Reacting to Elie Wiesel’s Reaction to “Imagining Madoff”

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.

Share

Advertisements

Why Do a Reading of Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children” at a Jewish Theater?

Cross-posted on the Makom website

You can understand the outrage. Imagine it: a non-Jewish, British playwright has the temerity to write something as provocative as the line, “The Jews do not belong here” and a Jewish theater, in a fit of obvious self-loathing, gives that voice a venue by placing it on its stage. I am not speaking of the sudden controversy surrounding Caryl Churchill’s short-play, Seven Jewish Children which the Washington DCJCC’s resident professional company Theater J will present readings of this week. Rather, I am referring to the same Theater J’s production of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa nearly a decade ago, in the fall of 2000.

Back then we knew we were undertaking something with the potential to be controversial for its outsider’s observations of the Israel-Palestine conflict. We braced ourselves for outrage. We prepared our leadership for potential protests, even boycotts. We were not doing this merely for controversy’s sake, but because of our belief, that the work – consisting mainly of Mr. Hare’s channeling the voices of the various Israelis and Palestinians he met – confronted us with a challenging and artful portrayal of ourselves and our Israeli cousins. But so concerned were we about the potential for outraged audiences that we built into the presentation of the play a response vehicle, “The Peace Café” co-created by artistic director Ari Roth, Theater J councilmember Mimi Conway and a frequent participant in Arab-Jewish dialogue, restaurateur and Iraqi-American Anas Shallal. Following the performances, audiences gathered around tables, broke bread and picked from a menu of discussion questions and quotations of some of the play’s most provocative lines.

In spite of all our fears, or perhaps because of them, the tidal wave of controversy never materialized, but the Peace Café experience gave us a model with which to engage more controversial material in the years to come. Meanwhile, the work itself, Via Dolorosa has gone on to productions both at other Jewish theaters and in Israel itself.

If you have an opinion in this matter I hope to G-d you’ve taken the time to read the seven pages of verse that’s causing all the ruckus. I have neither the space nor the charge to do an explication of the work here, but if this is to be a Jewish argument, which is to say, an argument amongst Jews, then I hope we can all work from the source text and not just the commentaries.

So what’s different about Seven Jewish Children? Via Dolorosa was the theatrical equivalent of a documentary in its specific attribution of comments and ideas to individuals either named, like Benny Begin and Shulamit Aloni, or unnamed but definitely real, like the American settler couple Mr. Hare spends Shabbat with on the West Bank. Ms. Churchill’s work goes as far in the other direction as possible: neither the speaker nor to whom they are speaking, nor when they are speaking are ever made explicit. Ms. Churchill doesn’t assign statements to individual actors, instructing instead that,

The lines can be shared out in any way you like among those characters. The characters are different in each small scene as the time and child are different. They may be played by any number of actors.

The result is that it becomes difficult to find an authentic and specific Jewish voice in a work so broad that it is somehow attributable to all Israelis and no Israelis, to all Jews and yet no one Jew. Which speaks pointedly to the fact that while David Hare traveled the land of Israel gathering the cacophony of voices in his play, Ms. Churchill participates in an obstinate cultural boycott of Israel and does not even permit her works to be performed there. So there’s two strikes against Ms. Churchill. Let’s even throw in for argument’s sake that maybe she’s also a bit of an anti-Semite. That doesn’t take away from the power and verisimilitude of the compressed language she puts on the page for I would argue, five-sixths of the short work. That last part, suffers not from the caricature of a racist, belligerent, ultra-Nationalist (anyone caring to read material equally offensive but of more estimable provenance need only peruse Amos Oz’s essay “The Tender Among You and Very Delicate” from his collection In the Land of Israel); but its lack of attribution.

So why bother putting her generic opprobrium on our authentic Jewish stage? Why sully ourselves with the association? Because the only way to parse that which carries the merit of specific resonance from that which sinks under weight of shapeless assumptions is to inject the Jewish voice back into the monologue. To engage the work and respond to it with Jewish voices like Robbie Gringras and Deb Margolin, and the intelligent audience members that have sought us out for years now because of our mission to engage and discuss the most pressing moral and political issues of our time. To decide for ourselves after hearing a collection of generic poetics placed in the mouths of specific actors whether they land with the force of truth or disappear with the speed of your average smoke screen and with just as much substance.

