Sarah Ruhl is the only playwright who’s an author of one of the 100 Notable Books of 2014 selected by the New York Times – and the book they selected is not a play. It is “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater” — and the title is longer than some of the 100 essays. (The complete text of essay 11, which is entitled “An essay in praise of smallness” is the following: “I admire minimalism.”)
The book has received what may be the greatest raves of Sarah Ruhl’s writing career — “compulsory reading for fans and practitioners alike” (American Theatre); “a work of profound moral organization” whose “deeper purpose is to define the artist’s relationship to truth and to demonstrate how, from within the correctness of the artistic process, life can be meaningfully understood.” (New York Times Book Review) — a sentence I didn’t meaningfully understand.
The reviews can be viewed as ironic, because the playwright of “The Clean House” and “In The Next Room,” and, most recently, Stage Kiss (which I loved) and The Oldest Boy (which I found beautifully rendered), makes clear that she only wrote these essays because she was temporarily unable to write plays.
The first essay (1. On Interruptions) apologizes for the brevity of the essays, and explains how they came to be: She gave birth to twins. The last two paragraphs of that first essay:
“There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict. When I looked at theater and parenthood I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over. There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby’s diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin) and finally I came to the thought: all right, then, annihilate me, that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.
“I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”
It occurred to me right away how that last sentence would literally fit as a Tweet, with just a little tweaking:
“At the end of the day,writing has very little to do w/ writing,& much to do with life.And life,by definition,is not an intrusion.”
And as I read her book, I realized how many Tweets they contained, enough to fill the running time of the average play.
I need to make three points here:
1. This is not meant as snarky put-down. I Tweet every day.
2. This is not a way of arguing that her book is too quirky to be treated so seriously. (Essay number 61 explains that she hates the words “quirky” and “whimsy” — two words frequently applied to her plays as well.) It’s true I savored most the personal stories she works into the essays. Her longest essay, at seven pages (80. Is playwriting teachable? the example of Paula Vogel), is one of my favorite. It really just tells the story of how she became a playwright, and her relationship with her teacher at Brown University, the playwright Paula Vogel; it offers tasty tidbits of Ruhl’s life and (forgive me) her whimsical nature — how, for example, she named her twins Hope and William because these were the streets in Providence, Rhode Island at the intersection of which she met her husband. But it would be hard for me to deny what the American Theatre review claims — that, in spite of the book’s “fragmentary nature, it presents a surprisingly clear portrait of the author’s worldview” as “a true aesthete, a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, and that rarest of creatures: a writer who is both an optimist and an idealist.”
3. Sarah Ruhl does not Tweet. I know this not just because you can’t find her on Twitter, but because of her reaction when she watched the audience at the Tony Awards during the commercial breaks. “What were these rarefied creatures doing? They were texting. And I thought, The age of experience is truly over; we are entering the age of commentary.” (71. The age of commentary.) But most of them were probably Tweeting – and sharing their experience with their followers. In other essays, Ruhl admits to being schoolmarmish at times; this is one of those times.
Recalling the time when a fire alarm drove audience and actors of her “Passion Play” onto the street – where the actors finished performing the play – she writes that it made her remember:
Theater is at its roots some very brave people mutually consenting to a make-believe world, with nothing but language to rest on.
She longs for a time when theater was less rational, when theaters didn’t look and smell like airports…
The theater is one of the few places left in the bright and noisy world where we sit in the quiet dark together, to be awake.
…when theater makers didn’t focus on commercial success
Failure loosens the mind; perfection stills the heart. More failure! More demand for failure! More bad plays! Less perfection! More ugliness! More grace!
From Essay 74. Theater is a preparation for death:
Every night when a curtain comes down, a world dies. The world of present relation dies, and one mourns the end by applauding
As I read on, I began to see that nearly every one of her essays had a Tweet in it.
From 82. A love note to dramaturges
We need you to fight the mania for clarity and help create a mania for beauty instead.
From 85 What about all that office space?
Marketing people have jobs and health insurance and chairs, but artists generally don’t.
From 90. Oh the proscenium and oh the curtain
If a world without curtains is a world without illusions, then perhaps we should hold onto the curtains.
From 98. The audience is not a camera; or, how to protect your audience from death.
Regard with suspicion any idea that seems cool.
The cool idea in this essay was that to make the bleachers where the audience sat move back suddenly and without warning. The mechanism had been put in place before Ruhl realized it might fall through the floor (which had holes in it) and kill everybody.
Some of her essays can be shaped into Tweets:
What theater making shares w/ parenting:
Dealing w/ irrational people day and night
Both are embodied art forms
For more about the book and the playwright, check out this interview with Sarah Ruhl by Polly Carl in Howlround.