The dust of the Bernie Madoff financial collapse may have finally settled, but a new scandal about the scandal has been brewing since last spring.
Award-winning playwright and Yale Theater Studies professor Deborah Margolin and First Amendment attorney Victor Kovner ’58 discussed the legal controversy surrounding Margolin’s recent play based on the 2008 Madoff scandal, “Imagining Madoff,” at a Master’s Tea in Pierson College this Monday. The fictional play was kept from being staged mid-production by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who was depicted in the play as someone who lost a fortune in the financial fiasco, threatened to file a lawsuit for defamation of character.
The play originally was based around the story of Bernie Madoff — an American stock broker who swindled investors of billions of dollars — and Elie Wiesel, who is a humanitarian Holocaust survivor described in the play as someone who trusted Madoff with his savings. (The Elie Wiesel Foundation lost roughly $15.2 million in the Madoff Ponzi scheme.) But Margolin removed Weisel’s name from the play after Wiesel’s lawyers threatened legal action for his representation in the play, saying he did not want to be included against his will in a work that he considered “obscene.” At the Tea, Margolin read from the letter she received from Wiesel to explain the situation.
“The two characters were at opposite ends of the moral spectrum,” Margolin said, defending her decision to name Wiesel in the play instead of the thousands of other investors who also lost their savings in the Madoff scandal. “It was a dramatist’s dream.”
Kovner, who chose to represent Margolin pro bono, was present at the talk to explain the legal intricacies of the case. He noted that the case is not unusual and that many authors who write about living people face similar lawsuits.
“These claims come up eventually for authors,” said Kovner, citing the example of a Harvard psychiatrist who attempted to sue Sylvia Plath for defamation of character in her work, “The Bell Jar.”
Margolin repeatedly asserted that her characters were almost entirely fictional and that she did not research the lives of Madoff or Wiesel. However, she said that she did study Jewish customs and beliefs thoroughly, appealing to her rabbi for advice and suggestions so as to make the conversations between her characters accurate, she added.
Margolin read out a handful of scenes from her play, eliciting occasional gasps and chuckles from the audience at lines like, “Once I dreamed my penis was a vagina,” a line written for Madoff’s character.
The discussion was stimulated by active audience participation, which was especially notable during the question and answer period of the talk, which lasted about 45 minutes. During the question and answer session, Kovner explained that because of libel laws in America, if Wiesel dies it will be impossible for anyone to sue Margolin for using his name.
When asked by a student if she would return Wiesel’s character to the play upon Wiesel’s death, Margolin said she would.
“He loves humanity,” Margolin later said of Wiesel. “But I’m not sure he loves people.”
Following the talk, four audience members interviewed said they enjoyed the talk, adding that they found the talk to be informative about the legal issues surrounding the play.
“I thought the Tea integrated theater with legal questions in a very interesting way,” said Barbara Gaab, docent at Yale University Art Gallery.
Margolin is the recipient of an Off-Broadway Theater Award for Sustained Excellence of Performance.