Wiesel blasts 'obscene' Madoff play

By Nathan Guttman, May 27, 2010
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Some issues might still be too sensitive. This could be the lesson learned by Washington's Jewish theatre, which had to cancel a play on the Madoff financial scandal.

In Imagining Madoff, by playwright Deb Margolin, a fictional Bernie Madoff is depicted sitting in his prison cell as he recalls a conversation he had with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose foundation lost more than $15 million in Madoff's Ponzi scam.

Madoff, who was considered by many in Wall Street as an investment wizard, is now serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to America's biggest fraud by an individual.

He stole more than $60 billion from investors, putting charities, many of them Jewish, out of business and robbing private citizens of their dreams of retirement and financial security.

One of his victims was the foundation set up by renowned Holocaust author Elie Wiesel. Thus it was only natural to choose Wiesel, one of the most well-known figures in America, as the face of those who suffered from Madoff's fraud.

But when Ms Margolin approached Professor Wiesel and showed him the finished play, his response was negative. Absolutely negative.

"Wiesel was offended by the way his fictional figure was portrayed," said Ari Roth, director of Washington's Theatre J. The theatre had scheduled the Madoff play for late August, but Professor Wiesel, in a letter, threatened to have his lawyers intervene in order to prevent it from being shown. According to the Washington Post, he described the play as "obscene" and "defamatory".

"We didn't ask for his permission; we approached him out of courtesy," Mr Roth explained. Attempts to reach out to Professor Wiesel and discuss the issue were not successful. Following the harsh letter and a subsequent email exchange, Mr Roth suggested to both sides that Deb Margolin should re-work the play and send it over to Professor Wiesel for his approval.

Ms Margolin said that while she had no problem changing the character's name (from Elie Wiesel to Solomon Galkin) she refused to ask for Professor Wiesel's approval.

Mr Roth, torn between commitment to the playwright's freedom and his fear of litigation by Professor Wiesel, decided to drop the play altogether.

Ms Margolin changed the name of the character and took her play to Stageworks Hudson in New York State, where it will run next month.

"We had hoped Wiesel, who himself has used fictional characters in his writing, would understand," said Mr Roth, but apparently the devastation caused by Madoff to Professor Wiesel's charitable work was too big and too recent to turn into a fictional drama.

Elie Wiesel commented on the Madoff scam shortly after it was exposed and has since avoided the issue. He also refrained from commenting publicly on the play controversy, but sources within the Jewish community think that his opposition relates to his character having close and long conversations with Madoff, while in reality he was not close to him personally.

Last updated: 4:21pm, November 15 2010