Julia M. Klein: Plagiarism a Theme of Wendy Wasserstein's New Play .. Plea for Tolerance

Roundup: Talking About History

[Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.]

... Plagiarism is an old-fashioned concept, and not always as straightforward as it might appear. When popular historians cobble together books from a variety of secondary sources and choose to footnote and paraphrase, rather than quote, should they inevitably be chastised for too closely following their sources? If so, is the failing a technical lapse or a major ethical breach? And who gets to decide? More interestingly, why do we expect historical narrative to be sacrosanct in this still-postmodernist age, when replica and original are deliberately confounded in architecture, museum displays, and literature? Is plagiarism, like historical interpretation itself, a contingent phenomenon — sometimes, at least, in the eye of the beholder?

Three books by historians, as well as a new Broadway play, take on some of these issues and, unsurprisingly, fail to offer a single definitive answer. ...

[Ed: The author summarizes books by Jon Wiener, Ron Robin and Peter Charles Hoffer. HNN commentaries on those works may be found here and here]

... Given all this recent history about history, Wendy Wasserstein\'s newest play, Third, directed by Daniel Sullivan, seems to involve a bit of Freudian displacement. It is set at a small New England college in the pivotal year of 2002-3, just when all these scandals were erupting. But in this drama with comic moments, it is, comfortingly enough, not a professor but a student who is in the dock, and literature rather than history that is the site of the conflict. The play, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at New York's Lincoln Center through December 18 (and which I saw during previews), pits a self-righteous, dour, radical professor of Shakespeare against a prep-school grad with a predilection for wrestling and, worse still, possible Republican tendencies.

Then it stacks the deck. The student, the eponymous Woodson Bull III, is smart, charming, unpredictable, and luminously played by Jason Ritter. By contrast, Dianne Wiest, even clad in silk, can't do much to soften the stereotypical harshness of the middle-aged English professor Laurie Jameson, who insists that Regan and Goneril are the true heroines of King Lear. Her charge of plagiarism emerges not from hard evidence but from political stereotyping and intellectual underestimation (and maybe even repressed sexual attraction).

In fact, the play, echoing one theme of Lear, is about judging, and misjudging, actions in which both the playwright and the audience are complicit. Wasserstein is distinctly unkind to her female protagonist. At once a countercultural holdover from the 1960s and a Me Generation yuppie obsessed with education credentials — hers include Harvard and a Fulbright at Oxford — Jameson is tough to like. To humanize her, Wasserstein endows her with both hot flashes and a beloved father suffering from Alzheimer's (played, heartbreakingly, by Charles Durning).

Jameson also has an (unseen) daughter in a lesbian relationship, and a husband who lifts (and drops) weights and rides Harleys — again, only offstage. Jameson's only onstage daughter, Emily, isn't making her life any easier: She is determined to drop out of Swarthmore, wait tables, and live with her much older, inadequately credentialed bank-teller boyfriend. Not even friendship provides a refuge. Jameson's best buddy (a sharp, poignant Amy Aquino) has had a recurrence of cancer and no longer has any patience for her.

Is it any wonder, with all those frustrations, that Jameson should be seeking a target of her own? She finds it in Bull, nicknamed "Third," a student who approaches her fearlessly and eventually turns in a sophisticated psychosexual reading of King Lear. Jameson's accusations against him are unsupported, but we, too, can't help wondering how a boy like that could produce a paper so fine.

In the end, we see what Wasserstein is up to: She is preaching tolerance, maybe even humility, to her fellow blue-staters. The plagiarism charge is a grenade, hurled from an armory of misperceptions against an apparent political enemy. It polarizes, wounds, and ultimately haunts the accuser as much as the accused. The actual wrong committed is never much in doubt. It stems not, as Wiener might suggest, from a particular political ideology, but from the rigidity of ideology itself.

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