Whose Life is It Anyway?
Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories (1996)
“I’m throwing down my key,” yells Ruth. “My key, my key! I’m throwing down my key!” With this perfect opening, the writer Ruth Steiner—crusty, independent, wise, vulnerable, guarded, and emotionally susceptible—unlocks her apartment, her professional reputation, and her secret life to Lisa Morrison. Huffing with exertion, exhilarated and scared, needy, ambitious and talented, Lisa grabs onto Ruth and will vault to success and recognition through their friendship. Childless Ruth will adopt and promote her surrogate daughter, Lisa (estranged from her family) will love and celebrate Ruth by becoming like her. It’s a very complex relationship that founders on the question of who can claim ownership of a life-giving narrative.
Sigmund Freud, speculating on the beginnings of “civilization,” put his unsentimental finger smack on this situation. Freud says that everything that shapes and orders us harks back to the Oedipal complex, back to the “primal murder” (which he admits can be just fantasized, just symbolic). There was, he says, an original father (a pretty violent, selfish figure in Freud’s estimation). His sons, who feared and envied him, came together and killed the father. Then they ate him. In this act of ritual cannibalism, they incorporated the father and his power into themselves. Indeed, they each became him. After the deed, feeling guilty, acknowledging the pride and love that they had repressed before, they honor the sacrificial victim by setting him up as a god and forbidding the acts and instincts that had led to the murder (incest, cannibalism, lust, etc.). Thus, religion and civilization.
Well, this play isn’t about sons, but about a woman mentor and her surrogate daughter, her protégé, and we know that Freud can be very confused and unreliable about women’s psychology. And, frankly, this kind of cut-and-dried, paint-by-numbers Freudian explanation always leaves me a bit queasy. However, it’s undeniable that Collected Stories (oh, the ironic shades of chilling meaning in that word, “collected”) is about the magical power of creation passing from a nurturing parent figure (the writer Ruth Steiner) to a maturing child (the aspiring Lisa Morrison)—a young student who is ambitious, indeed “hungry,” to become the powerful artist, who envies, even as she loves and adores, the powerful older artist, the mother. To advance her career, Lisa appropriates the core story of her mentor, thereby devouring her essence and taking her place. She eats her heart out.
To complicate matters, this defining memory that Ruth holds in her heart is also a mentoring story. (Well, it would be, wouldn’t it?) When she was about Lisa’s age, she, too, met and fell hard into the life of an older artist, the poet and storyteller, Delmore Schwartz, twice her age. Schwartz was sinking into decay at this point, but charismatic still to the virginal young Jewish girl from Detroit. (“Still something magnificent,” says Ruth.) Ruth, “in the name of poetry,” cleaned up his messes, groveled at his feet, entered his world—as does Lisa with Ruth in her time. Ruth is both proud and ashamed of her love and self-abasement, because this core experience is the inner fire from which all her lifetime of writing has emerged. And, therefore, she owns it. When Lisa asks Ruth why she hasn’t written about it, Ruth replies, “Some things you just don’t touch.”
What are the rules between the parent and the child? Between the mentor and the protégé? Are there boundaries to respect? Does one ask permission? Does one justify simply taking? Does appropriating the life-giving story destroy the one who lived it? Or honor them? Does the maturing artist’s experience grow like a tree from the roots of the mentoring artist’s life? I would bet that three-quarters of all creative people (and not just in the arts) have agonized over questions like these. I certainly have, for decades, and I still don’t know if there are answers.
Donald Margulies (b. 1954) doesn’t demand answers in his plays, just the convincing evolution of a relationship as it slips from predictable stability into instability. He doesn’t take sides. He is best at focusing on emotional interactions, on relationships shifting as the people in them confront compromises or betrayals, or face personal disappointment over the life they dreamed and the one they live. He has said that the unifying theme of all his work is loss. The seed for Collected Stories was the 1993 controversy about David Leavitt’s novel, While England Sleeps. Poet Stephen Spender brought suit against Leavitt for copyright infringement, plagiarism, and the iteration of moral rights for using elements of Spender’s own memoir in the novel. Debate raged in the New York and London press. Margulies was totally intrigued by the moral dilemma and Collected Stories coalesced around this.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Margulies is a second-generation, secular Jew, who began as a graphic artist. Even today, he believes his imagination, thus his work, has a very visual dimension. After art school at the Pratt Institute, writing plays on the side, he went to work as an art editor at Scholastic Magazine. Two friends from his writing group, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, were looking for a writer and hired Margulies. Since then, twenty of his plays have been successfully produced, including Dinner with Friends (1998), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. He is a teacher of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama and serves on the council of the Dramatists Guild of America.
The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.