ON THE PLAY'S UNIVERSAL APPEAL

ON THE PLAY'S UNIVERSAL APPEAL

The following is from a 2002 PBS interview with Donald Margulies about his play Collected Stories. Permission for posting has been granted to The Readers’ Theatre from Donald Margulies.

ON THE PLAY’S UNIVERSAL APPEAL
I think Collected Stories has traveled well because its themes cross cultures. Mentors and protégés exist everywhere. Most people, at some point in their lives, have known what it’s like to be a student or a teacher, a child or a parent, to have loved someone not their child with the intensity of a parent for a child or vice versa. Most people have felt betrayed or committed betrayal, deliberately or unknowingly.

That Ruth and Lisa are writers places them in a specific milieu, but I don’t necessarily see Collected Stories as a play about writers. It is about a great many things, certainly, but it is primarily a play about how human beings try to engage one another, pass along traditions, fulfill the powerful need for family. I have always been interested in the ways that we create families out of our friends or acquaintances—the kind of neuroticism that takes place even in the workplace, where we re-create aspects of family life. Ruth is childless, Lisa is alienated from her own parents. They feed each other. The elaborate dance Ruth and Lisa perform is a ritual that defies borders.

BOTH SIDES OF THE QUESTION
I empathize with both sides of the argument. I also know what it takes to be a writer and to be as ruthless as Ruth, so to speak. I don’t come down on either side of the argument. I never do in my work really. I think part of the pleasure that audiences derive from theater is not to have solutions handed to them, or to be told whether something is right or wrong. For me one of the great pleasures of experiencing this play in front of many different audiences is watching audiences argue about the issues of the play. You have to suspend certain etiquette when you are a writer, and that is part of what is discussed throughout the play.

Our sympathies should shift from moment to moment in this piece. These women are both flawed, and don’t always behave in what we would term honorable ways. Lisa can be selfish and impulsive, and so can Ruth. Ruth can be as Lisa says, she can be impossible. And much of it is out of her own insecurity and her own need to maintain a certain position in the rank.

Her hurt and her reaction is something very human. She’s not simply being magnanimous in her approval of her young protégée. It’s double-edged.

THE MATURATION OF WRITERS
There comes a time when a writer is ready to write about certain things, whether or not they are ready at the time that they get the idea to write about that subject. I probably couldn’t have written my earlier plays, that dealt specifically with my lower-middle-class upbringing in Brooklyn, while both my parents were alive. So there were stories that I needed to tell, but I did wait for the time to tell them, so that I would be able to tell them as fully as possible, without a sense of guilt or shame.

I teach playwriting at Yale University, and what I most often am confronted with in young writers is a great passion for writing, the romance of writing. But what I rarely see is a compelling sense of what the stories are they wish to tell. That compulsion to tell a story is the mark of real talent. You can’t teach that, but you can teach yourself to recognize when something is not simply a clever idea, but a story which you’re passionate about and need to tell.

Photograph of Donald Margulies by Juliet Van Otteren.

Posted August 26 2013 by Donald Margulies

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