BERNIE: I met with Wiesel once, just once, for a long discussion. And I thought we were going to talk exclusively about the fund, but he wanted to talk Talmud, or Midrash, or whatever it was, so I listened. He said we’re both teachers, that’s what he said. —p. 10
Imagining Madoff has only three characters: Bernie Madoff, Elie Wiesel, and Madoff’s personal secretary (“42 or so, sincere, hard-working, pleasant-looking, dutiful, bloated with remorse”). The action triangulates between the witness stand, where the secretary answers unheard questions before the Securities and Exchange Commission; Madoff’s prison cell, where he reconstructs his crimes without apology for an unseen biographer; and Wiesel’s study, where the two men share a scotch-fueled all-nighter.
In the ill-fated letter to Wiesel, Margolin explained her inspiration for Imagining Madoff: “When I don’t understand someone, I write them a monologue.”
“I thought I should be able to look to my own humanity for what went wrong in Madoff,” she says.
Margolin, who has never heard Wiesel speak, then conceived a more cohesive piece, in which Madoff and Wiesel serve as allegorical foils, with the secretary as the chorus, the audience’s onstage representative: ashamed she never figured out what was going on, unwillingly complicit, endlessly regretful.
Playwrights who dramatize public figures often steep themselves in press clippings on their subjects. Margolin took a more liberated approach, confining her research to Judaic texts. The resulting characters exist apart from their real-world analogs, speak their own language, and stand at once as symbols and engaging men. Wiesel, especially, is more a signifier than a character—“an easily identifiable crystallization of that type of moral force,” as Jenness puts it. A handy individual, in other words, for addressing the moral and theological questions of the play, and benevolent enough to evince a sympathetic side in his opposite, the Madoff figure.
“The play came to me sideways,” Margolin says. “I dropped into the mind and body of Bernie Madoff and listened. I just sit by the keyboard and listen to someone speak. If you’re going to be an actor or playwright, you have to go into the mind and body of someone, however different from you—and that is profoundly reclamatory and healing.”