Friday, February 24, 2006

Screw ethics, this is theatre

I have to go see my friend Bruce Barton perform tonight in a play by David Foley. I always enjoy Bruce's performances, but I'm pissed that I have to see a play by the author of The Last Days of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, In Exile. The play presents O'Hair as a crook. The summary on Theatremania says
a comic fantasy that imagines a different fate for the notorious atheist activist who, in real life, disappeared several years ago under a shroud of mystery and speculation. In this version, after having embezzled millions of dollars from her own organization American Atheists, Madalyn has fled America and is holed up on a South Seas island with her son and granddaughter. As she waits for the embezzled funds to come through, she is visited by ghosts from her past and feted by the island natives. Old scores are settled, romance blooms, and transformations are undergone as the play moves toward an unexpected finale.
What actually happened was that O'Hair, her son and granddaughter were kidnapped and brutally murdered.

But if you think that horrific reality is going to stop a jolly smearing of a person's character, well, you don't know the theatre world very well.

Lest you scoff at my concerns that this play be taken as the truth about O'Hair, consider this web page at which uses one of the publicity shots for the play to represent O'Hair. (The first picture.) Nowhere in the article is it revealed that the photo is NOT O'Hair.

What we have here is a case of Foley using O'Hair's name recognition, and the scandal of her disappearance to garner interest in his play.

This situation is somewhat like what Doug Wright did in his play Quills, but in reverse. Whereas Wright portrayed the rapist Marquis de Sade as a hero of free expression, Foley is helping to smear the reputation of a woman, who, as one of the most famous American atheists in a religion-loving country, is already well-hated. Her own son, the born-again one, says of her "My mother was not just Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the atheist leader. She was an evil person who led many to hell."

As Foley admitted in an email to me in 2003:
I wrote the play before anyone knew what had happened to the O'Hairs, but even then I never intended a historically accurate account of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. That's not a playwright's job. I wanted instead to address seriously - though perhaps in "zany" theatrical terms - the discussion that O'Hair helped spark in this country and which is still going on.

Foley admits to using O'Hair's notariety for his own purposes. Which may have been OK, except that the actual horrendous details of her last days became known before the 2003 production of the play. But inconvenient facts can't stand in the way of publicity. He could have changed the names of the characters and still addressed "the discussion that O'Hair helped spark in this country and is still going in." But of course he would not, because getting people to come out and see The Last Days of Jane Doe, In Exile would be much more difficult.

And anyway, playwrights needn't be concerned about facts, Foley self-servingly proclaims.

Portraying O'Hair's mythological absconding to a tropical island, however zany its theatrical terms, comes nowhere near addressing the true "discussion" that O'Hair sparked. But maybe it's a good sign that Foley wants to believe such things. Maybe it's proof that he does have a sense of ethics, which needs to be buried under a truckload of theatre marketing copy bullshit.