Playwright Mike Poulton spoke to a British contingent at the Morgan Library last week about adapting Hilary Mantel's Man Booker prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, for the stage. Tony-nominated Wolf Hall, parts I and II, about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, his wives and politics, is now wowing audiences at the Winter Garden Theater. Poulton said he usually works on material when the author is dead. This time, he made an exception when he met Mantel, and they collaborated well together. Ah, a harmonious moment for writers!
But this was an unusually interesting night at the Morgan, the eve of the PEN gala, and many in the room were slated to attend the writers' annual dinner that would honor Charlie Hebdo's Gerard Biard and Jean-Baptiste Thoret accepting the Freedom of Expression Courage Award on behalf of the magazine. In fact, many PEN writers withdrew their participation hosting tables at the dinner to take place at the Museum of Natural History, drawing attention to the provocative nature of the cartoons that resulted in the mass murders at Charlie Hebdo's offices in January. Here, among writers at the Morgan, stood Salman Rushdie, who is for many emblematic of these matters, having lived under the Ayatollah's fatwa for his depiction of the prophet Mohammed in the novel, The Satanic Verses.
Back in the late 1980's, writers stood behind Rushdie and his right to artistic freedom. It seemed unanimous. Now, under the "assassin's veto," freedom of speech has been divisive for PEN members. Amanda Foreman, in an Op-Ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal on May 6 articulated the controversy, concluding: "For those who believe in freedom of expression, the moment has come to make the choice between its defense or abandonment against a murderous movement that believes democratic values are subordinate to religious sensibilities."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.