There's an interesting case study in the intersection of real life, art, and ethics currently working itself out in Chicago theater. It's a cliche that art borrows heavily from life (where else does it have to draw from, after all?), but it's not always clear where the line is between "inspired by true events" and "invasion of privacy." A world-premiere play in Chicago, Somebody Foreign
by Douglas Post, seems to have boldly crossed that line and then turned around and tried to jump back.
A number of years ago, a couple in Winnetka was murdered in their home. The wife's sister, Jeanne Bishop, had spent time working with human rights groups in Belfast. One of the working theories of the crime developed by the FBI was that the IRA had come gunning for Bishop and had killed the wrong sister. When she wouldn't cooperate in investigating this line of reasoning, the FBI shared that theory with the media. Ultimately, it was found that a local high school ne'er-do-well had been responsible for the murders, and he was convicted of the crime.
There's no question that this is a very compelling story, and it's easy to see how a playwright might want to explore the situation. Douglas Post did just that, apparently leaning heavily on a 1992 article about Bishop in the Chicago Reader.
There may be a way to dramatize the story without exploiting Bishop, but Post couldn't find it. He fictionalized the story to some degree, but the main character was still apparently easily recognizable as Bishop. (Some of the language of the play also seemed to have been borrowed from the Reader
article.) In November, Post contacted Bishop to let her know about the upcoming play, and Bishop, unsurprisingly, was not pleased. She got in touch with a lawyer to see what could be done. Michael Minor wrote about
this aspect of the story in January in the Reader.
City Lit Theatre did not change its plan to open the play, but Post did undertake intensive rewrites to move it away from Bishop's personal story. He replaced Belfast with the Gaza Strip and the IRA with Hamas. In so doing, however, he may have glossed over political issues that differ between one and the other. In his review of the play
, the Trib
's Chris Jones wrote:
It was clear that the piece was an involving, plot-driven thriller (for the first act at least), but demonstrably unsure about what to say about broader Middle East issues and how to say it. There are contrivances. There is uncertainty. There is nervousness. The Middle East stuff felt globbed on.
Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times
was even more blunt
Whether intentionally or inadvertently, "Somebody Foreign" now turns out to be a play that Hamas would be more than happy to stage as a celebratory event when its representatives take office later this week in the Palestinian territories. The group could not hope for a more fervent trumpeting of the Palestinian cause, the evils of the Israelis, the abusiveness of the FBI and the ignorance and paranoia of the average American.
. . .
The play is essentially lifted from the Palestinian propaganda handbook.
Minor wrote a follow-up
in last week's Hot Type column, detailing the fall out, which saw the City Lit board resign en masse. The show opened on February 10, and according to the Website
, it will run until March 26. I haven't seen the play, and as I don't think we know anyone involved in it, I don't expect we will--at this point my interest in it would be mostly as a curiosity and cautionary tale of mixing too much easily identifiable life into art.
Although it seems that Jeanne Bishop never had any legal grounds for stopping the play, she was in a position to make trouble. And the ethical problems in this situation are far more distressing than any legal line the playwright or production may have crossed. These events were not Post's to borrow. If they had happened in his own life, then they'd have been fair game, but writers can't just plunder whatever interests them in the private lives of others. (Celebrities can sometimes be a different story, because they put a persona out to the public, and that's open for a writer to play with, but a private citizen is in no such position.) Post says he took twelve years to write his play, and that should have been plenty of time to solve the problems with the work. He should have identified the aspects of the story that interested him, distilled them to a more pure form, and devised a scenario that would allow them to be explored without intruding into Jeanne Bishop's life. That's what writers of fiction do: They invent situations, they don't just crib from the newspaper. He could have avoided the appearance of a sheen in shifting from an Irish milieu to the Middle East and instead filled his play with substantive Middle Eastern politics. Although both might involve terrorism, Ireland and the Gaza Strip are very different places with very different histories and very different reasons for their hostilities. (Yes, both can have religious overtones, but that doesn't make them identical.) Post could've taken the time to research the Middle East to make his story fit there rather than running a search and replace through his word processor. This apparent lack of understanding, and perhaps even lack of interest, in the implications a Middle Eastern background gives to the main character seems to be central to both Jones's and Weiss's complaints in their critiques. This is a weakness the play didn't have to have.
I don't want to be too tough on Douglas Post and his work, because it sounds like he was in a tough position. But it was a tough position of his own making, and it was one he could have avoided.