am shocked, appalled and offended…”
Theater J and the playwright were stunned by Wiesel’s response. The condemnation of this work and its pending public production is coming from a man who is the paragon of freedom, a man who in a concentration camp understood that his thoughts were always free from oppression.
There are a handful of public figures in the 20th century who life work commands the respect bestowed up Wiesel, including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Mother Teresa. These are individuals whose courage and/or ethical standing puts them in a category above most women and men. If any one of them asked any one of us to look carefully at something, we would do so. Their requests command respect.
Elie Wiesel said, “I formally oppose it [the play] being performed any time in any venue.” Strong words. He got everyone’s attention. He stopped production in its tracks. For a brief moment, he left everyone speechless. And then, in a whispering voice people said, “Wiesel said ‘no’ to the play.” (In full disclosure, no specific person said that specific phrase – it is a made-up sentence to make a point).
What now should the theater and its artistic director do?
Ari Roth is not known as a shrinking violet. He likes plays that are edgy. He likes plays that arouse strong feelings and he likes the audience to ponder deep questions. He is articulate and eloquent in his explanation of choices for Theater J. He is not one to cut and run. He enjoys debate, is good at confronting controversy and gets his “opponents” to hone their arguments and he can stand his ground with almost anyone.
Why offend a paragon of virtue? Ari Roth had to make a very difficult choice. Should artistic freedom trump personal objection? He had to step back from the rim of controversy and ponder if perhaps it isn’t the time to go forward with this particular play. Roth is quoted as saying about Wiesel, “He’s had in our minds an overreaction,” and Roth is probably right. Wiesel overreacted and the Washington DCJCC, rather than meeting him at the barricades of indignation, thought it best to let cooler heads prevail and move on to other plays.
Does this mean Theater J has capitulated? No it does not.
Elie Wiesel will be 82 on his next birthday; his life is long and he has witnessed much, far too much at times. After winning the Nobel Prize he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity whose “mission, rooted in the memory of the Holocaust, is to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.” The endowment funds supporting Wiesel’s foundation were decimated by Bernie Madoff; over night millions of dollars were lost. Dreams disappeared. Wiesel is once again pushing the rock up the hill. The imagery is biblical.
Ari Roth and Theater J and the Washington DCJCC decided that Elie Wiesel was allowed a little wiggle room. Wiesel over-reacted. No need for the rest of us to do the same.
Ms. Trachtenberg is a past-president of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. She is a former Senior Vice President at WETA and adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University’s art department, teaching the history of photography.