Deborah Margolin reflects on ‘Imagining Madoff’

Some thirty years ago, I had the startling realization — obvious in the ways the most astonishing realizations sometimes seem after they’ve been fully apprehended — that fiction is the redistribution of autobiography. In one way or another, the recombinant DNA of experience, imagination and information create in the mind of the writer a palette of colors from which to work. The canvas is silence; the paint is language.

When Bernie Madoff, the now-notorious Ponzi-schemer, was finally sent to prison, I had already completed a draft of a play called “Imagining Madoff.” I’ve always believed that, if we are all different points at which the entire universe expresses itself, I should be able to look to my own humanity to see what went wrong in the mind and heart of any criminal, and that is also how I approach playwriting. It is healing and reclamatory to write a play about a villain, because it requires the suspension of judgment and the dropping of the writer into the mind and body of this misanthropic character, a seeing of the world from this character’s perspective. This is, on a very circumscribed level, a clinical act of love. It unfailingly aids understanding, if not forgiveness.

To explore the moral complexities inherent in who we were as we allowed the kind of financial fiction that Madoff spun for us to flourish, and to explore what is most beautiful and most terrible about absolute faith, be it faith in God or in Men, I chose the novelist, professor and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, as Madoff’s scene partner. I knew something about the architecture of Madoff’s felony and had read Wiesel’s Holocaust survival story, “Night.” Otherwise, with the exception of consulting Judaic texts, I did no factual research for my play. I created a kind of flirtatious silence around myself where the two men were concerned, reading no articles or blogs, and instead listened for their fictional voices. I wrote down what I heard.

When Theater J in Washington DC agreed to produce the play after a pre-premiere by Laura Margolis at Stageworks Hudson in upstate New York, I sent the play to Wiesel for his thoughts and comments. He responded via FedEx letter telling me the play was objectionable to him and that he would refer it to his attorney to be shut down wherever it tried to open.

Refusing to give up on this play, which had been through a number of readings and rewrites, I decided to refictionalize the Wiesel character. This brought me to a reflection on the ingredients of the Wiesel character in the original version of the play. They were made mostly of images from my memory of one of my grandfathers, one or two images from Wiesel’s book that I’d read, my limited knowledge and mad love of the Yiddish language, my deep connection with Jewish culture and ongoing investigation of the structure of generosity within the human spirit and my desire to explore the Abraham and Isaac story that has always disturbed me from the Old Testament.

So I just refictionalized him. It was easy. Within all of us there churns a plethora of subjects yearning for investigation and many physical bodies within which to place them! This is the magnificent beauty of playwriting! Don’t you spend time staring at the way people move and think? Hell! What else is there to do?

I changed the character’s name to Solomon Galkin. Solomon, for the wisdom; Galkin, for the quiet, dignified, beautiful man I remember as a friend of my parents’. I changed the character’s circumstances: rather than being the leader of a humanitarian foundation, a professor and novelist, he became a translator of books, the treasurer of his synagogue and a poet. Rather than inhabiting the physicality of Elie Wiesel, he became a slightly corpulent man bent over by arthritis of the spine. He speaks about baseball, about God. He speaks to Madoff about carnal desire, but only out of a generous impulse to help Madoff with the troubling aspects of those feelings. This rewrite took two days. Because Wiesel was fictional in the first place, there were other fictional images ready to take his place. The real meat of the play lies in its moral exegesis, and the dramaturgical role played by the Solomon Galkin character remains unchanged.

The media has made much of this matter, and I pulled the play from Theater J for reasons I won’t go into here. “Imagining Madoff” did, however, go up in a beautiful production at Stageworks Hudson in Hudson, New York under the direction of Laura Margolis. It is a profound honor to sit in a theater in which one’s work is being performed. Playwriting confers on the writer the deepest joy and the most enormous responsibility. The twisting moral questions raised by this play, a play that was spoken within a society in ethnic, moral and financial turmoil, stood forward in full view of those who honored me by attending those performances. The reviews were thoughtful, trenchant and mostly very warm.

The play admits to startling things within the human complement. My life is in this play. It’s the first play I’ve ever written that’s mostly about men. My opinions turn up in the mouths of both Madoff and Galkin.

I’m looking forward to the next production of this play. I don’t know about other kinds of faith, but my faith is in the social agency of art and, in particular, the theater. Don’t even ask me if I’d do it all again. I’m one of those people who believes in theater the way people believed in Madoff. Thing is, Madoff was a liar; the theater aspires to the highest forms of truth.

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