An interesting story about Elie Wiesel (artist and Holocaust survivor) objecting to being a character in a fictional play despite being portrayed as the exemplar of decency and morality:

[Playwright Deb Margolin] says she used Wiesel’s persona in her three-character play (which includes Madoff’s secretary) because “his name is synonymous with decency, morality, the struggle for human dignity and kindness, and in contrast to the most notorious financial criminal in the past 200 years. That’s why he was there, and I felt I had treated his character with great respect — the respect that I genuinely have felt for him.”

The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity had all its assets, $15.2 million, invested with Madoff and lost them when the Ponzi scheme unraveled. In addition, Wiesel personally lost several million dollars to Madoff.

Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth said the Wiesel Foundation was uncomfortable with having its founder’s name used in the play, but early on Wiesel had not objected. “It wasn’t until Wiesel read the play and found it to be exactly as Deb purported, a work of fiction . . . [that] Wiesel didn’t consent to it,” Roth says.

It reminds me a bit of a difficult conversation I had a few years ago with Evangeline about a blog I was writing at the time. I had given her a pseudonym then as now, but unlike now the readership largely consisted of people that knew her. As such, mutual friend Kelvin had discovered the site and I needed to tell her about it before he did. She was not depicted as evil, but she was depicted as someone that had treated me poorly and left me in a pretty wrecked state. It was kind of the opposite of Wiesel in that the portrayal was mostly accurate but her persona was not specifically her. And unlike Wiesel, she was definitely not portrayed as an exemplar of decency.

Anyhow, after I explained it to her, she actually had no problem with it and looked forward to reading it. She said, “I am a creature of ego and not self-esteem.”

Despite the many differences with Wiesel, my mind makes the connection because of that distinction. Despite the fact that Wiesel was portrayed positively and his presence was put in a place that it never was in real life, he objected to it. He didn’t need the ego injection that Evangeline did, I suppose. The sense of being important – whether as the villain or the hero.

From a writers’ standpoint, it’s an interesting question what liberties we are and are not allowed to take. What kind of protection should celebrities and public officials have in protecting their likeness from being fictitiously portrayed? What kind of protection should private citizens have? And on citizens and public personalities, at what point does a fictional portrayal become capitalizing on someone else’s likeness, which is something we generally frown down upon. Living in a predominantly black neighborhood, Obama’s likeness was everywhere and available on every possible article of clothing. A movie was made about a fictional assassination of George W. Bush but that was okay because it was art. And obviously, a lot was fictionalized in Oliver Stone’s W. and Nixon for the sake of story. And that’s okay because, again, it’s art.

Is it different for public officials than it is for celebrities? The show 30 Rock had a plot where Jenna was going to play Janis Joplin in a biopic but they couldn’t secure the rights. What kind of rights are required (other than the rights to Joplin’s music, which the show addressed differently)? Or was 30 Rock just having fun with copyright elements that don’t actually exist?

For a writer, I really don’t know the answers to any of these questions and more like I probably should. I am in the camp of fictionalizing as much as possible. This is not news to Hit Coffee readers, but it’s also true in my fiction. The President, if portrayed, is never the actual president unless he absolutely has to be. Microsoft doesn’t exist. The movie stars will never be Tom Hanks and the dirty celebrities Paris Hilton unless it’s such a passing reference that I need the instant recognition.


Category: Theater

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9 Responses to Fact, Fiction, & Public Personas

  1. stone says:

    “The show 30 Rock had a plot where Jenna was going to play Janis Joplin in a biopic but they couldn’t secure the rights. What kind of rights are required (other than the rights to Joplin’s music, which the show addressed differently)? Or was 30 Rock just having fun with copyright elements that don’t actually exist?”

    There are laws that prevent exploitation of a person’s image or likeness to make money without that person’s (or their estate’s) consent. If you’re presenting something as so-and-so’s Life Story, you’re probably exploiting them to make money. There’s a limitation on how long after a person dies, though.

  2. web says:

    A movie was made about a fictional assassination of George W. Bush but that was okay because it was art.

    To this day I find it entertaining that left-wing blowhards who said incredibly nasty, evil, vile things about G.W. Bush are incensed about the supposedly “unprecedented” (but often verbatim or highly similar) things said by their counterparts re: Obama…

  3. stone says:

    “Despite the fact that Wiesel was portrayed positively and his presence was put in a place that it never was in real life, he objected to it. He didn’t need the ego injection that Evangeline did, I suppose. The sense of being important – whether as the villain or the hero.”

    Well, there’s also the fact that it was, you know, not true. That bothers a lot of people on principle. It would bother me.

    The playwright could so easily have gotten around the problem and made the same point by changing the character’s name. But by having him actually be Elie Wiesel, she’s exploiting the real Mr. Wiesel’s reputation, and leading people to believe the fictional events are true.

  4. trumwill says:

    Well, there’s also the fact that it was, you know, not true. That bothers a lot of people on principle. It would bother me.

    I guess I have enough in common with Evangeline that this wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. A fictional representation (in a non-negative light) of myself would be cool cause I’m obscure. Even if I wasn’t obscure, a portrayal as a paragon of morality would be welcome in any event! 🙂

    I am not convinced that exploiting Wiesel’s reputation is all that big an issue in this case. If it were a play entitled Elie Wiesel and Ken Lay or something, I think that there’d be a better case. I mean, legally I’m not sure you can really draw that distinction. But I don’t think I like art being contrained in this manner. So the law may be right, but I still don’t necessarily like it.

  5. stone says:

    “But I don’t think I like art being contrained in this manner.”

    See, I don’t consider it a constraint. I think it’s just lazy not to take the work to make up a fictional character (as you do).

    Remember how in the old days, if a character on TV took a sip of soda, it was some fictional brand? Now it’s whatever real brand paid for product placement. I liked it better the old way.

  6. trumwill says:

    You know just how to sell me, Sheila. I even have a post coming up that broaches the subject. Even so, sometimes a story works better with an established personality.

    It’s sort of like with trademarked characters. On one hand, that Warner Bros. has Batman all locked up means that others have to come up with their own characters. On the other hand, though, some of those people could tell killer Batman stories. I mean, we have the laws we do for a reason, but they certainly cut both ways.

  7. trumwill says:

    On the other hand, reading more about this play, I think I am more understanding of Wiesel’s and your objections. For some reason it didn’t sink it that it was a three-character play. Even if it’s not called Wiesel and Lay, the character was important enough that the argument is stronger that the playwright was taking advantage and the character was important enough that it would have been worthwhile to invest in creating a separate background.

    Hey, in addition to renaming and fictionalizing the character, could the screenwriter have simply avoided mention of his name?

  8. stone says:

    “Hey, in addition to renaming and fictionalizing the character, could the screenwriter have simply avoided mention of his name?”

    Depends on what else they did to identify him. I think the test would be whether people were still likely to think it was him.

  9. Maria says:

    Whatever happened to the “thinkly veiled portrait?” I mean it’s not like anyone wouldn’t know it was Wiesel. It’s not like people didn’t know that Willie Stark in All the King’s Men was really Huey P. Long, or that Charles Foster Kane was really William Randolph Hearst.

    I sympathize with those who would not want their images and names exploited in this manner. I mean, what do we know today of people like J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn except what left-wing Hollywood screenwriters have written about them?

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