“I do think psychological realism is a crock, because it makes emotions so rational. It’s not realism. I think it’s just a form,’’ says Ruhl, whose husband and sister are, ironically, psychiatrists. “Theater, from Shakespeare to the Greeks, has always been about irrationality, in some profound way. So I think to make it all linear and make it all causal is kind of weird. The rational unearthing of neuroses isn’t enough.’’I thought about whether I wanted to respond to this at all, since, whenever we start talking about style, people get, well, agitated. But the whole point of this anonymity thing is being a rabblerouser, isn't it? So I better get to rousing some rabble.
Before I begin, I want to make sure this is perfectly clear: I LIKE SARAH RUHL. I like her as a person, but more importantly I like her as an artist. I've had the pleasure of working with her, many, many moons ago, wearing my producer's hat and she was a lovely person to work with. I rather enjoyed Eurydice when I saw it, and I'm looking forward to seeing this. (Sidenote: I read a draft of it and enjoyed that, too...Though I have some issues, as you shall see.) I'm not making any sort of attack on her as an artist or begrudging her her very well-deserved and well-earned success because I'm an angry, bitter person who just hates it when nice, smart, talented (and cute!) people succeed. Okay? So when you comment, please remember this.
Where was I? Oh, yes. I think her statement above is bullshit. I just do. I think it's wrong on many levels, and is the kind of thing that can hurt playwriting. I also think it's a philosophy that I personally reject. That part may be a stretch, but work with me.
Apparently, Sarah Ruhl thinks Aristotle is "kind of weird." Because linear drama starts with him. And, in case you missed it, he's one of the Greeks that she says was into irrationality. It's just off-base, almost no matter how you slice it. Aristotle leaves room for what I've called "weird shit" but the fundamental thing he brings to the table is a coherent story is the backbone of drama. That's his whole thesis. Plot is a chain of causally related events leading to a climax. If you want to call that "irrationality," I don't think that word means what you think it means.
I'm not even sure what kind of plays she's talking about when she talks about the "rational unearthing of neuroses." Honestly, I'm really not. It sounds like she's talking about Marnie or the last five minutes of Psycho, not about any play at all I know, certainly not any good ones. Okay, maybe some mid-period Neil Simon or something.
How is that a defense against saying your characters don't make sense or behave like actual people? It's not the Chewbacca Defense...but it's close. It's just a jumble of words that say, in essence, "Regular plays are boring and I don't want to write boring plays."
The reason I think we should talk about this is NOT because I think her plays shouldn't be produced or are bad. (See above.) But because what playwrights with a national profile, which she has (and which will be expanded when In The Other Room... opens), what these leading playwrights say matters. And it matters to young writers.
Like most playwrights, I'm sure you read this book when you were starting out. There are a couple of other ones, too. One of my professors in grad school was partial to this one, because it's peppered with little quotes and aphorisms from various playwrights. (He poo-poohed the graphs in it, though. A position I've come to disagree with.) We read these little phrases and statements, print them out, tack them to our walls or tape them to our computers (at least I did and still do). Playwriting is a craft and we're all apprentices and our masters are everywhere. It matters.
When it was my job to identify young playwrights for a development opportunity as well as when I taught workshops and such, I noticed that young playwrights often the same mistakes. Certain types of plays would crop up, certain characters would appear again and again, themes and choices would recur. In fact, it became one of the ways I would identify a promising young playwright. One of the characters that would appear over and over again was The Crazy Person. Usually they showed up in someone's play after reading The Zoo Story or Naomi in the Living Room by Christopher Durang. The Crazy Person did irrational things. If someone asked them a question, they would give a nutty, provocative answer. When someone else asked them another question, they'd give a totally different provocative answer. There was no basic underlying character truth. When you pressed one of the playwrights on that character, you'd get some variation of "They're crazy! They just say whatever comes to mind!" It's an immature trick to add "drama" or "conflict." Things like Sarah Ruhl's statement is the grown-up, overintellectualized version of the same thing. "Emotions are irrational! People do nutty things!"
That's the philosophy I can't get behind. It's a personal thing. I know crazy people. I'm related to crazy people. So much so that my mother thought it was a good idea to send this article around to all of her children. Whether as an apology or a warning...I don't know. The one thing I've learned from all of this is this: people are utterly, incredibly, sometimes frustratingly rational. I absolutely believe that. We may not understand their reasoning or accept their basic premises, but even someone in the full throes of a manic episode is actually behaving perfectly rationally. It's just that their given circumstances are crazy. Whenever anyone starts telling that emotions are irrational, I start looking for the way they're about to screw me over. To me, it's code for "I'm about to do something that you're not going to like and I know you're not going to like it, but I'm going to do it anyway." But...I digress.
Sarah is an accomplished, well-trained and (again!) very, very talented writer, but these kind of statements strike me as the words of a very immature writer. A writer who's aiming to be different rather than being honest or real. And that sends a signal to young writers and to literary staffs (often composed of young artists) and to the world: irrationality is what we're aiming for. Linear thinking is old hat, passe, weird and wrong. That's my issue here. I'm not saying that all plays should be well-made, but they shouldn't all be quirk-fests, either. But given the limited resources available for production, when Sarah Ruhl is the playwright of the moment and everyone is looking for the next Sarah Ruhl (if not for, you know, Sarah Ruhl), other voices get pushed aside. Or, in a way worse, don't get the microphone to make impressions on the younger artists.
I've intimated it before and I do plan to write a longer post on it, but I think we're in the midst of sea change in styles. That's not a bad thing. I just don't know how honest we are with each other about what that means, about what styles are ascendant and what it says about our field. I think we should, and more importantly, I think we should be able to have that conversation without it turning into a referendum on who likes Sarah Ruhl.
But, did I mention? I really like Sarah Ruhl. Like a lot.