Artist Interview: Sarah Ruhl
Note: This interview contains spoilers about the contents of For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday.
Tim Sanford: You’ve said you wrote For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday as a gift for your mother who had played Peter Pan at a local theater years ago. When did it coalesce into a play?
Sarah Ruhl: When I was little, growing up, I saw images of her as Peter Pan all over my grandparents’ house in Iowa, and there was always this famed picture of her with Mary Martin from the local paper in Davenport, Iowa, with her smiling, wearing her Peter Pan cap, that was always sort of intriguing and beautiful to me. And when she was turning 70, I was reflecting on aging and on her fear of death, and thinking that returning to the metaphor of Peter Pan might be an interesting way to write a play for her.
And in terms of writing it as a gift play, I think that occurred to me after a couple of years of teaching at Yale School of Drama and asking my students at the beginning of every semester to write a play as a gift for one of their colleagues in the program. It was partly to remind them that, in the best possible world, or in a perfect world — and sometimes in the world we live in — writing plays is a gift, you’re part of a gift economy. And you’re not a succubus, and you’re not a narcissistic artist plumbing the depths of your own suffering to no end. I think we grow up with these notions of the artist as kind of a useless parasite, rather than thinking of what we’re giving, the invisible gifts we’re giving. And that the things we really want and love to write we would write for free, or we would write for our beloved.
Do you like the plays that have arisen from this exercise?
I don’t actually know, because in keeping the project very intimate and private, I don’t see them. I allow the writers to give each other their gifts in private. But some of the students have been taken enough with the idea that when they’re in their third year, they say, “I want to write a gift play for my mother, or for my aunt, and for my father.” There were three, actually, tremendous plays that came out of Yale written in this spirit.
Do you want to say which three?
Miranda Rose Hall wrote The Time of Great Mercy for her father, Phillip Howze wrote The Children for his mother, and Lindsey Ferrentino wrote Amy and the Orphans for her aunt.
Did you do much research on J.M. Barrie in writing the play?
I didn’t do a tremendous amount of research, and part of that was purposeful, because I wanted to look at Peter Pan as a mythos that all of us have access to as a culture, rather than viewing the piece as an academic. I was interested in how Peter Pan has entered all of our unconscious.
Still, the quote you cited from Barrie in your bulletin piece was quite beautiful. Would you repeat it?
Yes. He says in his dedication: “What I want to do first is to give Peter to the Five without whom he never would have existed. I hope, my dear sirs, that in memory of what we have been to each other you will accept this dedication with your friend’s love…I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together…that is all he is, the spark I got from you…My grandest triumph, the best thing in the play of Peter Pan (though it is not in it), is that long after No. 4 had ceased to believe [in fairies], I brought him back to the faith for at least two minutes… ”
He named them 1 through 5, so for me there was this strange synchronicity, that I was writing about five people, a family, 1 through 5. I’ve always been interested in the idea that you can write something with mythological feeling, but with real antecedents.
For our Bulletin, [Associate Artistic Director] Adam Greenfield and [Literary Director] Sarah Lunnie drew quotes from The Annotated Peter Pan that touches on some of the darker psychological aspects of Peter Pan. There were associations of Peter Pan and Freud, Peter Pan and Jung. Connotations of Peter sewing on his shadow, things like that…
Oh. I should’ve read that.
Well. (Laughs.) Maybe it’s good that you didn’t, because you used it anyway.
You even cite Jung.
Yes. If you know anything about Jungian analysis, there’s always a shadow. And then there’s a Peter Pan syndrome…who coined that term?
That’s also quoted in the bulletin. It was Dan Kiley. There’s also a wonderful book of literary criticism called "Love and Death in the American Novel" by Leslie Fiedler, that looks at American literary tropes of boys never growing up. He cites Huck Finn and Rip Van Winkle and many others. It’s a great book.
Yes, Leslie Fiedler.
It takes a while for your play to get to Peter Pan. The first line of the play is “I’ll be playing Peter Pan.” And then she tells us the backstory you just mentioned of playing Peter Pan as a young woman. The curtains open and she walks into a hospital room where her brothers and sister sit in vigil at their father’sdeath bed. And I think I fell in love with the play in this second. Grief is a frequent force in your work. It’s definitely at the core of Eurydice, which is one of my favorite plays. So here we’re back with a dying father.
