A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright explores the relationship between a writing teacher and a student who forges her own career
Collected Stories: Revised Edition. By Donald Margulies. Dramatists Play Service, 68 pp., $8.95, paper.
By Janice Harayda
Who owns the story of an adult’s life? Donald Margulies explores the moral and psychological implications of the question in Collected Stories, which had a brief run on Broadway earlier this year. Margulies doesn’t parse legal issues in this play about a 55-year-old New York writing teacher, Ruth Steiner, and her evolving relationship with a young student, Lisa Morrison, who forges her own career.
Collected Stories instead follows the intersecting emotional arcs of a mentor and her protégée as the story builds toward an act the older woman sees as a betrayal. Lisa urges her teacher to talk about an affair she had years earlier with the poet Delmore Schwartz, then uses what she learns for her own purposes. Ruth sees her student’s appropriation as a form of theft and psychic annihilation. She tells Lisa: “You wanted to obliterate me.” Lisa insists she didn’t: “I wanted to honor you.”
Who is right? The play leans toward Ruth but has little new to say about the age-old dance of transference and countertransference between a mentor and protégée. As in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends, Margulies paints his characters’ needs with a broad brush. But he’s a skilled craftsman: He seems to have removed every needless word with the literary equivalent of turpentine, and his play is well-paced and structured. And the question “Who owns the story of your life?” has gained provocative and slippery dimensions in the age of Facebook and text messages. High school and college students might have hours of lively arguments about this play even as their elders prefer to dust-off their Vintage paperback editions of Poets in Their Youth.
Best line: Ruth: “Are you going to survive this tutorial, or are you going to require oxygen?”
Worst line: Ruth on Delmore Schwartz: “He was only 44 but there was something ancient about him. He seemed to possess so much wisdom …”
You may also want to read: Jonathan Yardley’s review of Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (Vintage, 1983), Eileen Simpson’s memoir of her husband, John Berryman, and his circle, including Delmore Schwartz.
Read a review of the 2010 Broadway production of Collected Stories in the Wall Street Journal.
You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.