Anne Quackenbush drew good reviews as Hannah in the Stages production.
Anne Quackenbush drew good reviews as Hannah in the Stages production.

Your Cheatin' Heart?

Anne Hudson Jones suspected it immediately. She'd just finished reading a Houston Chronicle review of the premiere of the play Heart of a Woman. The comedy tells the story of Texans Hannah and her husband, Duane, who dies and has his organs used for transplants.

Hannah, who is having trouble mourning his death, decides she needs to hear Duane's heart beating again. So she tracks down the man who received the heart and begins writing to him. His jealous wife writes angry letters to Hannah, but she finally meets the guy and listens to his heart.

Jones hadn't seen Heart of a Woman, which was running at Stages Repertory Theatre. But the plot was all too familiar to her. She instantly thought of her old friend Richard Selzer, a surgeon/ author who published Imagine a Woman and Other Tales in 1995. One of the book's short stories, "Whither Thou Goest," is about a couple in Texas:

The characters are Hannah and her husband Duane.

And he dies and his organs are transplanted.

Hannah has trouble mourning his death. She decides that she wants to hear Duane's heart beating again.

So she tracks down the man who has the heart and begins writing to him. One day when the wife is away, Hannah meets the man and listens to Duane's heart.

As soon as Jones finished reading the plot summary in the review, she reached for the phone and called Selzer.

"I think someone stole your work," she told him. At Selzer's request, Jones saw the play -- and got additional proof. "It was too similar to be different," Jones says. "Even the names of the lead characters were the same."

Selzer, 73, is an established author with more than 10 books, some of them earning prestigious literary honors. He also is regarded as a leader in the medical humanities movement.

The Yale literature teacher is known for a rigorous work routine. Selzer gets up everyday before sunrise in New Haven, Connecticut. He packs two briefcases he takes everywhere and makes his way to the Yale campus library, usually arriving before the guards even show up. He spends a full day researching and writing and goes home late in the afternoon, even on weekends.

Robert Edward Williams, who penned Heart of a Woman, is a 44-year-old California playwright. Elana Koch, communications director for Stages Repertory Theatre -- the first venue to produce the play -- says the theater selected it from among entries in its Southwest Festival of New Plays. Koch says Williams has a masters in writing for the screen and stage and has authored other plays.

Williams studied in a summer program at Yale five years ago with 30 or 40 other aspiring playwrights.

Selzer is not surprised that a theater writer would take interest in his work. Many of his short stories have been adapted to stage. Prospective playwrights go through Selzer's agent and negotiate a fee agreement to use his work and include him in the credits. Years ago, Trinity Cable went through the process to get permission to adapt "Whither Thou Goest."

Selzer's colleague Peter Josyph says Selzer sometimes agrees to contracts with reduced fees because he likes to see certain stories done on stage.

By all indications, Williams never negotiated any contract with Selzer, but it appears that their paths crossed at Yale. Terry Hawkins, the attorney for Selzer, says Selzer has no recollection of ever knowing Williams, although Hawkins says Williams told him he met Selzer in the Yale library. Hawkins says Williams has one of Selzer's books signed with the note "to remember our visit in New Haven."

Hawkins says that, even if Selzer and Williams discussed adapting Selzer's story to the stage, that is no excuse for plagiarism.

"What's weird," Hawkins says, "is that five years after they might have met, a play goes up and there is no acknowledgement of Selzer anywhere."

Williams, reached at his home in northern California, declined to talk on the record about the dispute. Hawkins says that, based on his conversation with the playwright, Williams admits his play is based on Selzer's story.

"His version is that he did this with permission," Hawkins says. "But there is no contract." The plot of the play takes a different direction from the book in the second act of Heart. The man with the new heart has his wife's jealousy spiral out of control.

But Houstonian Jones, whose friendship with Selzer dates back to 1984, says the similarities of the first act are obvious to anyone familiar with the author's work.

Koch termed the play a critical success, "but it was less attended than most of our regular season shows." The theater has been largely a spectator in the escalating accusations over the use of the book's material.

While Stages wants to "celebrate new writers and new authors," Koch says, "...we want to give credit where credit is due."

The play ended its performances at Stages recently, but the arguments about plagiarism may have a much longer run. Selzer's friends say he dislikes litigation, although he is still deciding whether a lawsuit should be filed.

Josyph believes the play by Williams has damaged the potential of the story forever. So a book and a play about a transplanted heart now stir passions over transplanted ideas.

"He turned it into a farce," Josyph says of Williams. "He is not a playwright. He is a thief. I think of him as one of the lowest kind."


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