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Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 32 No 2

The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl

The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl. Amy Muse. London: Methuen Drama Critical Companion Series, 2018; Pp. 215 + xv.

Amy Muse’s The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl offers an insightful reading of the works of one of the U.S.’s most prolific contemporary playwrights. Since the premiere of Passion Play at Trinity Rep in 1997, Ruhl has won a number of accolades demonstrating her significance, including the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award (2003), the Fourth Freedom Forum Award from the Kennedy Center (2004), and a MacArthur Genius Award (2005). She has also twice been named a Pulitzer Finalist (Dead Man’s Cell Phone (2005) and In the Next Room or the vibrator play (2009)). Ruhl began writing plays in Paula Vogel’s dramatic writing course at Brown in which she wrote Dog Play, where she was able to unpack her grief at having lost her father while making the focalizer of her play the family dog (“played by a person wearing a dog mask and an apron”) (xi). Thus, Muse situates Ruhl with the “artist-thinkers” that William Demastes labels the “new alchemists,” in Muse’s words, the “artists and scientists who are re-enchanting the world through a grounding in the world” (xiii). For Muse, Ruhl’s gift of re-enchantment lies in her ability to weave works that blend the empirical and the spiritual. While not the first critical book on Ruhl (that honor belongs to James Al-Shamma’s Sarah Ruhl: A Critical Study of the Plays, published by McFarland & Co. in 2011), The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl presents an important addition to critical examinations of Ruhl’s plays, even if her analysis could sometimes go further.

In the Preface, Muse discusses why she structures the book not chronologically, but according to Ruhl’s “artistic and ethical concerns” (xv). Ruhl’s works, Muse argues, “call for a more phenomenological than ideological mode of analysis,” thus situating Muse as a guide through the ways in which Ruhl creates modes of feeling and transcendence by inviting audiences into conversations with the stage, rather than looking at the stage as a place for detached analysis (xiv). The next four chapters are each super-titled with a quote from Ruhl, reinforcing this sense of conversation.

Muse’s first chapter deals with Ruhl’s influences, as well as her adaptations of Chekhov and Woolf, in order to demonstrate how Ruhl is more interested in writing about “Moments of Being” rather than presenting realistic representations for the stage (23). In chapter two, Muse considers four of Ruhl’s plays – Eurydice, Demeter in the City, Melancholy Play, and Scenes from Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince. She reads each work to activate an interplay with “the actual and magical” resulting in plays that on the surface feel “whimsical,” but are rather “philosophical comedies that plumb the depths with a light touch” (61). Chapter three deals more directly with Sarah Ruhl’s approach to dramatic structure; here Muse demonstrates that Ruhl, much like Maria Irene Fornes, is less interested in creating characters driven by psychological objectives and more in bringing characters into a room together where their reckonings are rich with pre-Freudian defined desire.  In Chapter Four, Muse situates Passion Play, The Oldest Boy, To Peter Pan on Her 70TH Birthday, and How to Transcend a Happy Marriage with medieval Mystery Plays and plays born out of rituals. As with the Mystery Plays, Muse argues, these works of Ruhl’s have less to do with preaching morality and serve better as invitations to experiences that are holy and invisible. Each of these four chapters ends with a “Coda,” rather than a conclusion, evoking the musicality of Ruhl’s plays.

For Chapter Five, Muse departs from the layout of previous chapters and interviews two artists who are well acquainted with Ruhl’s works: Sarah Rasmussen and Hayley Finn. Rasmussen is the Artistic Director of the Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis and served as assistant director for the Broadway production of In the Next Room or the vibrator play. Finn is the Associate Artistic Director of the Playwrights Center of Minneapolis and a former classmate of Ruhl’s. She directed the first workshop production of Eurydice (129, 131). One resonant moment arises when Rasmussen describes how her childhood play impacted her views of directing: “I was entranced by how a small, made up story can sound out larger truths in our lives” (qtd. 135). Rasmussen’s notions of childhood make-believe feeds well into the sense of wonder, myth, and staging of the invisible truths that guide Ruhl’s plays.

Chapter Six features three critical essays: “Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play and Contemporary Medieval Performance” by Jill Stevenson; “From Pontius Pilate to Peter Pan: Lightness in the Plays of Sarah Ruhl” by Thomas Butler; and “Arrested Dev-elopement: Myth-Understanding Father-Daughter Love in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice” by Christina Dokou. Each essay demonstrates different paradigms for nuanced, in-depth discussion of Ruhl’s plays.

Muse closes with an Afterword, “I Had Hoped to Give Them Pleasure,” in which she considers how writing this book may be a little premature; after all, Ruhl is a midcareer writer who will likely continue having a rich and lustrous career. In the final paragraph, Muse avers that Ruhl’s plays “are not so much about love, intimacy, communion, and transcendence as they are vehicles which the audience and the theater makers experience these pleasurable states” (177). Following the Afterword, the book includes a Chronology of major milestones in Ruhl’s personal and professional life.

Muse’s writing is infectious. It is much like listening to a die-hard fan unpack their thoughts and feelings and getting swept up in their unabashed love. The only drawback is that, at times, Muse ignores possibilities for further inquiry by foregrounding summaries of Ruhl’s plays rather than her own analysis. For example, Muse makes passing mention of criticisms of Ruhl being not political enough in her writing, and yet, Ruhl has written political plays. Indeed, as authors such as Lauren Gunderson have argued, simply writing a play can be seen as a political act given our historical moment. Nonetheless, Muse’s The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl will prove to be necessary and exciting reading for our next generation of dramatic critics and dramaturgs alike.

John Bray
University of Georgia 

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 32, Number 2 (Spring 2020)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

 

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