Mar 302008

by Bill Marx

“Catharsis isn’t a wound being excavated from childhood.” – Sarah Ruhl

NPR as well as New York theater critics think playwright Sarah Ruhl, the “Golden Ruhl” with “The Midas Touch,” is sure money in the artistic bank. A winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 for her comedy “The Clean House,” Ruhl proffers plays that please trend-spotting New Yorkers. And when Big Apple reviewers rave en masse (aside from the sturdy John Heilpern), Boston theaters and critics tend to follow suit.

New York production of
Squeaky clean scene from the New York production of “The Clean House”

This season The New Repertory Theatre produced “The Clean House”; “Eurydice” will kick off the company’s 25th season. The coronation of Ruhl as The Next New Thing reaches its apex with a recent New Yorker profile by Critic-at-Large John Lahr, a mash note whose intellectual ethereality matches that of its subject. Unsurprisingly, the piece doesn’t make much sense of an artist whose credo — refried from the ‘60s – is to stop making sense.

So while some see gold in them thar plays, better think first before you head off with your pickaxe. Judging by Lahr’s heavy-breathing puff piece and “The Clean House,” Ruhl comes off as yet another installment in the counterculture’s war against the sins of (male?) reason and the crimes of the Enlightenment, a fey rather than muscular assault on the supposed death grip of sanity on our culture and minds. For all of the praise heaped on Ruhl’s comic fantasies, her dark-tinged but essentially genteel brand of whimsy treats the imagination as if its sole vatic purpose is to infantilize audiences.

Faced with a slew of clichés about swimming in the slipstream of the surreal, Lahr attempts, but fails, to add heft to Ruhl’s brand of spilt soy milk romanticism: “Ruhl’s goal is to make the audience live in the moment, to make the known world unfamiliar in order to reanimate it.” Wow, plays that reanimate your sense of the known (rather than the unknown) world.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl
American Theater’s Golden Girl: Sarah Ruhl

With that cathartic a payoff no wonder Ruhl jettisons stuff like psychology, history, and dramatic structure:

As a storyteller, Ruhl marches to Ovid’s drum rather than Aristotle’s. “Aristotle has held sway for many centuries, but I feel our culture is hungry for Ovid’s way of telling stories,” she said, describing Ovid’s narrative strategy as “one thing transforming into another.” She went on, “His is not the neat Aristotelian arc but, instead, small transformations that are delightful and tragic.” And she added, “The Aristotelian model—a person wants something, comes close to getting it but is smashed down, then finally gets it, or not, then learns something from the experience—I don’t find helpful. It’s a strange way to look at experience.”

“I like plays that have revelations in the moment, where emotions transform almost inexplicably,” Ruhl said. “The acting style isn’t explicated, either. It’s not psychological.” In “The Clean House,” for instance, one stage direction reads, “Lane cries. She laughs. She cries. She laughs. And this goes on for some time.” To Ruhl, this kind of emotionally labile performance is a “virtuosic” exhibition of behavior. “It feels true to me,” she said. “Children are certainly that way. I’m interested in these kinds of state changes. ‘I was happy, now I’m sad.’ ” She continued, “If you distill people’s subjectivity and how they view the world emotionally, you don’t get realism.” The irrationality of emotion is one of the themes to which Ruhl’s plays continually return. “I don’t want to smooth out the emotions to the point where you could interpret them totally rationally, so that they have a clear reference point to the past,” she said. “Psychological realism makes emotions so rational, so explained, that they don’t feel like emotions to me.”

Granted, a playwright can speak nonsense and still write well. But these are not only puerile caricatures of Aristotle and Ovid — the transformations of the latter are often triggered by unsatisfied desires – Ruhl’s hostility to reason and psychological depth turns her vision of the unconscious into a child’s grab bag of feelings, emotional states as flash cards that flip haphazardly through the mind. Yes, as Ophelia says, ‘we know what we are but not what we may be,’ but that does not mean that the plastic power of the via dramatica should be unchecked by formal exigencies or unshaped by flickers of rationality.

And what’s so strange about the urge to learn from experience? It doesn’t happen often enough, but it is as good a reason to get up in the morning as any other.

Truth is, the works of the best playwrights combine reason and the irrational, realism and the prophetic; it is the tension between these colliding contraries, not non-stop “wonder,” that generates powerful drama. Samuel Beckett’s figures are obsessed with a desire to desire no longer. George Bernard Shaw’s characters are great believers in reason, yet what makes him great are the sudden intrusions of the numinous. The irony of Ruhl’s rigid generalizations is that she doesn’t see how the finest plays, from the Greeks and Shakespeare to Pirandello and beyond, transform and transcend her breezy preference for the spontaneity of the subjective.

