ELIE: Bernie, you know best, but help them. Help me. I want you to manage me personally.
BERNIE: I’m sure you’re safe where you are, Elie... It’s enough I have the foundation.
ELIE: How can you resist me, Bernie?
BERNIE: I can’t, no one can resist you.
Elie Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, less than four months after having been relocated from Auschwitz, where he was inmate A-7713. He went on to write over 50 books and to win the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.
Wiesel was also a victim of Madoff’s Ponzi racket. Like many who were burned by Madoff, Wiesel was elderly, Jewish, and trusting. (“People expect others to be like themselves,” Margolin says. “Pickpockets have their hands on their wallets all the time. Generous people anticipate generosity.”)
But the million-plus of Wiesel’s own money that Madoff liquidated is small change compared with over $15 million that Madoff filched from the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. (Mission: “To combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice.”). In an interview with the New York Times, two months after the FBI arrested Madoff, Wiesel called his former asset manager a “sociopath,” “psycopath,” and “scoundrel,” among other epithets.“I would like him to be in a solitary cell with only a screen,” Wiesel told the Times, “and on that screen for at least five years of his life, every day and every night, there should be pictures of his victims, one after the other after the other, all the time a voice saying, ‘Look what you have done to this old lady, look what you have done to that child, look what you have done,’ nothing else.” (These words appear in Margolin’s script, with instructions to project them above the actors right before curtain.)
Stealing money from Elie Wiesel, especially if you’re a Jew, is grotesque. But is it equally revolting to appropriate Wiesel’s literary likeness? It remains unclear just what Wiesel found “obscene” and “defamatory”—the two words that recur in his letter to Margolin and Theater J—in Imagining Madoff. (Wiesel did not return calls for comment.)
“[Deb] chose Elie Wiesel as the most moral man one could imagine” Jenness says. “So it was a little odd to have his reaction, quite frankly.”
Margolin herself was baffled. For one, she maintains that the play is a fully realized work of fiction (Roth has called it a “counter-factual counter-narrative”). She says the character bearing Wiesel’s name is less a representation of the man than a quasi-allegorical distillation of his namesake’s gravitas, a righteous foil for the ratlike Madoff.
“It’s not a New York Times article,” Margolin insists. “It’s not biography or documentary. I used that name because it stood for a certain Jewish morality.”
In the March letter to Wiesel, Margolin made this point rather explicitly. “I explained that I had written this play and explained what the character bearing his name metaphorically, not biographically, was doing in the play—as the opposite end of the spectrum from a man of such depraved indifference as Bernie Madoff,” Margolin says.
Certainly the play touched on a subject of great pain for Wiesel, a fact both Roth and Margolin are quick to note. “This decent, decent man trusted this other man, maybe partly because they shared a culture,” Margolin says. “And after being betrayed so badly in the Holocaust by people who wanted to annihilate this culture, here he was so badly, badly abused by this person from within.”
A recurring element in the play is Wiesel’s insistence that Madoff handle his personal assets as well as those of the foundation; by play’s end, Madoff has yet to agree, a poignant ellipsis that mirrors Madoff’s desire and inability to confess his sins to Wiesel.
Which explains Wiesel’s sensitivity—but not his allegations of defamation. Was he concerned that audiences would take the play at its word, assume that he was on intimate terms with Madoff? Would the foundation’s donors take this as a sign of Wiesel’s complicity in Madoff’s plot? Either possibility is hard to imagine. The play’s title is a pretty clear indicator that the action takes place in the realm of the hypothetical.
Obscene, though, is easier to pinpoint, if you imagine yourself an 81-year-old with a taste for moral pronouncements and lips that purse easily. The Wiesel character says “fuck” and “shit,” once apiece. He drinks scotch liberally and prevails on Madoff to keep up with him. (“They’re on their fourth drink by the time the play ends,” Margolin notes.) He compares the color of scotch to that of “piss that has blood mixed in it.” He speaks earthily about the diversity of Israel—“There are black people, Bernie, blonde girls, fat ladies, heroin addicts that hang around the laundromats, cab drivers, all of them Jews!”
Madoff, in his prison-scene monologues, is profane in the Al Pacino vein, especially in discussing the procreation of fish. He recounts a dream in which his penis was a vagina (“...and it was a vagina that had folds, really, it looked like a wallet”). In an especially arresting moment, Madoff remembers Wiesel teaching him to lay t’fillin, the sacred Torah containers strapped by the observant to their various extremities; Madoff discusses the experience in terms of sexual bondage. (“He seemed like a lover who wanted to touch me in that way, who wanted to tie me to the bedpost, to dominate me.”) Elsewhere, the financier takes evident delight in lesbian jokes. (“How many lesbians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” “One! And it’s not funny!” No, it isn’t.)
One of his first lines is a similar joke about the Jews, the punchline to which we don’t get until the end of the play; Wiesel delivers it, and it’s “six million and one.”