When Charles Isherwood reviewed the 1996 premiere production of Collected Stories for Variety, he called protagonist Lisa “an Eve Harrington of the book world”. (He was not alone in making this comparison, which has proved prevelent in many Collected Stories reviews throughout the years.) Isherwood was, of course, referring to the title character in the classic film All About Eve. Eve is a young woman who takes advantage of her older female mentor and eventually takes over her life. This depiction of an overly ambitious young woman manipulating a successful woman feeds right into the fear that there is only room for one woman at the top and that women should not look out for each other. Perhaps there are some All About Eve style aspects to Lisa’s relationship with her mentor Ruth, but their rapport is far more nuanced than that.
At the top of the play, Ruth is an established author and Lisa is an insecure, eager student, completely awed by her teacher. From their first meeting, Ruth is discerning and demanding of Lisa, concerned not only with Lisa’s writing but also with how she presents herself. Upon noticing Lisa’s tendency to end sentences with question marks, Ruth tries to empower Lisa by instilling her with more verbal confidence.
RUTH. Why do you talk like that?
LISA. Excuse me?
RUTH. You have a tendency to add question marks to the ends of declarative sentences. Do you know that?
LISA. Oh, God…
RUTH. When a simple declarative sentence will do, you inflect it in such a way… I’m not absolutely certain but I think more young women speak this way than young men. And there’s something almost poignant about it, all these capable young women somehow begging to be heard, begging to be understood. “Can you hear me?” “Are you with me?” “Am I being heard?”
As New York Magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek noted in her review of the 2010 Broadway production, Ruth is “an exacting teacher making the ultimate demand of her student: The young woman needs not only to find her voice, but to make sure it’s a declarative one.” Unfortunately it’s not clear whether Lisa ever truly finds her own voice or whether she learns to lean more and more heavily on the literary voice of her mentor. Ultimately, Lisa writes a novel revealing the most personal and significant affair of Ruth’s private life, the details of which Ruth had told to Lisa in confidence.
In his 1997 review of the original New York production, Ben Brantley acknowledged the complexity of Ruth and Lisa’s mentor/mentee relationship, observing that “the familiar tensions and power shifts between mentor and acolyte are infused by a resonant question of literary morality: what right do artists have to appropriate the lives of others?”
The issue of literary integrity adds a wonderful complexity to the narrative and to the dynamic between the two women. Unlike in All About Eve, in which the actress Eve Harrington is clearly out to steal her mentor’s lead role, Lisa is not as obviously trying to make Ruth irrelevant. Instead, Ruth’s life story has inspired the plot and characters of Lisa’s novel. Is imitation the highest form of flattery? Is Lisa telling a story that Ruth was too scared to tell? Or, as Ruth accuses, is Lisa trying to appropriate her mentor’s life?
RUTH. You’ve stolen my stories, Lisa. My stories! What good am I without my stories? I’m nothing. I’m a cipher. I’m as good as dead.
LISA. But they aren’t your stories, Ruth. Not anymore. They stopped being your stories when you told them to me, They changed my life so how can they be solely your stories anymore? You don’t own them.
RUTH. Oh, no?
LISA. No! You are a part of my life now, Ruth. Our lives intersect. My experience includes your experience. I am the sum of your experience and my experience and everybody else’s experience I’ve ever come in contact with.
Perhaps Lisa should have been upfront with Ruth about what she was doing, and should have respected Ruth’s wishes to keep certain stories between them. Interestingly though, Ruth actually advised Lisa earlier in the play not to “censor your creative impulses because of the danger of hurting someone’s feelings”. This was said in the context of Lisa showing some of her work to her father. The creative moral obligations of a daughter to her father are of a different sort than that of a protégé to her mentor, but it is easy to understand how Lisa might have rationalized her behavior when it came to her novel.
The audience is left to wonder whether Lisa rationalizing an unforgivable act of betrayal, revealing the potentially unhealthy lack of boundaries between her and Ruth or providing insight into the unusual relationship between mentor and mentee once they’ve evolved to become colleagues and sometimes friends?