13 February 2009

Playwright on a hot tin roof

I do so love a juicy fair-use case, even if I'm abysmally late in posting about it. Meet Mark Sam Rosenthal, an actor and writer who wrote a one-man show called "Blanche Survives Katrina In A FEMA Trailer Named Desire." Does that title remind you of something? You bet! So after Rosenthal's play returned to New York for its second run there Off-Broadway, the estate of Tennessee Williams (currently managed by the University of the South) is coming after him for infringing on their rights. Rosenthal is arguing that the play is a performance piece incorporating elements of but not the entirety of "A Streetcar Named Desire"; the university counter-argues that the show is not in fact a parody.

I think Rosenthal is right, and I've seen the show albeit in its first run here, at the New York International Fringe Festival. I am no legal authority, but I am a fan of Mr. Tennessee Williams; "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is one of my very favorites. And while I didn't love Rosenthal's work, which basically plops Blanche, her sister and the immortal Stanley in New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina, I thought it used the character in an interesting way. To me it was more sad than funny -- Blanche has a long, long way to fall from her former glory -- but it made me think a lot about "Streetcar" and the public image of Katrina survivors, victims, what-else they prefer to be called.

And correct me if I'm wrong, but fair use has a lot to do with revenues collected from appropriating elements of someone else's work, right? This play may be making money, but no one is mistaking it for a Broadway revival and plunking down $125.60 a ticket for it. I'm not saying copyright infringement is wrong so long as you're doing it for free, that would be ridiculous, but I wonder if anyone from the University of the South's legal team has bothered to experience the play and allowed that to shade their conclusions. I suspect not.

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