Shipwrecking a Play in Backwoods U.S.A.: A Brief Interview with Pulitzer-Prize Winning Playwright Donald Margulies
Roland Finger

When I agreed to review a production of Donald Margulies' Shipwrecked!, playing at Theatre B in Fargo, ND, I didn't know what I was getting into. Margulies based Shipwrecked! on the autobiography of the nineteenth-century historical figure Louis De Rougemont, who wrote a sensationalized, controversial yarn about his adventures while lost in the Australasian region.

I was surprised to find out that the visiting Director at Theatre B, Matthew Burkholder, decided to go against Margulies' explicit directions in the text that the play "should not bring in any modern anachronisms." These kinds of additions would disrupt the flavor of the Victorian era that is at the heart of the play. In an interview, Donald Margulies expressed shock over Burkholder's directorial choices. Here a few excerpts from the interview I conducted with Margulies on July 6, 2010.

RF: I have reservations against asking you this question, but I believe you have a right to know. Matthew Burkholder changed your play, ignoring your explicit instructions to avoid modern anachronisms. Did you know about this?

Margulies: No. What did he do?

RF: He put a modern song into the wedding festivity. There is a long pause, while Margulies sighs.

Margulies: That doesn't make me happy. What kind of song?

RF: A music video song and dance number.

Margulies: Wait a minute. I didn't want something by Beyoncé or someone else in the play. There's a whole Glee mentality that I wanted to avoid.

RF: He put Lady Gaga's song "Bad Romance" smack dab in the middle of your play, and the whole cast shakes their stuff to the song, imitating the moves that Lady Gaga does in the music video. Everyone will recognize it.

Margulies: This is terrible. This is the danger of having one's work out there. I hope that people will produce my plays with a certain amount of integrity and honor my intentions.

RF: I belive that Burkholder was trying to appeal to his high school actors.

Margulies: I want the play to be entertaining for people from the ages of 8 to 80, but that is the wrong way. There is a living author who has specified what he wants. He has totally violated that. I'm glad that he was interested in my work, but his music selection was flat wrong—bad judgment. He should have included a sea shanty or something appropriate to the period. This is very bad. But, hey, the show is in Fargo. I cannot control everything. I hope that you will express my views in your article.

RF: My review has already gone to press. The funny thing is that Burkholder didn't want me to mention in the review that he included a Lady Gaga number in the play. I think he wanted to keep it a secret, as if he was unveiling his mighty super-weapon. He wanted to have the element of surprise, along with mass popular appeal.

Margulies: I am appalled by his choice. He intentionally subverted my intentions. He's pandering to audience. It's really not cool. What message is it sending to young people: That you can ignore the wishes of the artist? It's my name and my work. The audience assumes that what is on stage is what the author intended. You only get one shot at something like this. Look, I bet they worked hard on it. But they made a huge mistake. If I were Edward Albee, I would get an injunction and shut down the show. It doesn't please me that there was such a blatant disregard for me.

Margulies reveals the danger a playwright faces who lets a work get out there into backwoods productions. I don't think that legal injunctions are the solution, but there should be consequences. Burkholder told me that Margulies is very easy going about interpretations of his work, but Margulies' trust was damaged. Louis De Rougemont based his autobiography on some lies, and now a version of the play about Louis has continued a tradition of dishonesty. Let this be a warning.