behind brown’s obsessive crush on sarah ruhl
Students at Brown may differ in their opinions on structural violence, personal agency, and the heteronormative tendencies of post-Modernism, but there is a single inviolable rule that exists among the theater community: thou shalt not diss Sarah Ruhl. One of our most beloved alums, Sarah Ruhl received both her B.A. and M.F.A. in playwriting from Brown, graduating from the M.F.A. program in 2001. Since then she has had her plays performed across the United States and in London, Canada, Germany, Latvia and Poland. She won a Macarthur Fellowship and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2004 for her play The Clean House. And—perhaps most importantly—one of her plays is about the history of the vibrator. If that isn’t the key to a Brown student’s heart, then I don’t know what is.
Even though some at Brown may claim that the ideal theater-going experience is an abstract, non-tangential, emotionally devoid multimedia performance piece, our love of Sarah Ruhl indicates that we also have a yearning for good old-fashioned pathos (with a dash of the absurd thrown in, of course). Ruhl’s richly drawn characters and textured emotional palette create a cathartic effect reminiscent of the Greek comedies and dramas. This is quite apropos considering the fact that one of her best-known plays, Eurydice, is a modern retelling of the classic myth of Orpheus through the eyes of the young heroine Eurydice, who must journey through the underworld as she struggles to remember her lost love. Ruhl is also known for writing Melancholy Play, in which Tilly’s melancholy is made beautiful while her happiness has terrible consequences for the lives of family and friends, as well as The Clean House, about a Brazilian housekeeper who doesn’t like to clean and whose greatest aspiration is to come up with the perfect joke (performed last semester at Brown’s Production Workshop). One of Ruhl’s more recent plays is In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), which debuted on Broadway this past fall and deals with the mistreatment of women in the late 19th century. Ruhl’s work is distinguished by her keen ability to discover tragic humor in the most mundane of circumstances and a delightful reluctance to provide any sort of guidance regarding how to actually execute her theatrical vision. The stage directions in Eurydice call for an elevator full of rain (“The sound of an elevator ding. An elevator opens. Inside the elevator, it is raining. Eurydice gets rained on inside of the elevator”), and at one point in Melancholy Play, Tilly’s friend Frances becomes so overcome with sadness that she transforms into an almond (lots of protein and fiber but difficult to stage).
Of all the people I could feel compelled to revere, Sarah Ruhl is not a bad option. True, my reverence for Ruhl may occasionally falter—her play Dead Man’s Cell Phone, running now at the Trinity Repertory Theater, lacks the tactfulness and ingenuity of her earlier works—but on the whole, Sarah Ruhl has thoroughly earned her messianic role among the Brown playwriting community. Her storytelling is imaginative and playful, her prose is passionate and beautiful, and, most of all, she is honest—all qualities that I aspire to emulate in my own work as a playwright. Ruhl doesn’t give her audiences bullshit. She doesn’t try to manipulate or deceive. Yet she doesn’t come off as a cynic. Instead, Ruhl searches for the beauty in the flawed that nobody else cares to notice.