If you ask my friend David Adjmi he would say, “Oh my god, it’s Sarah’s father again! He’s in every play!”
But it’s not the same father.
True. He’s in every play I write, my father, but in this case no, it’s my grandfather.
Right, it’s your mother’s father.
And yet they still raise a glass to my father in this play. So every night that this play plays, a glass is raised to my father, and to me that was a beautiful idea, that whenever this play is done, I get to toast my dead ancestors.
You’re courageous to talk about the personal aspects of your play.
Really my biography is so boring. Yes, there’s been some grief and some people I’ve lost early, but what I hope is that a lot of the audience is projecting their own experience they’ve had by hospital beds.
So we linger by the bedside and you get to know the family a little bit. And part of the gift to your mother is recreating her brothers and sisters, right?
And did that seem like an integral part of how it would come to be when you first conceived of it?
No, I only knew it as I was writing. Or, I only knew it when I wasn’t writing. In other words, I felt blocked from writing the play because there were living people whose family history I was dealing with and it felt, on some level, wrong. In some ways I think this play is a sister play to Eurydice, but it’s for a living member of my family, not a dead member of my family. Because what’s the point of giving an actress a play after they die; it would be a pointless gift. I wanted to write it while my mom was alive. At any rate, I was sort of blocked while starting to write it, and I had coffee with Quiara Hudes, who wrote a trilogy about her family that was based on interviews with family. I said “How did you do that?”
Is Water by the Spoonful part of that trilogy?
Yes. And Elliott, A Soldier’s Fugue. I just adore that play. And Quiara’s a friend and I often ask her hard questions, and she always has great wisdom. And she said, “When I did Elliott, I interviewed my cousin, I passed drafts by him, and that’s how we did it.” So I asked my family five questions: Do you pray? What are your early memories of Christmas? What do you associate with your birth order? What do you think the afterlife is? What do you think is wrong with this country?
Wow. Well that’s all in the play.
That’s all in the play.
So they were all willing to let you incorporate them?
They were all willing. And then when I had a first draft — this was the scariest part — I went to them for their reactions — and I went in birth order, so I went to my mother first, and then I went to the other siblings. And if they had notes, I incorporated them. Then when we did it in Louisville, they came to see it and met the actors, met their avatars backstage. Sometimes there’d be a joke that wasn’t working, and Les would say, “Can you email your uncle and ask for a different doctor joke?” And I’d say, “Uncle Bill, do you have a different doctor joke?” And it would just go straight in.
When I think about it, it seems that most of the dialogue from the questions you asked them is in the second part, not the first part.
Well I happened to be at my grandpa’s deathbed, so there was not a lot of need for imagination to create the first part.
How long ago was that?
About 20 years ago.
The first part is more somber. You really feel their religious background. It kind of feels like that line Wendy has, “I believe we make God happen.” Your plays often have tones of religiosity. Is this something the make-believe circumstances of a play allows? Or are you exploring something you feel echoes of in life?
I’m not sure how to answer that. I was raised Catholic, I had an atheist phase, I’ve been interested in Buddhism. But ultimately I suppose I’m interested in God, I’m interested in theater, I’m interested in ghosts, I’m interested in how our secular contemporary theater can still feel ghosts, feel God, or at least feel human beings longing for God.
The first part ends with the spiritual, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I’ve seen that done three different ways at three different theaters.
Radically different. And this comes from my father too. My father said when he was dying, “I want them to play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ at my funeral.” So we had a four-piece marching band at his funeral, and they played that song.
Was that a natural request, knowing your father? Or was that surprising?
A little of both. My dad loved jazz, he loved music. So in that sense it wasn’t surprising. In the Louisville production, we had this enormous marching band from the town. We had one band that was kids, and one that was a group of elders. And that was moving to me because they were from the community. Then in Berkeley we had a little three-piece band. Chicago was the most bare-bones production. So they pretended to fly, and they just sang “When the Saints.”
What does the script say?
I think it says you can do whatever you want, you can have a ragtag band, or have them play assorted instruments, or have a marching band.
I think the nature of the Humana Festival allows for some outsized ideas. With TheChristians, they used choirs from the community as well as apprentice actors. And did you see Appropriate?
I saw it in New York.
Do you remember the end of the play?
The house becomes haunted.
Right. And at Humana, we see teenagers hiding out in it, partying. We kind of speed through the years that way. And it was only possible because they had the apprentice company at their disposal. It was great. But a lot of times, they’re used as stagehands and there’s not much magic to it. So in our production, I really love how the family makes the transition happen—
I love it.
And when [actor] Danny [Jenkins] steps forward and plays it on the trumpet while the rest of the family sets the stage, it makes that transition really rich, I think.
The second part feels so real, like such a real family. And as they reminisce and bicker and enjoy each other, the ghost of the father wanders in and out. It’s like the collective force of their memories and love for each other summons his presence. It’s kind of like the religion question. A play is a natural form to contain a ghost. Is this purely make-believe or does part of you feel like our spirits persist?
I think it’s both. I think the afterlife might be pure play.
The other thing that feels real is all the political arguing. This is an aspect that felt timely the first time I read it, which I’m pretty sure preceded the most recent primary season. But God, even though it is purposefully located in the Clinton era, it certainly feels so trenchant now, almost painfully so. Is that something you and the company have become aware of and played toward in this production?
Absolutely. And one reason I felt strongly it had to be continued to be set in the Clinton era, was that if it were set now, a family with different political views probably can’t talk to each other at all about politics. It’s entirely off limits. Whereas I think the Clinton era was a watershed moment in terms of how the right and left talk to each other, both privately and on the radio and on television. It was a polarizing era. Maybe politics always feels polarized in this country — but the 90s seemed to be a time in which bipartisanship became a relic of the past, and we had a hard time agreeing on even what the right questions were. Now we can’t agree about what the facts are. It’s very scary.
I think one of the primary effects of the second part is the way it wrinkles time. In the monologue between parts two and three, Ann talks about feeling transported to her childhood. Then the father brings out the trunk that contains her Peter Pan costume. It’s an invitation to put it on. And after she does and the curtain opens to the Darling nursery, we feel, “Ah, here’s the gift part of the play.” But as the scene unfolds, we see it doesn’t really banish time. Talk a little bit about how the third part works as a gift to your mother.
I was searching for a metaphor for death that might make my mother less afraid to die, and Peter Pan became that metaphor.
I feel there was some debt that got paid. Do you know how, in a fairytale, how gifts sometimes pay debts? I felt like some debt was paid. My mother still acts in Chicago, she acted in this play in Chicago. And seeing her image flying outside the wall of this theatre is very moving to me. Seeing Kathy Chalfant be her avatar is moving to me. I hope my mother can do the play again in Davenport, Iowa, where she’s from.
Tarell McCraney, who I revere, and who’s the new chair of playwriting at Yale — he gave a very emotional speech the first day at Yale this fall, talking about how he wanted the writers to remember where they were from. And not to forget where they were from while they were in New Haven. And he talked about a play he wrote while he was at Yale that was about the small community where he grew up, and he almost started crying, saying, “That play was seen in London and New York, and it was never seen in my hometown.” And I was reflecting on what he said, and what that meant for me. And for me, where I am from is this small town in Iowa. I grew up outside Chicago, but my psychic sense of home is Davenport, Iowa. It’s every holiday, it’s my parents, it’s where everyone gathered always, and I hadn’t really written about that place, that home, until I wrote this play.
You have remarked that the play’s three-part structure resembles the structure of Noh dramas. Is that right?
What’s your experience with Noh drama? I’ve never seen a Noh play. Have you?
No. I’ve read a lot of them.
So how would you describe its aesthetics?
