In dialogue: Inhabiting The Clean House with Sarah Ruhl

“My first play was in fourth grade, a court drama about land masses.”

When Sarah Ruhl speaks, the lyric nature of her words is punctuated by the frankness of her energy. Similarly in her plays, Sarah anchors her love of language with a palpable muscularity.

After her first grade debut as a playwright, Sarah turned to poetry and fiction until college. She explains how plays ultimately wooed her back—

Plays have a different architecture from a poem. When you’re writing a poem you’re creating a world but it’s inhabited by your language. With a play, it’s interesting to create a world that gets inhabited by people and the passage of time and movement, and I think when I first experienced that it was like taking crack for the first time. (Laughter) It was like, “Oh my god, this is the experience when it all comes together.”

Throughout Sarah’s writing, a contemporary pace and flexibility temper a lingual formality that harkens back to something more old-fashioned. She cites a combination of current playwrights (Paula Vogel, Maria Irene Fornes, Mac Wellman and Nilo Cruz) and modernist writers (including Catherine Mansfeld, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein) as major influences on her writing. This marriage of New and Old is particularly evident in Melancholy Play, which is about Tilly, a woman so melancholy she transforms into an almond. Sarah explains that the play began as an investigation of Melancholy as a category of emotion; then she took the cultural artifact of Melancholy and transformed it into something very modern. As described in a note at the play’s beginning, “Melancholy in this play is Bold, Outward, Sassy, Sexy and Unashamed. It is not introverted. It uses, instead, the language of Jacobean direct address.” The following excerpt is from one of Tilly’s opening monologues:

Stirring music played by Julian on the cello.

TILLY:

Maybe my suffering is from another time
A time when suffering was sexy.

When the afternoons, and the streets were full of rain.

Maybe my tears don’t come from this century.

Maybe I inherited them from old well water.

The music stops 

Sarah describes her plays as “playgrounds for designers.” Eurydice calls for a room made of string. Passion Play requires a chorus of beautiful fish puppets. In her work, stage directions and dialogue spiral across the page with equal weight. Glorious stage directions abound in Eurydice, a retelling of the Orpheus-Eurydice story. The following scene takes place when Eurydice arrives in the underworld. 

The sound of an elevator ding.
An elevator door opens.

Inside the elevator, it is raining.

Eurydice gets rained on in the elevator.

She is dressed in the kind of 1930s suit that women wore

when they eloped.

She looks bewildered.

There is the sound of another elevator ding.

Eurydice steps out of the elevator.

The elevator door closes.

She walks towards the audience and opens her mouth,

Trying to speak.

there is a great humming noise.

She closes her mouth.

The humming noise stops.

She opens her mouth for a second time,

attempting to tell her story to the audience.

There is a great humming noise.

She closes her mouth—the humming noise stops.

She has a tantrum of despair. 

When questioned about her poetic stage directions Sarah explains,

Usually it’s something I want to see or feel atmospherically. In The Clean House, I had a couple little departures where they were actually things that were meant only for the actor, in a sense. They were meant to be novelistic communications to the actor of what the interior landscape was like. Why not be able to communicate secretly like that? It’s for the reader, I suppose, and for the actor.

I ask Sarah to describe her writing process.
“Hell.”

She replies. Then she laughs, adding:

“I think it changes for each play.” 

Sarah’s plays have varied origins: a character-based thought, a strange snippet of a story or conversation, or sometimes from an image. The premise for The Clean House (presently debuting at Yale Rep and scheduled to be performed at numerous other theaters across the country this year) was born from a conversation at a cocktail party full of doctors.

Lane is a doctor, a woman in her early fifties. She wears white.

LANE:
It has been such a hard month.

My cleaning lady—from Brazil—decided that she was depressed one day and stopped cleaning my house.

I was like:

clean my house!

And she wouldn’t!

We took her to the hospital and she was medicated and

she Still Wouldn’t Clean.

And—in the meantime—I’ve been cleaning my house!

I’m sorry, but I did not go to medical school to clean my own house.

Sarah recalls her reaction to the original snippet—

I thought, my god! And, you know, I meditated on it for a while. Something has to stick with me before I’ll actually write a play about it. If something sticks in your craw for 6 months or a year, then you know it’s got some staying power. I think Ibsen said he would think about a play for a year, before he would write it, and I don’t go that far in terms of gestation, but if an image is lingering for 6 months, then it feels like it’s demanding out.

She went on to create Mathilda, the Brazilian cleaning woman with a refined sense of deadpan. Mathilda hates to clean and would prefer to be a professional comedienne.

