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Playwrights Wronged

Local actors/playwrights Carrie Betlyn and Peggy Dunne are noising it about that they've been wronged by Arthur Miller. Their bid for sympathy turns on their own enthusiasm, idealism, and obscurity, and the spectacle of a great man hiding behind not just an agent but contract law.

Betlyn and Dunne wish to stage their adaptation of the memoir The Musicians of Auschwitz, the strange story of Fania Fenelon, who survived the Holocaust in a death-camp orchestra. Betlyn and Dunne had hoped to be offering a three-week workshop of their musical play this month at the Next Theatre.

Naively, Betlyn and Dunne did not begin their project with a search to establish with whom, if anyone, legal rights to Fenelon's book belonged. When they eventually approached the French house that originally published it their letter was passed along to International Creative Management, Inc., of New York.

"Arthur Miller has the exclusive world-wide rights to this material and has turned it into a play called Playing for Time," Betlyn and Dunne were notified in April by Miller's agent, Bridget Aschenberg. "First done as a television film of the same name, it starred Vanessa Redgrave. He then turned it into a stage play."

Aschenberg went on to say that stock and amateur rights to Miller's play were controlled by Dramatic Publishing Company of Woodstock, Illinois. She concluded, "Please do nothing whatsoever with your script. The rights are not available."

In response, Betlyn and Dunne affected delight. They said they'd had the impression that CBS controlled rights to the book. "The news of Mr. Miller's exclusive ownership was a relief--it is far more pleasant to deal with an individual than a corporation." Betlyn enclosed a letter for Miller himself, which confided her high regard for Playing for Time as "a profound work."

Then Betlyn told him a thing or two about their own. "We organized a reading at Shattered Globe Theater in Chicago last November," she related. "There we received feedback that told us of a compelling experience and renewed our sense of the story's importance. It is a huge and wonderful piece within which many of Fenelon's images have begun to emerge. Images of women struggling with their ideals, their art and their survival. Our process continues to flow as we explore Fenelon's timeless humour and humanity in light of current world tragedies. We believe that Fania Fenelon's story is in good hands."

Betlyn asked for Miller's "blessing."

Aschenberg responded. She wrote, "Arthur Miller has asked me to let you know he had read your letter to him and has asked me to tell you that if you want to do [Playing for Time], it must and can only be his version no other. He will not permit any adaptation of the work."

By now Betlyn had unearthed Miller's address. She sent her next letter straight to his house, enclosing a copy of Dunne's "project statement."

To quote from it: "Fania's 'mad scene', well illustrates the style of the piece. After five months in a rotting barracks at the Bergen-Belsen camp, Fania is sick, and delirious. Typhus is rampant, there are no latrines, and the only water comes from a dripping hole in a pipe. . . . She moves through the 'living mud' of the camp, a term she uses to describe the deep, shoe swallowing muck into which women stumble and never get up. Our mud is truly alive. The sleeping women slither and writhe in the darkness at Fania's feet and finally create a pile of corpses, like a 'human haystack'. Fania climbs to the top and falls asleep in cold, blue darkness."

Betlyn told Miller, "We continue to work toward our goal and everyday we find another part of the creative puzzle moving into position. We have faith that our situation will resolve itself well." And invoking bonds that on occasion are even thicker than theater, she added as a postscript: "Go Blue! Carrie Goldstein University of Michigan BA Theatre '82."

Says Betlyn (nee Goldstein), "It was just an attempt to bring us a little closer together and add a little levity. They don't seem to have a sense of humor." Despite the common alma mater, Miller did not relent. Again the reply came from Aschenberg. "The time has now come to stop you legally, since you do not seem to understand copyright laws," she announced. "I am now instructing Dramatic Publishing Co. to take legal action against you and to stop you in your attempts to do another version of this work."

Betlyn and Dunne were soon contacted by Chris Sergel III, manager of Dramatic Publishing. Betlyn tells us Sergel expressed sympathy but repeated the party line, that Miller had paid his money and could do as he wanted with Fenelon's book. Betlyn wonders how true this is. If Fenelon, who is now dead, had told Miller, "OK, you're the only person to tell my story," Betlyn claims she'd "back off in a minute. But I don't think that's what happened." She wishes she could read Miller's contract with Fenelon; she suspects she'd find "some kind of leeway." But because "he has lawyers and money and power" and she does not, she fears the legal battle is lost.