Speaking only for myself, there is plenty of both in Ms. Churchill’s work. One may decry the ideological axe she brings with her, but one would be hard pressed to simply dismiss her mastery of craft and phrase. She has created a compelling work. And for every line as politically artless as “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake” there are aching verses that acknowledge the complex and contradictory world we Jews inhabit:

Tell her there are still people who hate Jews
Tell her there are people who love Jews
Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews

Ultimately, precisely because it is about us, we owe it to ourselves to apply our skills as artists and our intellectual rigor as audiences to divine what the worth of this piece is. I suspect Israelis are going to want to hear for themselves (although I would demand that they be allowed a production of Top Girls or Cloud Nine in exchange) and decide on their own whether or not they feel blood libeled. Ultimately, what Ms. Churchill has written “for Gaza” will be less important than the conversation Israelis have with each other as new accounts by IDF soldiers are published in Ha’aretz and Ma’ariv.

And while she’s no Shakespeare, the Bard himself never visited Italy, but still managed to write The Merchant of Venice. On second thought, let’s not go there. Not today.

Opening Night of The Price at Theater J

Ari Roth posts from his curtain speech at the Theater J Blog:

In one of his most famous essays, TRAGEDY AND THE COMMON MAN, written almost 60 years ago, Arthur Miller wrote, “It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history—that the plays we tend to revere century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the optimistic belief in the perfectibility of man—and that we follow that thread to the only place it can lead in our time – to the heart and spirit of the average man.”

We are reminded by events on this day that we live in a time without kings. Even the people who remind us of this, our Great Authors and celebrity noble man, are not without their own contradictions, hypocrisies. The art and the life of Arthur Miller make us aware of this profound truth; that we can be wise and full of achievement
Even as we betray that achievement.
“We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know,” a character will tell us tonight in The Price. Has there ever been a wiser, more prophetic line, about America? Or about ourselves?

Let us not be in denial about what we appreciate most tonight: the giants amongst us; the fabulous human beings. We begin with our author, and welcome him back; welcome him home, to one of many places where he will forever belong. And to the family at the center of this drama and this production, the Proskys, welcome back to DC and welcome to your new home at Theater J.

He’s got a great post about the Opening Night, and as someone who was there, it was truly an electric evening.

In Case You Missed It: The Roast of Ari Roth

Monday night the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater was filled with supporters of Theater J gathered together to roast, slander, skewer and humiliate Artistic Director Ari Roth.

Well maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that. The following Ode To Ari by Robert Brustein, dean of American theater and founder of both the Yale and American Repertory Theaters was more typical of the appreciative needling:

FOR ARI ROTH FROM BOB BRUSTEIN WITH LOVE 2008

NO DEADLY SLOTH IS ARI ROTH,

A SPIRIT BOLD, A SOUL OF GOLD,

HE BRINGS A PLAY EACH DAY TO THEATRE J

–EXCEPT THE JEWISH HOLIDAY.

WHO PAYS FOR SUCH OUTLAYS?

NOT ROTH OF COURTH.

EVEN HIS HITS BRING DEFICITS.

SO WHAT HE SPENDS REQUIRES FRIENDS,

ROMANS, LANDSMEN TO LEND HIM HIS ARREARS.

OH,  DAMN THE COST, WHEN NO EFFORT’S LOST

TO THINK LIKE A SAGE, TO TURN A NEW PAGE,

TO MAKE  HIS STAGE THE GAUGE

OF EVERY AGE.

SO DO NOT HARRY ARI,

DO NOT LEAVE HIM WAXING WROTH

NO, WE MUST HOST  HIM, TOAST  HIM,

ROAST HIM, MAKE THE MOST OF HIM,

WITH DEEP EMOTION FOR HIS DEVOTION.

AND JUST FOR THE HECK OF IT,

INCLUDE A CHECK WITH IT.

It was a great evening, with a lot of laughter and no small amount of long pent-up venting for the Theater J staff who performed their own version of “The Cell Block Tango (He Had it Coming)” from Chicago. Another highlight of the evening were the video testimonials from current and former colleagues, actors, directors, family members and Theater J Council Members. We’ve included one below for those of you who couldn’t make it.


 

This Week at the 16th Street J

A selection of program highlights from the coming week…

Monday, February 4

Annual Theater J Benefit – Roast of Ari Roth

Power Cycle with Elana

5 on 5 Basketball Leagues

Tuesday, February 5

Screening Room: Making Trouble featuring post-screening discussion with Judy Gold

Yoga for Power with Viviana

Wednesday, February 6

25 Questions for a Jewish Mother (Wed-Sun)

Israel 2008: The Political Landscape

Thursday, February 7

Ballroom Dancing Classes Begin

Step-N-Sculpt with Lynda (class cancelled for renovations to space – will resume next week)

Hunger Action

Friday, February 8

Open Mah Jongg

Ta’am Shel Shabbat

DC Minyan Evening Services

Bet Mishpachah Evening Services

Saturday, February 9

Pickup Volleyball

Pickup Basketball

Sunday, February 10

Emery Shelter Visit

Duties of the Heart

RikudDC – Israeli Dancing

%d bloggers like this: