Sunday 23 April 2017

Plagiarism makes for great theatre

Articulate intelligence and acerbic wit are not to be beaten, on or offstage

Gripping: Brid Ni Neachtain and Maeve Fitzgerald star in Collective Stories by Donald Margulies which is now playing at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght and later touring
Gripping: Brid Ni Neachtain and Maeve Fitzgerald star in Collective Stories by Donald Margulies which is now playing at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght and later touring
A scene from Collective Stories by Donald Margulies which is now playing at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght

Emer O'Kelly

Donald Margulies didn't hit the Pulitzer jackpot with Collected Stories in the late 1990s. He was merely nominated. He won the following year for Dinner with Friends. He deserved it; he'd also deserved it for Collected Stories, a wise, wry, sad (and very funny) little study of the price art extracts from artists, not least turning them into predators.

It's 1990, and aspiring writer Lisa Morrison goes to her literature professor's apartment in Greenwich Village for her one-to-one tutorial. Professor Ruth Steiner is not merely her teacher, she's a well-respected and successful author. And Lisa hero-worships her.

As Professor of Literature at Yale, it's territory Margulies knows all too well, and one could guess that although he clearly loves literature and the craft of teaching it, he has mixed feelings about its day-to-day nitty-gritty.

The play covers the next six years, from Lisa's tentative coming to grips with her craft (not least through the Jewish Momma-style acerbity of Steiner) to the publication of her first novel.

And in those years, Steiner's own muse allows her to continue sharing fairly selflessly with the younger woman. She teaches her how to observe and how to detach (qualities of maturity in life as well as art); and she also teaches her how to use life as art.

This latter is the core of the play, as Acts One and Two both culminate in fascinating, intense debates between the women about the nature of art as an observation of life, and the duty of the artist to portray art as life.

Boring? Not the way Margulies writes it, as young Lisa Morrison learns the lesson too well, and fails to recognise any boundaries of emotional privacy: Steiner's emotional privacy in an area of her life which has been sacrosanct for 40 years. The result is devastation.

Margulies is on record as saying he believes in structure and form, although he doesn't champion the "well made play" above more adventurous forms.

But if he tells his students (as presumably he does) that they must master structure as well as using form to deliver meaning, his own plays provide the masterclass.

Then This Theatre Company has mounted an admirably intelligent and well-timed production of Collected Stories (at the Civic in Tallaght, and touring to Smock Alley and the Dolmen in Dublin, and the Riverbank in Newbridge, Co Kildare) with Brid Ni Neachtain and Maeve Fitzgerald heartbreakingly effective as Steiner and Morrison.

They are directed with sophisticated subtlety by Aoife Spillane-Hinks in an excellent set and lighting by Hanna Bowe.

Margulies is on record as saying he believes in structure and form, although he doesn't champion the 'well made play' above more adventurous forms.

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