Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Desert of the Real

Via Art at The Mirror up to Nature, in the Boston Globe, Sarah Ruhl's "frustrated but spirited defense" against charges of whimsy, quirk and a lack of psychological depth:
“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.


joshcon80 said...

Wait. I thought deconstructed plays were out again and linear writing was coming back in style? No?

Anyway, it doesn't seem important to me. Like you said in the beginning of this post, I think arguments of style are kind of useless. We're all right and we're all wrong too, since ideally there would be room in the theater for all kinds of different writing.

As for young playwrights, since nobody cares about them anyway, let them copy whomever they wish. I think it's part of the process of learning how to write, even. My first play was a total ripoff or Iizuka's "Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls" and now my writing is nothing like that whatsoever. By the time they're forty and people are paying attention, they'll have had ample time to find their genuine voice.

99 said...

I don't think discussion of style are useless, per se, but discussions of which style is "better" or even really "more popular" are. I think we should be talking about style more! Acknowledge more that it's a personal preference and a tactic and even a selling point.

You're right about ignoring young artists, though. Screw 'em until they're writing plays about donut shops. We need more plays about donut shops.

Tony Adams said...

Hmm. I think style is discussed far more often than substance. For me that is where Ruhl is lacking (and Rebeck for that matter).

But reading her interviews, I can't help but say that she's mostly full of shit. Another fairly recent one in Time Out Chicago she was bashing plays that are like tv in one sentence than saying she didn't know what was on TV because she never watches it in the next.

Most of what she says seems like it is just regurgitated things she heard somewhere else.

She doesn't have much of substance to say and it shows in her work. Which is a shame.

But I think big picture we spend way to much time talking on styles and barely any talking on substance.

And yeah, there can be far more substance in a play about a donut shop than one with floating illuminated umbrellas that appear out of nowhere. A play about a donut shop can also be really boring. I think it depends what it's made of, not how fancily it's put together.

99 said...

Substance is definitely trickier to discuss, because that's really where you get into the personal stuff.

For my money (and again! Like her!), Sarah sounds like a typical "artist" in her statements: down on pop culture or anything with mass appeal, even though, in my opinion her plays have a lot of mass appeal.

I was being cheeky about the plays about donut shops. It's the play that matters, not the setting.

Tony Adams said...

I assumed you were being cheeky, but I do think that's something we leave out of the conversation far too often.

Alot of times we get excited thinking about what a play is about, or how it's put together and don't look at what the play itself actually is, ya know.

isaac butler said...

Truly, like Obama with the Nobel, Sarah Ruhl should give back her MacArthur and it is her fault that she got it. How dare she have the temerity to be successful and not a great interview subject.

Seriously though, I'm a little surprised at this blog post, 99. There's a big strain in western theater that is built around the idea of Rationalism. It's not just about the plays, but rather about how the plays are approached. The American version of the Method is all about that you can "know" and "figure out" the subtextual and emotional realities of a character in a rational way. There's a lot of writing out there that reflects that rationalist take on the universe. That rationalist take on the universe is both inaccurate and, at times, problematic. There are ways to create character that are about mystery, contradiction, incoherence and irrationality that are very effective on stage. And also at times inaccurate and problematic, because no approach works all the time.

Ruhl clearly prefers the latter approach. As does Chuck Mee, who is a master at creating character out of contradiction. A lot of the 90s neo-absurdists like Nicky Silver and Chris Durang used this approach as well. I would argue that Lanford Wilson's BURN THIS prefers this approach while some of his other work clearly does not. And of course, Pinter and Shepard. Lucy Thurber's play just up at rattlestick has a lot of character-through-irrationality going on in it.

And ont he other side we have Terence McNally, Donald Margolies, Teresa Rebeck and a bunch of other writers. SOME OF WHOM I LIKE. But who take a more rationalist approach to character.

I think the thing is that the kind of work Ruhl purports to be rebelling against isn't really hegemonic anymore, and hasn't been for a long time. so it can make this whole debate seem a little bit weird. just like how rebeck's essays seem absurd when you look at the list of recent pulitzer winners.

I'd also disagree that her plays aren't substantive. Euridice, for example, is an emotionally devastating investigation into grief and the relationships of fathers and daughters.

99 said...

Egads! Isaac and I disagree!

I see what you're saying about the rationalist approach to theatre, and the effect of the Method (which I'd meant to make note of in the post, but forgot about). And maybe she is just inartful in the way she phrases it, but I take her quote, and much of that article, to be more praise on when a character does something unexpected just to be unexpected, not when it's grounded in the character or the narrative, but to be unpredictable. Sure, unpredictable characters and people exist and can be represented credibly on stage, but (and I'm not saying Sarah is guilty of this) unpredictability as the primary characteristic can lead you down some pretty blind alleys.

And I absolutely agree with you that it's not that Sarah is an innovator, blazing new territory. She's not. But I think a discussion about what the "new territory" is is worth having.

I know you're being facetious and all, but people still get their panties in a bunch: maybe Tony means it that way, but I think she's rightly deserved all of her awards and accolades. Just because, well, it bears saying.

Tony Adams said...

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about Ruhl's work to date. I think it's all style over substance. But then again, I think the same of most of Rebeck's work.

Referencing the Method as rationalism is interesting to me.

Fornes was very explicit about how much of her writing was influenced by the method. I've said it before, but to me, she had a greater effect on the American Theatre than any playwright since O'Neill.

But while she was open about the effect the method had on her writing and teaching: she, her students, and writers she inspired (a who's who of writers) are rarely placed in the same camp as Terence McNally, Donald Margolies and Teresa Rebeck--or Ruhl and Mee for that matter.

They tend to embrace both (although not always in the same plays). And I think they're stronger writers for that.

isaac butler said...


Interesting points. What i mean by calling the method rationalist (and here I'm talking about the american method) is that it's based on the assumption that you can know/determine things about people. Most fundamentally, you can know/determine why someone is doing something (aka objectives or intentions). I'm not saying this is bad-- I talk about intentions all the time as a director-- but it is fundamentally based on certain enlightenment assumptions, combined with Freud about how humans work.

A lot of science over the past decade has shown exactly how wrong that enlightenment model of consciousness is. But that it's wrong doesn't mean it isn't useful and perhaps in some cases totally essential. For example, almost all plays involve a radically stripped down totally inaccurate view of cause-and-effect that is schematic and doesn't really involve how the world works. But without boiling things down to this kind of strucutre, you'd have a big mass of bullshit without coherence that would get boring very quickly. We crave some ratio of order to our chaos.

99 said...

I think that's part of the reason for Aristotle's Poetics and the existence of plot. Consciousness is a complicated thing and experience can't really be broken down into nice, discreet two-hour chunks of inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action. But there's something in us that wants that, that needs that frame to process the world in some way.

I used to have this quote as my screensaver: When I write, I'm a mystery to myself. And I used to believe that, but I don't anymore. I don't think of writing as trying to recreate consciousness or trying to create fully conscious characters. I see it as a filtering technique, a processing thing in order to create a kind of conscious state in my audience. I need to be fully aware of the choices and the meanings, even if the characters (or the audience) isn't.

Tony Adams said...

"But there's something in us that wants that, that needs that frame to process the world in some way."

But isn't that the point of telling stories? Stories are that frame, no?

Are we concentrating too much on how stories are told and not enough on what stories are told?

isaac butler said...

WEll, this comment thread is certainly about the How not the What. I think we talk a lot about the What though, particualrly when we talk about diversity which is another way of talking about the Who.

And while the above might have read as facetious, i don't mean it that way.

do you feel like in the blogosphere we talk about the how too much and not enough of the what?

Tony Adams said...

I think we avoid the "what" at all costs. It's couched in many arguments but we rarely take it on directly, IMHO.

To go back to one of 99's posts: for all the Ruhl vs. Rebeck debates, can anyone name one debate on the state of black theatre since August Wilson's passing? Or the state of Latino theatre? Or what either of those ideas mean here and now? (just a couple of examples off your diversity example)

I think it's much easier to talk about everything else. So as a field, we do.

I mean it's even implicit in talking about "new audiences".

What's really interesting to me is for all the Ruhl vs. Rebeck debate, they're very much telling the same kinds of stories for very much the same narrow spectrum of audience. Albeit in vastly different styles.

apologies if I inadvertently hijacked the thread.

Travis Bedard said...

1. The blogosphere doesn't talk about the plight of the X artist because by and large the blogosphere isn't X - Marisella Orta talks more about Latino thetre than anyone else I read but she isn't widely read - and there's little talk elsewhere.

2. I think the vocabulary of rational/irrational is clouding the converstain a little. As someone who is called on to play those crazies from time to time... it's not about the character being outwardly irrational, it's about the character having a plausible internal "logic". I am a master rationalizer for my character, but it can't come from NOWHERE or you're simply a plot device, and I think that gets boring for the audience. I know it gets boring as a performer.

3. We don't really get into the what's ever because that requires knowledge, not simply opinion. It also requires some thought in writing rather than slapdash rant which is of course the bulk of what goes on.

99 said...

I don't know if I accept that talking about the what require firsthand knowledge, other than seeing the play. Spouting off about a play you haven't seen or read is a bad thing, but having an opinion about a play, more than "I liked/disliked the structure" is a good thing. I think you should be able to say, "I found this play distasteful" or whatever, or even to say "Do we need another play about the problems of privileged people?" without needing to know...what? The economic background of the writer? I think that's an unnecessary requirement.

The question is: is there a way to say those things without being offensive to the writer, though. But until we figure that way out, we're not going to make much progress in the conversation.