I Was There When a Famous Playwright Allegedly Molested a 16-Year-Old
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Seeing something and saying something aren’t always the same thing.
By Matthew J. Webster
I’ve known playwright Israel Horovitz since I was 7. In the summer of 1991, when I was 19, Israel approached me with an informal assignment related to my interests in French studies and the theater. Together with the jeune fille au pair charged with looking after his younger kids, I was to produce a word-for-word translation of one Israel’s plays, from English to French. He introduced me to Frédérique Giffard, and we started translating.
But, Frédérique? I’m so deeply ashamed of the way you were treated in my hometown. I remember your smile and good humor in the beginning, and that something changed while we worked together.
In retrospect, at some point during the project, you seemed to look at me as if you wanted to say something, but couldn’t. If my mother was told you’d been assaulted, she would have taken you in and sent you home. My parents recognized Israel’s qualities and yet repeatedly laughed at how conceited he was. It turns out they overestimated him.
The mantra going forward regarding sexual harassment must be: If you see something, say something.
Israel and I were talking … but the subject had turned generally to coupling.
But what, exactly, did I see?
I remember that, after Frédérique and I had been working together for some days, Israel and I were talking. I may have mentioned that I had a girlfriend living two hours away, but the subject had turned generally to coupling. I remember that Israel said Frédérique’s name and did something with his tone and facial expression that strongly implied I should hook up with her. And I remember that I was repulsed by the implication.
Did I say something? You bet. To my mother, a city councillor at the time, who was not surprised by such lewdness. I also expressed dismay with Israel’s behavior to his son, Matthew. But what could any of us do without the relevant information?
I now desperately wish that my French would have been better, so maybe Frédérique would have confided in me. I wish I could have helped.
It is immensely liberating, and also makes me feel miserably conflicted, to say: Israel Horovitz has written plays that I cherish, like his English-as-a-second-
And translating Israel’s work-in-progress back in 1991, I remember thinking: “This is horrible.” But I was already experienced enough with his work to expect two or three of those for one interesting piece. I saw the project as a résumé builder for myself, and I’m now embarrassed to say I’ve listed Israel as a reference for playwrighting contests and job applications since then. None resulted in a callback.
I also read a working draft of a play that would become My Old Lady, the well-received film with Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas. The draft was rubbish. Barely a word of the dialogue made it into the film, if anything. Let it serve as a lesson to young artists: Hard work matters a lot more than talent.
Eugène Ionesco described Israel as a “tender hooligan.” Sometimes you saw the tenderness, and sometimes you almost feared the hooligan…
But I am very grateful to Frédérique and all of the other women for their strength in speaking out. There’s no bright side to abuse. However, painful as it is to behold, rising awareness of harassment in the arts can only benefit young people who hope to build careers in them.
I also appreciate Israel’s son Adam Horovitz for his statement of solidarity with the women who have come forward. Adam is a natural leader, most reluctantly for him, and if we seek examples of decency in the arts, we only have to look as far as Israel’s own children. They endured his darknesses up close.
Eugène Ionesco described Israel as a “tender hooligan.” Sometimes you saw the tenderness, and sometimes you almost feared the hooligan beneath the surface. Artists communicate a vision of the world, but they are also people, and people are complicated. That vision may include overwhelming darkness threaded with scant light. As consumers of art, we are often asked to accept bad visions along with the good. Israel’s play Line is a grim exercise in absurdity, yet a revival of Line is now the longest-running piece in the history of New York theater.
These complexities translate to the personal realm as well. The bawdiness of theater culture goes back to Shakespeare and Molière. I have never physically assaulted anyone, but I have behaved inexcusably at times.
In fourth grade I played Tiny Tim in Israel’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol. In a small community theater, there was only one backstage area for all of the actors to prepare. An actress caught me gazing opportunistically at her breasts during a costume change. She smiled, turned toward me and said, “I don’t mind if you look.”
When I was 16, I drunkenly prank-called Israel’s house, asking to speak with Cookie Puss. Israel answered and threatened to call the police. It was a lousy thing for me to do.
I read Woody Allen’s book Side Effects when I was maybe 10. I didn’t get the literary references, but still thought it was the funniest writing I’d ever encountered. When Allen announced his intention to marry Soon-Yi, I thought, “I guess if we were friends, now I wouldn’t be friends with him anymore.” Luckily I wasn’t in that position, and I still enjoy Bananas whenever I feel like it.
And so I will relegate the man, Israel Horovitz, to the same disinterested status, and keep his work to enjoy or criticize as I’ve always done.
While reached for comment at press time, Israel Horovitz has yet to respond. – eds.
- Matthew J. Webster, OZY Author Contact Matthew J. Webster