Bill Marx

Even Ruhl fans suspect that artistic reality falls short of the big build-up. Art Hennessey notes a contradiction in a Boston Phoenix review praising Ruhl in which the writer admired The New Repertory Theatre’s staging of “The Clean House” but registers “one quibble”: “it doesn’t stay with you as long as a great play should. This is the third time I’ve seen Ruhl’s work, and it’s always enjoyable to watch — never more so than in this incarnation — but not something I find myself thinking about much the next day.” What does that tell you? I felt this fades-away-before-your-eyes quality back in 2004 while I was sitting through the Yale Repertory Theatre premiere of “The Clean House.” Ruhl’s easy-to-take irrationalism is as effervescent as an etch-a-sketch drawing. Is she reanimating the world for anybody out there?

Her current vogue, I think, springs from aging Boomer audiences who enjoy feeling nostalgic about their second childhoods. But with productions of a number of her plays to come in the area – “Passion Play” next season at the Yale Repertory Theatre and her latest New York production, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” no doubt going to ring around here — we will have plenty of chances to figure out why Ruhl rules.


Read more by Bill Marx

Follow Bill Marx on Twitter

Email Bill Marx

  5 Responses to “Theater Commentary: The Ruhling Class”

Comments (5)
  1. Thanks for the link,

    Just a small note. The commentary about the play not sticking with you is from Ed Siegel,who was the former Boston Globe theatre critic, but it was actually from a review of the New Rep production Mr. Seigel wrote for the Boston Phoenix.

    BTW: It seems as if with Dead Man’s Cell Phone many critics uniformly lost their sense of wonder with Ruhl. It received pretty much uniformly bad reviews, even from those who had been in her corner for a while.

  2. Art,
    Thanks for the head’s up — I will make the change in the text about the piece appearing in the Boston Phoenix.

    And I did notice that Dead Man’s Cell Phone was not as well received as Ruhl’s other plays. But that doesn’t seem to have slowed the trend.

    And my response is also sparked by reading the New Yorker piece, which was filled with so many mush-headed generalizations that I felt somebody should raise an objection, though it could well be that Ruhl will be a flash in the pan.

  3. I agree with you. Ruhl is not just a flash in the pan.

    We will be getting her work for years to come. As long as The New Yorker and the lead at the Times are still championing her vision, regional theatres will keep lining up.

    What made the Lahr piece so fascinating, not in a good way, was its overarching mission: to try and prove, through theory, some type of deep and tragic meaning to Ruhl’s work.

    From Calvino to Ovid, (Ruhl’s work resembles neither,) and suddenly I was reminded of Eric Bentley’s caution about dramatists who create a theory for their work.

  4. Hello Bill: I’m very late getting to this article, but I think you mischaracterize the NYC critical establishment’s reception of Sarah Ruhl. With the exception of Charles Isherwood, the New York Times’s second-string reviewer, critics have been mixed to negative on Ruhl’s offerings. Isherwood has set himself up as Ruhl’s chief cheerleader, even while he has greeted much darker and stylistic daring work with strenuous disdain and condescension. I myself have tried to keep an open mind at Ruhl’s various attempts at surrealist whimsy, but I find them increasingly cloying and vapid. Many NYC critics don’t understand her success and find the work seriously wanting. You make a good point that it infantilizes the audience. But even worse, I find that her value system (as regards people in society) is creepily conservative and retrograde, even if she thinks she’s being daring by writing whimsical stage directions as if it were grad-school poetry.

  5. I saw “The Clean House” at the New Rep. In the end, I thought the most affecting scene was the one where the husband tells his wife he’s fallen in love with his patient: that is, a scene, or a part of one anyway, without the labored “whimsy” (to use the word regularly applied to the play–I prefer “affectation”) that characterized most of the play. As for the alternating emotions–i.e., “I laugh, I cry”–that seems to me an easy way of not bothering to dramatize the transitions one makes from one emotion or perception to another, possibly opposite one. In the play, the divorced wife’s change from resenting her replacement to caring for her was not explained but rather only announced by one of the projected “stage directions.” That’s too bad, because understanding the ex-wife’s change would have had a far greater dramatic payoff than anything else in the play, especially the joke to die from. But then again, it seems so many new plays seem to have little interest in drama.

 Leave a Reply