November 20, 2018

How a student’s plagiarism became a playwright’s muse

In spring 2011, Steven Drukman, a journalist, Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright and an associate arts professor at New York University (NYU), was upset by the behavior of one of his students.

She was failing his theater course for her sub-par work, rarely showed up to class, and when she did, she brought her boyfriend and they spent the entire lecture surfing Facebook. Her eyes were affixed to her cell phone even when some of the most esteemed American playwrights — including Donald Margulies and John Guare — spoke to the class about their work.

And when she turned in her final paper, on the late Arthur Miller, Drukman found that she had not only ignored the topic of the paper — “The class was called ‘Contemporary American Playwrights,’ meaning that they had to have a pulse,” he said — but she had also brazenly plagiarized from a Wikipedia entry on Miller.

“I must admit to experiencing some degree of glee about this, because you wish for bad things to rain down on people like this, and now I had her,” Drukman, a boyish 50, said recently at the Geffen Playhouse, where his new play, “Death of the Author” — inspired by the plagiarism case — premiered this week.

But when confronted, the student was resistant, even indignant about the charges, insisting Drukman hadn’t been clear about the nature of the assignment and that “it wasn’t fair that I was punishing her for using an improper source, Wikipedia,” the playwright recalled. “And I said, ‘It’s not only that you used Wikipedia, you copied and pasted from Wikipedia.’ The paper was wrong in so many ways. Yet, she would use all sorts of deflections to obfuscate the real issue, which was that she had committed fraud.”

An inquiry ensued, and while Drukman’s department chair was supportive, his dean eventually ordered the playwright to assign the student a new paper and to allow her to pass the class. “I thought that wasn’t fair to me, because this was my summer vacation, and now I had to read another 20-page paper,” said Drukman, who was frank, funny and even a tad self-deprecating during an interview. “But it was made clear to me that I had no choice. And the other piece of the puzzle was that I was going up for a tenure-like review, so I didn’t want to rock the boat.”

Drukman said his anger about the case proved his initial inspiration for “Death of the Author.” The drama tells of Jeffrey, a young professor at a tony university who is also up for tenure, and who discovers that his student, Bradley, has plagiarized an entire essay, merely stringing together quotes by various authors he found on the Internet. Bradley insists his essay demonstrates the postmodern theory that there is no such thing as authorship; Jeffrey cries plagiarism, and the play becomes a kind of academic thriller as the two men hash out their arguments during a brutal set of hearings.

Yet, along the way, each character must confront his own biases about the other: Jeffrey, the gay son of a high-school janitor, envies Bradley’s wealthy background and is irritated that he is attracted to the student to boot; Bradley, meanwhile, is beset by what Drukman described as “the arrogance of youth, which was, at one time, very much me. If you go to an elite college, it’s as if that world exists only for you, to prepare you for your future.”

Other characters in the play include Trumbull (Orson Bean), Jeffrey’s avuncular, elderly department chair, and Sarah, Jeffrey’s enabling, not-so-ex-girlfriend.

Yet, as Drukman began writing “Death of the Author” in summer 2011, the play became “not so much about plagiarism as [about] the things that keep us from connecting and empathizing with others,” he said. “I believe that you need to be able to connect to a student to teach him, and you also need to be able to connect to a teacher to learn. For Jeff, his concerns about the polarization of class get in his way, and Bradley needs to learn to see Jeff as a person, too — though that can be very hard when you’re 20 or 21 and come from a privileged background.”

Bean — who is 85 and a veteran of stage, film and TV — said he was drawn to “Death of the Author” for its nuanced approach to the plagiarism issue. “The play is about morality, and about perceptions in a ‘Rashomon’-like way,” Bean said. “It’s about searching for the truth, and I’ve always been more interested in the truth than in questions of right and wrong, because that can change according to who’s looking at the [equation].”

Drukman grew up middle class, the adopted son of a novelties salesman, in a secular Jewish home in Newton, Mass. From an early age, he wrote poetry and performed puppet shows for the local children; after graduating from Oberlin College, he aspired for a time to become an actor.

“But once opening night was done, I felt that the most interesting part of what we did in the theater was past us,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a trained seal performing seven times a week for a paying audience.”

Drukman began to write about theater for The New York Times, American Theatre magazine and other outlets, as he simultaneously earned his doctorate in postmodern theater at NYU. “I was a terrible student all throughout my life, so I don’t know why I thought I would be a good teacher,” he said. “But I loved to write and to think, and I thought academia would be a somewhat safe way to channel that. Yet, I just couldn’t give myself permission to become a creative writer.”

That changed around 2000, when, while preparing to pen his doctoral dissertation, “A play just kind of emerged from my unconscious,” he said. 

“Going Native” was the tale of a young man who, like Drukman, was a gay, Jewish, quasi-academic grappling with an identity crisis. “It was autobiographical in the sense that I had long been able to recognize the things that I wasn’t,” Drukman explained. “I was not really an academic, but I was getting a Ph.D.; I had no formal training in journalism, but I was working for The New York Times; and I was in a sort-of relationship, but it was an open relationship. So, to be a good armchair psychoanalyst — or even a run-of-the-mill one — one might say writing that play led me to an act of identity: identifying myself as a playwright.”

Drukman went on to write around a dozen more plays, including the Pulitzer-nominated “Another Fine Mess” (2003), inspired in part by Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” “In This Corner” revolves around boxer Joe Louis’s 1938 match against the German champion Max Schmeling, and “The Prince of Atlantis” (2012) spotlights a prison inmate whose son wants to meet him after having been given up for adoption three decades before.

Drukman was prompted to write “The Prince of Atlantis” at age 30, when he set out in search of his own birth mother. He said he imagined an Oprah, “or even a Phil Donahue moment,” as he reunited with her, only to be devastated when he finally made contact.  “She not only said, ‘I don’t want to see you’; she dissembled, she misled, and the letter she wrote me was full of lies,” Drukman recalled. “She’s not a very good person, and that was a very hard thing to come to terms with.”

As with “Prince,” writing “Death of the Author” also was a way to channel an unsettling experience into a play. And, he said, he now harbors no resentment toward his former student. “I no longer dislike her,” he said. “I think she was young and confused, and she was advised to play me in a certain way. I do wonder what has become of her.”

Drukman believes this play will be of special interest to parents with college-aged children: “I’d like audiences to wonder about the state of higher education and worry a bit about it becoming a consumer-driven enterprise, as opposed to a pedagogical or educational experience,” he said.

“Death of the Author” plays through June 29 at the Geffen. For tickets and more information, visit