Collected Stories: Do You Still Own Your Story if You Tell it to Someone Else?

Consider this a recreation of when Delmore Schwartz was at his most charming .
Consider this a recreation of when Delmore Schwartz was at his most charming . Photo by Gabriella Nissen
Ruth Steiner is a college professor of writing at some university in New York City. We presume NYU? She was famous in literary circles in her 20s for her short story collections and while her reputation within the literary community remains exalted, no one expects her to write anything else noteworthy now that she is in her 50s.

She becomes a mentor to a graduate student in one of her classes, Lisa Morrison. Over the course of six years (1991-96), Lisa evolves from the student role to  friend and peer and ultimately a direct competitor to Ruth. Told something in confidence — an affair Ruth had when she was young with the famous poet Delmore Schwartz (actually a real American poet and short story writer)  — Lisa appropriates it for her own writing and the fight is on.

In Collected Stories by Donald Margulies in a 4th Wall Theatre Co. production, Reagan Elizabeth plays Lisa, describing her as "Lisa is a tenacious young writer who is in graduate school. While optimistic and kind and funny she is terribly forward and knows what she wants and is very keen on getting it with as many tactics as she might need to utilize. She's just a very driven person with an end goal in mind and will pursue honestly any means necessary to achieve what she wants to achieve."

Lisa's goal, Elizabeth says, is: "to be a famous and successful writer." By going to a great school and studying with what she hopes will be an inspirational writer, Lisa hopes she'll be able to jump start her road to success.

Kim Tobin-Lehl. the co-artistic director of 4th Wall, plays the introverted Ruth. "She's a pretty famous writer. It's almost implied that it will be a step down for her to be teaching." She is also reclusive and most of the action takes place in Ruth's Greenwich Village apartment, where she's lived for 30 years. Through the years she has taken on proteges to foster their writing and their careers. She is still highly respected and asked to speak in support of such things as the National Endowment For the Arts before Congress, but her writing days appear to be behind her, Tobin-Lehl says.

Never married, no children and her parents are dead, Ruth grows to trust Lisa which makes her sense of betrayal all the stronger. At issue in the Pulitzer finalist play directed by Jennifer Dean: If you tell your story to someone else does that make it fair game for use by the second person in any way?

"We love plays with dialog that is so richly intricate about what people's relationships are about. It's about writing. It's about intellectual property." Tobin-Lehl says in explaining why they decided to do  Collected Stories.  "We forget that one generation's ideas of what is moral conscience and another generation's ideas of moral conscience are completely different experiences."

"Delmar Schwartz is used in this play as her touchstone to the inspiration of her life," Tobin-Lehl says.
Ruth sees that Lisa has talent. "But I also think she's taken by her energy and her zest for success, her lack of any kind of inhibition to go for what she wants," Tobin-Lehl says. "She almost says too much all the time. She worships and then she apologizes and then she says too much and she goes too far. And it's very charming. It's exciting to be around especially for someone who doesn't ever leave their home. You're almost living vicariously."

It's up to the audience, Tobin-Lehl says, to decide whether Lisa always meant to take advantage of Ruth, whether she did really like her over the years they were together and ultimately, whether she was right to do what she did with Ruth's story.

Performances are scheduled for May 17 through June 8 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Sprint Street. For information, $17-$53.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing