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The postmodern author on stage: Fair Use and Wallace Stegner.

Of course artists borrow--and (at times unknowingly) collaborate--all the time, and it's important if not vital we be allowed to do so.... So many ideas come from those who came before, and culture will stop dead if we don't get to borrow ... and stir bits into our own stews. But ... that is very different from taking chunks of text written by another and folding them into one's work as if they are one's own. I have joked that making sure I "footnoted" everybody in Fair Use--acknowledging the source material and quotes--added at least five minutes of text and time to the play.

--Sands Hall (1)

I'm not trashing him. I'm just pointing out that he "borrowed" word after word someone else wrote, typed them into a manuscript, and called himself the "author."

--Playwright, Fair Use

On the website program for the 2002 Western Literature Association meeting in Tucson, Arizona, conference attendees were gently admonished to behave themselves at the Reader's Theatre, a cherished annual event. That year's play was an abridged version of California playwright Sands Hall's Fair Use, a complex feminist look at the ongoing debates regarding originality and plagiarism in Wallace Stegner's 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose. When Hall, who attended the performance of her play at WLA, referred to the organization as "a bastion of Stegner adoration," she accurately described the esteem with which Stegner is regarded by many of its members (Reynolds 8). The website's warning therefore embodied a reasonable anxiety.

The specific historical and ethical disputes the play investigates have been known to academics for three decades. Stegner's Angle of Repose weaves together two stories. The first is the historical story of writer and illustrator Susan Burling Ward and her engineer husband Oliver Ward as they move throughout the West following Oliver's dreams of invention and irrigation. The second is the contemporary story of Lyman Ward, Susan's grandson, as he pieces together her life from unpublished letters and other writings for a novel he is writing on her life. In the course of sorting through her writings--primarily letters to her dear friend back east, Augusta--Lyman comes to understand the tragic events that led to his grandmother and grandfather's enduring unhappiness with one another. Stegner's novel won a Pulitzer Prize and received largely positive reviews, particularly regarding Stegner's rendition of the historical portion of the novel. But Stegner had "borrowed" heavily from Western writer and artist Mary Hallock Foote's personal correspondence to her Eastern friend, Helena Gilder, and her then-unpublished reminiscences for the basis of his fictional Susan Ward. Many of Foote's original letters to Gilder appear in the novel, either unchanged or slightly edited, as letters from Susan to Augusta. In addition, the novel's title, numerous other characters and scenes, and the major action in the novel can be traced directly to Foote's writings.

When Stegner appropriated Foote's personal letters and other writing into his novel, and then did not identify them or their original context except in an oblique and deliberately vague thank-you to Foote's descendents at the beginning of the novel, he set in motion one of the more frustrating episodes of his career. (2) Responses to Stegner's actions vary. While some see his decision to use Foote's writing (and the outlines and episodes of her life) as outright theft, the kind of bad-spirited behavior that gets writing students expelled, others defend Stegner as a creative writer merely and necessarily taking creative license in the production of a fictional work.

Fair Use strides into this debate intent on provoking the audience to ponder the issues and implications of what it means to be an Author. Like Angle of Repose, Fair Use works structurally to intertwine stories, but here there are three, rather than two. The first historical story is the presumably "real" story of Mary Hallock Foote's journey west with her husband, Arthur. The second historical story is the fictitious Susan's journey west with her husband, Oliver. As the play progresses, the two historical stories sometimes merge but more often conflict or even clash as scenes unfold from Hallock's pen, and then from Stegner's. The contemporary story that surrounds these is also reminiscent of Angle of Repose (which is always simultaneously recalling Foote's letters and reminiscences) in that it features a writer doing creative work based on discovered letters--in this case it is a female playwright who has discovered Foote's letters and reminiscences, as well as Stegner's fictionalizing of them--and embarks on writing a play to present a "truer version of Mary's life" (II: 87). These layers of storytelling comprise the playwright's imagining of Mary Hallock Foote's life based on Foote's writings, the playwright's simultaneously imagining of Wallace Stegner's imagining of Foote's life, and the unfolding of the playwright's own somewhat dissembling life as she and her young daughter attempt to live in some harmony with her father, the historian who, like Lyman from Angle of Repose, has dedicated his life to research and books at the cost of intimate and lasting relationships with the women in his life.

The play is structurally complex as various story- and time-lines emerge and intersect. It is equally provocative as it traces the playwright's attempts to write a play about Foote that ultimately brings her to face her own investment in "borrowing" and its nearness to plagiarism, her vulnerability as a female writer compared with the authoritative structures that reward masculine genius even when it is appropriated from women, her anger at her father as an embodiment of that authority and at her ex-husband for, ironically, rejecting that model of authority for himself, and the dynamic, fluid nature of authorship as a collaborative activity that makes it far more difficult for her to condemn Stegner's actions. In other words, Fair Use engages the literary event of Stegner's presumed plagiarizing of Foote from a postmodern perspective: a metanarrative that constantly performs its own embeddeness in a collaborative chain of "authors." It refuses the desire for individual authors or authoritative interpretations. By positioning itself as a postmodern commentary on the impossibility of originality and the inevitability of collaboration, Fair Use bridges the divide between Stegner camps and exposes our unexamined assumptions regarding individual authorship and the authority of male creativity.

At the end of Act I, Playwright quotes from a 1970 letter from Stegner to Janet Micoleau, Foote's granddaughter and the "J.M." of Stegner's opaque dedication, explaining his decision to cease relying on the factual outlines of Foote's life near the end of Angle of Repose and to depart entirely from Foote's biography, making his character Susan a potential adulteress whose dalliance renders her responsible for her young daughter's drowning:
 PLAYWRIGHT: He's just found out the Rems are
 going to be published by the Huntington Library,
 and he's a little freaked out. (Reads.) "Me, I think
 it's a splendid idea. But if the reminiscences are to
 be published it won't take much literary detective
 work to discover what family I am basing my story
 on. Must I now unravel the little threads I have so
 painstakingly raveled together, the real with the fictional,
 and replace all troth with fiction? Or does it
 matter to you that an occasional reader or scholar
 can detect the Footes behind my fictions?" (I: 55)

Stegner ends the letter by saying, dryly, "Wonderful. I feel like a character in literary history" (I:56). The Historian responds: "He is. And you'll see to it that she is too" (I: 56). Through exchanges like this, Fair Use simultaneously works forward and backward in time, while moving outward to interweave the play's action with the legal, ethical, and theoretical issues it raises.

One of the central discoveries postmodernism has made is to our understanding of representation. Traditionally, representation assumes an original; it takes as a given that what is being represented has an original, and that recourse to that original proves both the truth of it as original and the accuracy of its representation. Intellectual property laws, which largely came into effect in the 18th and 19th centuries with the printing press and the growing (international) market for literary productions, responded to this traditional understanding of representation. Any copies--representations--of the original must acknowledge their creator because that original is understood as having its genesis in the unique creativity of the author. Much of our unexamined belief in the author as a uniquely creative, inspired individual genius also solidified during this time. (3) Postmodern theories of authorship challenge the belief in the inspired, individual author. Language in particular has been a focus for this challenge. Postmodernism deconstructs the dualism of original/copy, positing instead a web of representations that echo and build upon prior representations, which likewise are indebted to still prior representations, and are prevented by their very nature as language from ever leading back to the original. At its boldest, postmodernism argues that there are no originals; all acts of language, and thus of representation, carry traces of past contexts that inflect their present meanings. The implications for authorship are dramatic.

Foucault's famous claim, that our traditional reverence for the author is the mechanism by which we throw up the gates and bar the door against the endlessly proliferating meanings of the text is, by now, both old hat and blithely disregarded:
 The author is not an indefinite source of significations
 which fill a work; the author does not precede
 the work, he is a certain functional principle by
 which, in our culture; one limits, excludes, and
 chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation,
 the free manipulation, the free composition,
 decomposition, and recomposition of fiction....
 The author is therefore the ideological figure by
 which one marks the manner in which we fear the
 proliferation of meaning. (159)

The author as we traditionally valorize him is a mechanism for classifying and controlling knowledge. For example, our penchant for associating various aspects of the text--word choice, mood, genre, and a host of other stylistic markers--with a particular individual is instead a determining factor limiting the meaning of the text, circumscribing the range of possible meanings a text can have, and ultimately "reduc{ing} the great peril, the great danger with which fiction threatens our world" by granting us mastery over the text (158). We further establish our mastery through the writer's biography, which, if known, shapes our expectations of the text's meaning, as can a record of the writer's explicit intentions regarding the meaning of the text. All of these signifiers of stable identity function to close the text off from a range of meanings.

The very nature of drama poses challenges traditional definitions of authorship. Jeffrey A. Masten, writing about Renaissance drama prior to the construction of authorship as an individualized demonstration of genius, argues that "collaboration was the Renaissance English theatre's dominant mode of textual production" (363). Postmodernism returns us to the possibility of interpreting drama as a fundamentally polyvocal art form that is inevitably "about" the thing it can't fail to perform: the endless indeterminacy of representation. In this way, drama ensures another series of collaborations takes place: between writer and readers, writer and performers, performers and audience. (4) Although plays have authorial signatures and therefore claim individual authors as their originators, the illusion of a single, overarching author that precedes the work is visibly undone by the elaborately highlighted participation of many contributors. Hall notes this contradiction in the development of Fair Use:
 {The director} and several actors work through various
 scenes from the play; I watch and take notes.
 And I find this deeply ironic: I am writing a play
 about the issue of using words and ideas that belong
 to someone else, and there I am, looking for a line
 an actor tosses out that is more effective than one I
 wrote, or even one I haven't thought of at all. I
 compliment the actor, thank the director, but the
 line becomes one I have "authored." ("Fair Game?"

Fair Use makes much of the polyvocal mode of its production to challenge the limiting function of traditional definitions of individual authorship.

Within the intertwining historical stories, this intellectually energetic play sets forth a fictional meeting between Stegner and Foote (who never met in real life), and engages critical questions surrounding our interpretation of Stegner's actions, including questions about copyright, creative license, and gender. For most of Act I, WS and MHF do not see each other, although MHF can hear WS as he quotes from her reminisces and his fictionalization of them. As the characters gradually become aware of one another--and of their own position as characters acting in a play within a play, they are sometimes frustrated at competing directions from Playwright and WS, and they often have opinions about the issues that emerge, particularly near the end of the play when Playwright is seeking some resolution, or "repose" for MHF and WS. All the characters except Historian are taking place in Playwright's imagination.

Although on the whole Fair Use paints Stegner as more guilty than innocent, even positing an apology from WS to MHF near the play's conclusion, and tends to argue for Foote as the unacknowledged center of the novel, the many intertwined voices, multiple character depictions, shifting timeframes, and simultaneous presentations of the material from various viewpoints emphasize the play's postmodernity, making the blame game impossible to win. Fair Use is literally a palimpsest of others' words in shifting contexts that simultaneously evoke the parallels between the characters and between the writers of these various interpretations of Foote. For example, Historian and Playwright both parallel Stegner's fictional Lyman. Like Lyman, who is also a historian, Historian has focused so self-absorbedly on his own research and intellectual expertise that he has missed much of the richness of his personal life; also like Lyman, his wife has left him. Playwright, too, shares Lyman's desire to find the truth and present it; also like Lyman, the truth she finds is already an interpretation that requires subsequent interpretations:

PLAYWRIGHT: I want to give another, I hope truer, version of Mary's life. And of what she meant by "angle of repose." Stegner has Lyman Ward define it as "horizontal, permanently." He has Susan and Oliver live in bitter silence to the ends of their lives. What kind of "repose" is that?

WS: (in a sudden, theatrical fit of weeping) "In all the years I lived with them I never say them kiss, I never saw them put their arms around each other, I never saw them touch!"

PLAYWRIGHT: (crossing to him) That was your anguish, WS. You gave that line to Lyman Ward--

WS: You gave that line to me!


WS: God. Let me out of this play!

PLAYWRIGHT: But it's true! You're working out your anger and grief, figuring out some element of your life, through someone else's story!

WS: Oh, and you're doing something so very different? (II: 87)

Like Lyman, she is struggling with a disintegrating marriage and only will look reluctantly at her role in that. Also like Lyman, there are some indications at the end of the play that forgiveness--or at least a negotiated truce--may be possible.

Fair Use makes much of other possible parallels, fore-grounding them for the audience: in Angle of Repose, Lyman gathers some news clippings that suggest his grandmother's adulterous romance and its tragic consequence in the death of her daughter, Agnes. These clippings are one of the things for which no factual parallel exists in Foote's life. As Playwright says, "A lot of people recognized the Footes in Stegner's play, thought he'd exhumed a well-hidden skeleton from the family closet" (II: 97). In a scene to which I will return later, Playwright confronts WS with news clippings describing accident he had while in a clandestine meeting with a graduate student. The accident happened; the woman and the clippings don't exist in fact? Identity is thus portrayed as fluid and subject to interpretation--sometimes wild interpretations based more on the interpreter's (un)conscious needs or desires than on any factual basis. In a postmodern sense, identity is not a fixed, definable essence that can be fully and accurately represented; as Fair Use shows, identity is constantly constructed, negotiated, and struggled over. That we rarely recognize the tenuousness of identity is due to the successful covering over of the shifting contexts present in every utterance.

In numerous interviews, when asked about the composition process of Angle of Repose, Stegner makes virtually identical arguments that insist on creative license: "I used her as a model, but whenever her papers didn't suit me, I changed them, which is why it is a novel and not a biography. If I'd been writing her biography, I couldn't have changed them" (Hepworth 36). Yet, Stegner's view of history as implicitly a man's province suggests why he chose a fictional format for his use of Foote's life. Stegner says that, after reading Foote's letters to Helena Gilder,
 I decided, quite frankly, that she wasn't worth a
 biography. She wasn't an important enough literary
 person, though she was pretty good. And her art
 was hard to judge, because she drew so commonly,
 particularly in later life, directly onto wood blocks,
 so there are no originals ... So I decided against
 writing a biography. (Hepworth 69)

When Rodman Paul edited and published Foote's A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote in 1972, only one year after Angle of Repose was published, Stegner expressed concern Foote would be recognized in his novel. (6) In other words, her obscurity warranted his dramatic incorporation and assimilation of her life into his text; when she becomes somewhat more widely known, he simultaneously opens himself to accusations of plagiarism.

Deeply held assumptions about gender inflect Stegner's assessment of Foote, as we can see in Fair Use's inclusion of what Angle of Repose elides or mocks: the hidden elements of women's history from this period, including early attempts at birth control and the common occurrence of debilitating miscarriages. In its presentation of history, Fair Use reveals history as a construct with ideological functions. For example, Historian plans to speak about Stegner in a scheduled talk on "How Artists Captured the West," and Playwright urges him to "Talk about a woman! We've got to change the way people perceive things! The way things are. Dad! Mary Hallock Foote! Talk about how she captured the West! Her illustrations! Her novels" (I: 27). Such gendered assumptions likewise shape responses to Stegner, and readings of him as plagiarist challenge the authorized discourses surrounding Stegner as the West's premiere Author. The common definition of plagiarism is intentionally taking the literary property of another without attribution and passing it off as one's own, having failed to add value to the copied material and having reaped from its use an unearned benefit (Stearns 7). In short, it is a form of cheating.

All the apparent evidence, which includes letters and interviews from Stegner regarding the production of the novel, suggests that Stegner knowingly made use of Foote's materials in publicly unacknowledged ways. And, as Fair Use emphasizes, Stegner's act of plagiarism is none too subtly connected to gender as well: would Stegner have felt as entitled to borrow the work of a male writer, albeit a then unknown one? If so, would he have defended that sense of entitlement as persistently, even arrogantly as he defends his use of Foote's papers? (7) As Debora Halbert has argued, in their symbolic roles as nurturer and even Nature, women are historically linked to writing as the origin of ideas voiced by the male author--as the male's muse, or as the site of inspiration. In other words, it has been acceptable to plagiarize from women because it is impossible to do so; "male creativity is dependent upon appropriation, and this appropriation is not recognized as plagiarism" (114). Instead, the male writer rescues those ideas by transforming them into writing and literature. In fact, Stegner claimed to use Foote's writing as "raw material" for his work and that, through the writing and publication of his novel, he "want{ed} her to cast a bigger shadow" through him than she could do on her own (Hepworth 69).

But, as the copyright law also argues, one test of plagiarism is transformation. Did the author merely copy the material or did he transform it? The issue is one of traditional conceptions of authorial genius and creativity. Angle of Repose is a lengthy, complicated novel, and although Stegner undoubtedly relied heavily on Foote's writing, first for its framework, and then for much of Susan's characterization and the content of her letters, his own contributions are undeniable--as, in fact, we can see by the very changes he introduced to the biographical Foote's life near the novel's end, which he described to an interviewer in 1982:
 Mary Hallock Foote didn't die until she was ninety-two.
 And I wasn't going to follow her life that
 long. That's one of the reasons I had to give her a
 catastrophe. Her daughter didn't die in a ditch at
 all at the age of five or six. She died of a ruptured
 appendix at seventeen. So there was that tragedy in
 her life. This was a favorite daughter and so on.
 But I just moved it back and drowned the poor
 child like a kitten a little younger. That's all right,
 I think. I wasn't writing a biography, I was writing
 a novel. (Hepworth 71)

While he certainly reaped a benefit from the publication of Angle of Repose and the eventual Pulitzer it won, it is hard to argue that, strictly, he "failed to add value" to the parts he "copied," as the definition of plagiarism puts it. One of the ironies of the situation--and of the play--is that equally disturbing is Stegner's failure to plagiarize utterly. In the intricate slippage between fact and fiction, Foote's identity is formed for many readers: they believe the first part of the novel, based on Foote, is "true," so the final part of the novel, which is wholly Stegner's creation, must be "true" as well.

Return for a moment to the term plagiarism: stealing words--the belief that one can steal words from someone whose ownership of those words precedes and determines the theft--is both a modern and very Western concept. Plagiarism can only exist in a legal system that recognizes intellectual property and offers copyright protection to those designated as authors. But as Alfred Yen argues, the law recognizes that a system of influence is both inevitable and desirable in literary production: "Authorship is possible only when future authors have the ability to borrow from those who have created before them. If too much of each work is reserved as private property through copyright, future would-be authors will find it impossible to create. Society would presumably suffer from the decreased production of creative works" (159-160). The loophole to copyright protection is the concept of "Fair Use: the breathing space at the heart of copyright," and it is not coincidental that Hall titles her play Fair Use (I:15). With only small exceptions, such as the subplots about Playwright's failed marriage to her husband Skip, due largely to his inattentiveness to the family, and her anger at her father's own sense of male superiority, all of the characters are from the pages of Foote's Reminiscences and Stegner's novel. And of course, those subplots--failed marriages and male entitlement--directly parallel issues raised in Angle of Repose and by the current debates about Stegner and Foore. Hall readily acknowledges that

"'In some ways I've done exactly what he did: in addition to creating an original piece of art (in my case a play, in his case a novel), I've copied word after word I didn't write into a manuscript that will have my name on it.' But, she adds, 'there is one major difference: I've made it clear when I am using someone else's words, and whose words they are. Yet even while I've tried to clarify when the words are Foote's when they are Stegner's, or a quote belonging to an expert on plagiarism, water rights, or fair use, the play is considered to be 'by' me'" ("Fair Game?" 4).

The authority of authorship is endlessly dispersed throughout Fair Use. Hall's valiant efforts to footnote and otherwise ascribe material to specific individual authors, while understandable and even legally necessary, functions to uphold traditional ideas of originality and creativity that are readily undone throughout her play. For example, when the fictional Playwright of Fair Use inserts a portion of a letter from Foote into the play, whose authorship are we reading? Foote, whose initial penning of those words was in an entirely different context? Stegner, who also used the words, but attributed them to his character Susan? Or Hall, who gives us their most recent incarnation? Fair Use resists a definitive answer to this question by having WS and MHF frequently speak the same lines, either sequentially or simultaneously, thereby emphasizing WS's use of words and themes that originated with Foote but are now a part of the play being written by Playwright--and by Hall. Another common strategy for complicating our understanding of authorship is for WS and MHF to recite similar but not identical lines, revealing WS's alterations and, frequently, the gendered assumptions about women in the West those changes belie:

WS and MHF: The lonely little clusters of settlers' houses with the great monotonous waves of land stretching miles around them make my heart ache for the women who live there. They stand in the house doors as the train whirls past, and I wonder if they feel (WS stresses this): the hopelessness of their exile.

PLAYWRIGHT: It's always interesting, WS, what you choose not to include.

MHF: Alone on the platform, I had the sunset and great prairie all to myself--its outline against the sky was absolutely without a single detail to break its magnificent loneliness. A wind blew across it, very strong and yet soft--as if it came over miles and miles of sun-warmed fields ... Every moment has been delightful--after the first night, when I could not sleep for thinking--but in the morning I woke in a new world, and began to look forward instead of back. (I: 31)

In this scene WS and MHF are quoting from a letter Foote wrote to Gilder. WS's interpretation emphasizes the despair and sense of exile with which Stegner imbued his heroine, Susan, while as the scene continues, MHF's letter acknowledges wistfulness but stresses that it is replaced by anticipation and pleasure. In many such examples throughout the play, WS's interpretations of Foote's writing emphasize her unhappiness and recreate her as an Easterner ill-suited to the physical or intellectual rigors of the move West, while MHF protests those interpretations with presumably more "accurate" ones that show her keen understanding of mining and business interests and her satisfaction with the life she created with her husband. On the one hand, the kinds of interpretations WS makes indicate creative license: Stegner did not merely copy Foote's writing, he altered it to create a narrative ripe with suspense and mystery. On the other hand, the kind of suspense and mystery he created had everything to do with attitudes toward femininity that cast his version of Foote, his character Susan Burling, into the role of archetypal female destroyer whose uncontrolled sexuality eventually led to her youngest daughter's death and threaten her marriage.

Yet Fair Use does not build its case for a postmodern perspective on gendered insights alone. As these characters talk, argue, and come to recognize one another's viewpoints, Fair Use expands our definitions of authorship by expanding our understanding of subjectivity as not simply gendered--leading us down that tedious path where Stegner was the predictable male patriarch and Foote the passive female who, although duped posthumously, haunts his pages-, but as always already functioning within historically changing constructions of what counts as individual authorship. In short, the play forces us to see the many intertwined collaborations that take place in this--in any--process of writing. Remarking on the indeterminate layers of writing that have made their way into the play, Hall says:
 I've borrowed from all my research: biographies, histories,
 novels, Internet articles, interviews, trips to
 the Huntington and Stanford Libraries--there is no
 way to include thanks to all of them, no way to
 track or to acknowledge the ideas I've garnered from
 so many sources ... ("Fair Game?" 4)

In this, Hall sounds considerably like Lyman as he sifts through his grandmother's letters to uncover the mystery of her life. Yet, while Fair Use in a sense "rewrites" Angle of Repose, it does so with a difference: Hall's play is self-consciously focused on the ironies that emerge when what is considered an individual masterpiece is revealed to be a collaborative project that is itself governed by expectations of individuality and originality.

Countering such assumptions of individuality and originality are the many echoes that run through the play, including the most famous "warp," Stegner's word for the changes he made in Mary Hallock Foote's character and life story. He used the word "warp" to describe those changes in a personal letter to Janet Micoleau (I: 55) and in the printed acknowledgment to Angle of Repose. In Act II, as Playwright describes her decision to "heighten and complicate things"--also words Stegner, and WS within the play--used to describe their method of creation--by introducing "a young brunette with large tits" into the car accident Stegner did in fact have, she notes: "Oops. Your character just warped. It warped itself." (II: 76) WS's response echoes that of Foote's descendants: "You're talking about my life! People will leave your play thinking that {sic} story's true! And it's not! That's not fair!" (II: 76). Later Playwright returns to this event:

PLAYWRIGHT: I sent away to the Albuquerque Historical Society for some news clippings, WS. I thought you might be interested in hear them. (Pretends to quote.) Albuquerque, March 28, 1993: The well-known writer, WS, was involved in a car-accident on Tuesday night, following a dinner given by his friends. He was accompanied by Hester Prynne--a brown-haired student at the University of New Mexico. Ms Prynne suffered a slight concussion in the crash, which occurred when a car hit them from behind as they were parked high on Red Mesa, otherwise known as Lover's Lane. WS was--

WS: That never happened.

PLAYWRIGHT: But I've worked out so many details to make it sound as if it did. "Must I now unravel the little threads I have so painstakingly raveled together? Does it matter to you than an occasional reader or scholar can detect--"

WS: I never cheated on my wife!

Rather than conclude the play with an apology that solidifies Stegner's guilt and provides a reinscription of the concepts of individual authorship and originality by having Stegner acknowledge his failure to achieve them, is final moments resist any single interpretation. When WS kneels before MHF saying, "I'm sorry. I regret it," Playwright interrupts, "No no no. Maybe not" (II: 104). Because Fair Use simultaneously critiques the vexed origin of Angle of Repose and the process of writing a play that also derives much of its plot, language, and detail from Foote's and Stegner's writings, it represents writing itself as an inescapable challenge to originality and interpretative finality, something Historian highlights when he says to Playwright, "You've set yourself quite a problem, haven't you?" (II: 104). The engineering term "angle of repose" refers to that angle of incline at which detritus stops rolling downhill; Stegner takes the term directly from Foote's Reminiscences and uses it as his novel's title and as a metaphor for the increasing marital strain between his characters in the novel. Fair Use also makes use of this term at the conclusion, when Historian, referring now to the conflict between WS and MHF, asks his daughter, "What do you think, dear? Do they get their repose?" Viewers and readers seeking finality in this play are instead presented with indeterminacy: "I don't know. I'm trying...." Playwright will remark in the final moments of the play (II: 105). The structure of Fair Use highlights these challenges to any desire to find a comfortable "angle of repose" from the potentially multiplying meanings available in the multiple intersections between reminiscences, novel, and play.

Stegner preferred what he called "traditional" writing--which included Angle of Repose--to more experimental fiction "which can be read backwards as well as forward, which turns chronology on its head and has no continuity and no narrative, which, in effect, tries to create a novel by throwing all the pieces in a bag and shaking the bag" (Hepworth 58). Most indications suggest that Stegner would have rejected a postmodern reading of Angle of Repose, as well as a postmodern rewriting of it in the form of Fair Use, but curiously, he gave his protagonist Lyman a far greater capacity to appreciate indeterminacy. Describing the final scenes of the novel where Lyman wonders if he might be "man enough" to be more forgiving than his grandfather, Stegner says,
 I left him there in bed sweating and listening to the
 night sounds of traffic on the grade. I suppose it
 sounds as if he did have an epiphany. What I meant
 him to have was ... an ambiguous epiphany, a wondering
 rather than a decision ... I think he might
 wonder, and that's as far as I wanted to take him. If
 that's an epiphany, all right, but it's got a question
 mark after it. (Stegner and Etulain 95)

Stegner overtly refuses his character the kind of interpretative certainty he claims for himself in the ongoing debates regarding Angle of Repose--and with good reason since the novel is at some level obsessed with the ways in which interpretative certainty is always revealed as subjective and contextual.

Fair Use gives the last word to MHE As the lights fade on the final scene, WS stops typing and turns away from the audience as MHF begins writing: "There, in the whisper of the desert wind, it all comes back ... the purple shadows darken in their canons, the color mounts to zenith, the plains are flushed with light ..." (II: 105). Especially given the lyricism of this ending, which foregrounds Foote's writing, we might wonder if Playwright succeeds in writing a "truer" version of Mary Hallock Foote's life. If the intricacies the play presents give any answer, it is "no," because every version of Foote's life, including her own letters and Reminiscences, is an interpretation that is always only a version of the life it represents. But if we shift the question to "Did Hall writer a truer version of Mary Hallock Foote's life?" we may well say, "yes," because Hall's version, Fair Use, calls attention to its own partiality, its own situatedness in various contexts that are themselves never completely knowable. Fair Use refuses an authoritative interpretation of Foote's life--and of Stegner's appropriations of Foote's life--in favor of a complex and shifting (re)presentation of the richness of authorship.


(1.) Email to the author, 19 Nov. 2003.

(2.) Stegner's now famous epigraph reads: "My thanks to J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history" (9). One of the reasons Stegner was deliberately vague in his acknowledgment was his agreement not to use family names, a request Foote's granddaughter Janet Micoleau made after Stegner decided to fictionalize Foote's life, rather than write her biography. None of Foote's descendants read a draft of the novel before it was published. See Stegner and Etulain 86.

(3.) See Woodmansee and Jaszi for a widely ranging discussion of the construction of authorship as an individually inspired act of original creativity and on the development and effects of intellectual property laws.

(4.) A timely example of the collaborative nature of drama, even when unwanted, occurred at the play's 2004 Boise production, where the director and her husband (who played Historian) approached Hall with possible changes: "They appeared to adore the play, and had a 'few changes' to suggest--and I was open, as I was using the opportunity of this second full production to try ideas of my own that had been steeping since the first production and the WLA reading. There was an ironic almost fair use issue that arose: without my permission, they deleted and changed things-actually cut WS apologizing to MHF! ... Some of the changes I managed to salvage, but as it was two days before the actors were to be in front of an audience, to some degree--especially being an actor myself and sympathetic to how such last-minute changes can throw one-my hands were tied (I chose to have them tied)." Email to the author, 31 Mar. 2005.

(5.) Here, too, there are wonderful layers of interpretative richness, as the fictional graduate student's name is Hester Prynne, the adulterous woman from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Foote illustrated a gift edition of The Scarlet Letter, which Stegner used in a scene in Angle of Repose. In an interview, he noted that, "Hester lurks in all our souls, I think" (Hepworth 63).

(6.) After learning that Foote's Reminiscences were to be published by the Huntington Library, Stegner wrote to Foote's granddaughter Janet Micoleau (J.M. of the epigraph) of his concern that Foote will now be recognizable in his novel: "Must I now unravel all those little threads I have so painstakingly raveled together, with the real and the fictional, and replace all truth with fiction?" (quoted in Reynolds 5).

(7.) One of the most satisfying reparation fantasies in Fair Use comes in Act II, when WS tells Playwright, "she just wasn't important enough to make her more than modestly interesting. A mere biography would have sold, at best, three thousand copies. By converting her to fiction I at least had the chance to make her immortal" (II: 96). Playwright responds, "I see," to which WS replies, "No, you don't. And you took that from an interview, too. It sounds just horribly fatuous, doesn't it?" (II: 96).


Buranen, Lise, and Alice M. Roy. Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World. Albany: State U of New York P, 1999.

Foote, Mary Hallock. A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote. Ed. Rodman W. Paul. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1972.

Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author?" Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ed. Josue V. Harari. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979. 141-160.

Graulich, Melody. "The Guides to Conduct That a Tradition Offers: Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose." South Dakota Review 23.4 (1985): 87-106.

Halbert, Debora. "Poaching and Plagiarizing: Property, Plagiarism, and Feminist Futures." Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World. Ed. Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy. Albany: State U of New York P, 1999. 111-20.

Hall, Sands. Fair Use. Unpublished playscript, 2001.

--. "Fair Game?--Or Fair Use?" ArtMatters (Spring 2001): 3-4.

Hepworth, James. Stealing Glances: Three Interviews with Wallace Stegner. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1998.

Masten, Jeffrey A. "Beaumont and/or Fletcher: Collaboration and Interpretation of Reniassance Drama." Woodmansee and Jaszi. 361-381.

Reynolds, Susan Salter. "Tangle of Repose." /printedition/magazine/la-tm-stegner12mar23001506,1,6768616.story

Stegner, Wallace. Angle of Repose. 1971. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Stegner, Wallace and Richard W., Etulain. Stegner: Conversations on History and Literature. Rev. ed. Reno and Las Vegas: U of Nevada P, 1996.

Stearns, Laurie. "Copy Wrong: Plagiarism, Process, Property, and the Law." Buranen and Roy. 5-17.

Woodmansee, Martha and Peter Jaszi, eds. The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1994.

Yen, Alfred C. "The Interdisciplinary Future of Copyright Theory." Woodmansee and Jaszi 159-173.
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Author:Karell, Linda
Publication:American Drama
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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