The American Voice: Beginning to See the Light
About two months into my first semester at a small liberal arts college, I arrived at Classic Texts 210 to find my professor—an egg-headed, brilliant man—sitting smugly in front of a question he posed on the chalkboard behind him: “Did Oedipus kill his father and marry his mother?” The word “did” was underlined twice. After a weighty silence, in which the class had no idea what was happening, he leapt to his feet and spent ninety minutes rapidly drawing out the events in Sophocles’s play, magnificently revealing its plot-holes. Like a geekier Jack McCoy on Law & Order, he proved how Creon couldn’t possibly have known that Laius was dead when he declared Oedipus the new king of Thebes; and he proved how Oedipus’s account of what went down at The Crossroads is discrepant from the Shepherd’s, meaning someone else must have killed dad; and he found a detail about Oedipus’s ankle woes (though I can’t remember what) that proves Jocasta isn’t his mother. After class, I exited to the quad in a bit of a daze. A month later I transferred to a Big 10 school, where I studied acting.
Fortunately for us (less so for Oedipus), Sophocles’ theater is one of myth, of poetry, and not a present-day procedural like Law & Order, where he’d surely be acquitted in a hot second. My professor’s stringent, detective-story approach to interpreting Oedipus is buffoonish to us because we know we have to enter a different mindset when watching plays from Ancient Greece; we know inherently we’re being asked to see these through the non-contemporary lens of myth. (Once that chorus strides downstage, all clad in sheets and masks and starts up a dithyramb, we ain’t in Kansas anymore.) In Poetics, Aristotle’s dissertation on the drama of his day, “plays” are called “poems,” and for most of theater history “playwright” and “poet” were practically synonymous. But in the past hundred-odd years, as candlelight was replaced by electric light, verse replaced by prose and melancholia replaced by Lexapro, the association between poetry and drama has weakened. If anything, new plays by living playwrights are censured for tilting toward poetry. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, new plays tend to be held against the kind of logical scrutiny (what Paula Vogel calls a “rational mousetrap”) that my classics professor brought to Sophocles.
“I think our generation has to look at Freud and Freud’s impact,” Sarah Ruhl said in Bomb Magazine (2007). “And many of us say, ‘Oh, maybe Freud didn’t have it right.’ Something that he was right about he got from literature: the Oedipal complex, from the Greeks. So maybe we ought to go back to the Greeks instead of back to Freud on the Greeks.” Like many of the past century’s great playwrights (Beckett, Pinter, Craig Lucas, Mac Wellman), Sarah was a poet before she began writing plays, and she’s oft-quoted as saying she aims in her playwriting to create “three-dimensional poems.” Sarah’s plays ask us to meet her in a kind of perched netherworld, a landscape that’s suspended somewhere between the actual world and a magical one that can spin us anywhere we’re pushed. It’s the terrain of poetry, searching for the most articulate way to mine that which is irrational, invisible, emotional; and to get there, we’re asked to travel back to a headspace that pre-dates Freud, Law & Order and the Fourth Wall. “In Melancholy Play, one character is so depressed she turns into an almond,” Ruhl continues. “It’s a more medieval sensibility of the humors, melancholia, black bile and transformation. If you excavate people’s subjectivity and how they view the world emotionally, you don’t get realism.”
Sarah’s writing desk reportedly sits beneath a Walker Evans photograph. “The meaning of quality in photography's best pictures lies written in the language of vision,” Evans wrote in 1969. “Our overwhelming formal education deals in words, mathematical figures, and methods of rational thought, not in images. This may be a form of conspiracy that promises artificial blindness.” Ruhl’s plays ask us to take delight, as she does, in seeing. The pictures in Eurydice are indelible: an elevator to the underworld, in which it pours rain; the devil on a tricycle; a house Eurydice’s father makes out of string. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, clean, crisp sheets of fresh stationary cascade from the heavens when two soul-mates find each other, and in The Clean House, Charles returns from Alaska, dragging a giant Yew tree in through the front door, hoping its bark will cure his wife’s cancer. Her work values startling imagery, heightened emotion and mystery over backstory and character psychology. We’re asked to simply open ourselves up to moments as they unfold in front of us, rather than to pathologize or deduce. A stage direction from The Clean House: “Lane cries. She laughs. She cries. She laughs. And this goes on for some time.” “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life,” Sarah has said. “Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him. I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned. They’re pre-Freudian in the sense that the Greeks and Shakespeare worked with similar assumptions. Catharsis isn’t a wound being excavated from childhood.”
In 1985, Italo Calvino wrote a series of lectures entitled Six Memos for the Next Millenium, upholding the values of literature he felt were important for the coming era, the first of which is Lightness: “I have tried to subtract weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. …When I began my career, I tried to identify myself with the ruthless energies propelling the events of our century, both collective and individual. I tried to find some harmony between the adventurous picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write and the frantic spectacle of the world, sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque. …Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world—qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them. At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrifaction that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa.”
Sarah Ruhl writes with great care, wary of using too many brush strokes, keeping her plays free from the burden of rules and reason. They ask us to see stories lightly, with the relish and astonishment we felt when we were kids, but still informed by the emotional experiences we’ve amassed as grown-ups. The more hideous we allow Oedipus’s crimes to remain, the more times he gouges out his patricidal, incestuous, tragically heroic eyes, the better we’re able to see.
Director of New Play Development