That leaves the court of public opinion, aka the power to embarrass the mighty. Last Friday Betlyn and Dunne confronted Sergel on WBEZ's Artistic License. They've been interviewed by PerformInk. Now here they are in Hot Type. And any sympathy Sergel once had is long gone.

"He owns the rights," says Sergel, speaking of Miller. "He has no interest in licensing another version. At this point I'm really offended by their persistence. Copyright laws exist. That's the reality. He doesn't owe these women anything."

We reminded Sergel that persistence is often construed as a virtue. Unknown artists stay unknown without it. (And the families of salesmen without it starve.)

"There's a point at which you ask, is this productive?" Sergel said. "They wrote to the agent for Mr. Miller. They wrote Mr. Miller at his home. That goes beyond what is acceptable. You don't bother someone at his home when he has an agent. That's what an agent is for."

Even if Miller were to tell Betlyn and Dunne to go ahead, Sergel explained, he himself might stand in the way. That's because Sergel has his own living to make, and a second stage version of Fenelon's book would compete for royalties with Miller's version. Which, Sergel allows, "is not one of Arthur Miller's smash hits. It does a steady business."

This argument dignifies Miller as an ethical businessman whose business is theater. The other arguments escape us. If Ed McMahon is within his constitutional rights writing to Arthur Miller on Tophet Road in Roxbury, Connecticut, so are Betlyn and Dunne. Perhaps Miller should speak for himself. Aschenberg, who refused to talk to us, and her officious young assistant Christopher, who talked down, aren't the sort of people you'd want representing you if it matters whether you're perceived as a horse's ass. Betlyn confided that she's heard Aschenberg is supposed to be the top agent in New York. We told her not to worry, they all are.

A point Betlyn keeps coming back to is that she and Dunne aren't asking to mount their version of a play Miller wrote from whole cloth. They're drawn to someone else's book, and to someone else's story. As a great writer once wrote, "Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."

At least by whoever owns the copyright to the person's life.

News Bites

From our notebook:

Least intriguing recent magazine cover--last week's U.S. News & World Report: "SHOULD YOU OWN A GUN? PRO The case for it CON The case against it."

The long-dormant Inland Architect has finally reappeared, looking as thin and frail as any other patient after brain surgery. We aren't comforted by the note from the doctor. Says new publisher Steven Polydoris, in a memo to readers: "The marketplace has dictated a whole new set of groundrules in the building arts industry for the nineties. Of course, this is no big surprise yet to merrily go along and to assume otherwise is ignoring reality.

"Our job is to promote the interests of the architecture and building arts community. We are going to promote the interests of architecture in all fields.

"Yes, Inland Architect has changed and is the champion of those hardworking individuals and companies that are pushing into new frontiers and overcoming whatever obstacles lay in the path . . . "

It's changed, all right, Through this fine old journal's fat and lean years, inanity was never a part of the editorial mix.

Not to knock today's players, but they're a different breed, right? To them it's just a business, right? They show up for games lugging their briefcases, right? We heard so much about those briefcases just before the strike went down it began to sound like disinformation. What the hell would they carry in those briefcases anyway--fresh skivvies?

"It's bullshit," says Alan Solomon, the Tribune's former eyes and ears in the White Sox locker room. "The players haven't changed at all. I've never seen a player carry an attache case. I've seen a couple guys carry computers on the plane, but that was to play games with them. I've never seen a player reading the Wall Street Journal. I've seen them reading the local paper and USA Today, for sure."

In one of those writing-about-baseball-when-there's-no-baseball-to-write-about pieces that we'd all better get used to fast, the Tribune's Mike Kiley offered us Mike Alexandroff, president emeritus of Columbia College, who's been attending opening days at Comiskey Park since 1929, even though "Alexandroff hated Sox owner Roman Comiskey." Kiley (or a copy editor having a bad day) probably was thinking of the "Old Roman," Charles Comiskey. Or maybe Roman Pucinski.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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