LANE:
The house is very dirty

Mathilda is silent

LANE:
This is difficult for me. I don’t like to order people around. I’ve never had a live-in maid.

Mathilda is silent

LANE:
Mathilda—what did you do in your country before you came to the United States?

MATHILDA:
I was a student. I studied humor. You know—jokes.

LANE:
I’m being serious

MATHILDA:
I’m being serious too. My parents were the funniest people in Brazil. And then they died.

LANE
I’m sorry.

Mathilda is silent.

LANE:
That must be very difficult.

MATHILDA:
I was the third funniest person in my family. Then my parents died, making me the first funniest. There was no one left to laugh at my jokes, and so I left.

What is that process from initial spark to actually forming a play? Sarah delves into her relationship to form and how it takes shape in her work.

Form is a huge thing for me but I have never once started out thinking, “This is the form this play will be in.” I think because it wants to feel organic to what you’re writing. And I think if anything is hellish about the process, it’s that—marrying the tone to the form, to the story, to the language. At a certain point, you have this material and you need to form it. And I don’t want it to be a form that has been necessarily invented before. And I don’t necessarily want it to be recognizable, but I want it to be formally accurate, if that makes any sense.

When I ask Sarah how her writing had changed from Passion Play (her undergraduate thesis) to the award-winning The Clean House, she relays a wonderful anecdote:

One thing I remember saying to an actor when I was just out of college—I was doing Orlando, my first production outside of a university—and I remember saying something pompous like, “Well, you know, I’m not really interested in real people on stage, you see.” And in my mind it made sense. I was interested in language and I was interested in the actors being very alive on stage with the language and with the story, but not necessarily being real bodied people with a past.

I continue to think of character differently than a traditional naturalistic model, but I have to say I am much more interested in real people onstage, in a sense. The people Clean House explores are real people. Maybe an absurd thing is happening to a person who is real or maybe there’s a very absurd person in a very real circumstance. But, I don’t feel as much of this pompous need to take a poetic distance from the reality of human behavior and history. 

The conversation turns finally to current events and theater. While most of Sarah’s plays do not confront current events head on (with the exception of Passion Play Part III, a current commission for the Arena Stage), she articulates her belief that theater artists have an intrinsic responsibility to the political landscape:

Political organizing really is like putting on a play. You’re organizing a group of people to be in one room, to feel things together, to think about things together. Ultimately when you write a play, you’re organizing a template for people to do things together. Its actually a lot of the same skills. So, I really don’t buy the kind of artist mentality, “Oh I’m a flaky artist, you know, I couldn’t possibly engage.” Because no, it’s actually very close to what we do. It goes back to Greece and the Polis and Democracy and theater at the heart of everything.

So, what’s next for Sarah Ruhl? When pressed, her lyricism turns cryptic.

Well, Passion Play III still has a ways to go. My other one I’m working on is Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which is a commission. I don’t know if I want to give too much away, but it’s about a woman who finds…who is trying to preserve the life of someone by continuing to answer their cell phone after they died. And it’s getting very silly this draft…

Sarah often begins with elements of the familiar and escorts them into the uncharted. Poetry floats through her dialogue, stage directions and play construction. Her landscapes expand beyond the contours of reality, but they are grounded in a glorious and recognizable humanity.

Mathilda stops cleaning

MATHILDA:
This is how I imagine my parents.

Music.

A dashing couple appears

MATHILDA:
They are dancing.

They are not the best dancers in the world.

They laugh until laughing makes them kiss.

They kiss until kissing makes them laugh.

They dance.

They laugh until laughing makes them kiss.

They kiss until kissing makes them laugh. 

Sarah Ruhl’s play The Clean House (winner, 2003-4 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize) is debuting at Yale Repertory Theatre, September 21–October 6, with subsequent productions at the Wilma Theater (Philadelphia), Woolly Mammoth Theatre (Washington, DC), and South Coast Repertory (Costa Mesa, CA). Berkeley Rep opens a production of Eurydice at the end of October and Passion Play Part III will be workshopped at the Arena Stage this fall. Sarah is a member of 13 Playwrights and New Dramatists. An anthology of her work is forthcoming from TCG.

Lila Rose Kaplan is a playwright living in Brooklyn. Her play The Biography of A Constellation will have a staged reading at Greenwich Street Playhouse on Tuesday, October 12, 9pm, as part of The 3rd Annual Spotlight on Halloween Festival. For more info: www.spotlighton.org.

Contributor

Lila Rose Kaplan

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