In Noh drama, there’s always a ghost, and theater is a place for ghosts. Every Noh drama has a protagonist, a traveler, and a ghost. And the protagonist meets a ghost on his or her travels. Then they recognize the ghost, and then they dance with the ghost or embrace the ghost. The end. It’s such a non-Western structure. It’s also bound up with rhythmic principles; each section is supposed to have a different rhythm. So it’s a much more musical kind of structure. And I felt, when I wrote this play, that it had a musical structure, which is why I called it Movement 1, Movement 2, Movement 3, which is also how Eurydice is structured. So the speed of speech, how many people were talking at a time, where you encountered a ghost, those were my structural ballasts, rather than a Western structure of “there’s a hero and an obstacle and then the hero tries to overcome it” or “there’s a family talking, and then there’s a horrible secret that’s revealed at the end of Act One, and then in the second act they deal with it.” There’s a part of me that wondered while writing, “How can I dig my way out of this paper bag of writing a play — a somewhat realistic play (I mean it goes bonkers later, but there’s some realism about the family) where the locus is not a terrible family secret?”
So that structure, you meet the ghost, you recognize the ghost, then you dance with the ghost — that all feels really integral. That must have been the organizing principle from the beginning. Was it?
I don’t know, honestly. I might have realized it at some point. That’s usually how I find structure, I write intuitively and then two-thirds of the way through I think, “Oh, this is the structure.”
So was all the ghosty stuff, like the father using the toilet and all, was that in there already?
Then in the third act, she dances with the ghost.
Or embrace. So when Ann embraces her father at the end, that completes the Noh structure. The strange thing is, I always knew the structure, I always knew it would be at a patriarch’s deathbed, and then at a wake, and then they’d all dress up and go to Neverland. I suppose for me the question is: can you go back to Neverland? Is it possible? And that’s what the first two movements are setting up.
After the first night, Adam asked you, “Is it a dream? Is the third part a dream? Or are they putting on a play?” And over the next couple of performances, it seemed like you and Les set about to answer this question.
When I talked about the play with my husband after the first preview he said, “I don’t think it’s a dream, I think it’s primary process.” And I’m not a psychiatrist, so I said, “What’s primary process?” Maybe you know what primary process is.
No, I’m smiling because I know your husband. (Laughter.)
Primary process is (I think) a Freudian term that’s different than secondary process, but it’s about being inside your primitive urges, it’s about allegorical satisfactions of primitive urges, as distinct from dissociating as a way to cope. So I do think there’s a sense in the third part that’s about: what if I could kill my brother in play? You know, what if my brother was Captain Hook and I ran a sword through him and I was satisfied for a moment? And then I saw what I’d done, and I was bereft. So it’s partly what we do in our dreams, but it’s partly what we do in art: we make metaphors about feelings that, in reality, can’t be expressed. But in play you can.
Like Mikey, for example, is the one whose dad never came to his golfing matches, and so when he kills Captain Hook, he also kills the athletic star of the family, and he becomes the star. And this is an example of what we were just talking about. Because the next time I saw it, I felt much more aware of the stakes for Mikey. And for all of them.
After the initial rush of jumping into the Peter Pan story, we start running into obstacles in the third movement. Peter Pan can no longer fly. She’s short-winded and gouty. As a play within a play, it feels very Ruhlian; kind of affectionately silly, but with darker shadows.
And one of the most Ruhlian aspects of the play is the way it wrinkles time. At the top it feels like time is stuck, they can’t get to Neverland. But then time kind of rushes forward.
I think the line is “time moves fast or not at all in Neverland.” It’s either static or just races. And it starts racing in the third part.
You added a great rewrite that really helps this sense of time skipping. They’re crying because they’re getting older and Peter is the oldest and they say, “Happy Birthday, Peter Pan! Are you one are you two are you three are you four?”
Yes, they go through three birthdays very quickly. Which I think is how you experience aging. A year seems like a long time and then you hit a certain age, and birthdays go more quickly.
Time seems to shift when Peter Pan dies. Peter doesn’t start flying until Hook kills him. And then they all can fly. When it happens, I’m not sure to what degree everyone notices that, so you know it’s working on an unconscious level. It’s like they all have a glimpse at their mortality. And it’s clearly not “just a dream.” It’s something they all have to go to together, like an evocation of a collective family subconscious myth or story.
That is it. It is an evocation of a collective family subconscious myth. I’ll hold onto that. I do think that’s what it is.
And when they’re all up in the air, looking out into their futures, everyone but Ann returns to earth and returns to their families, but Ann stays behind. And I asked you about it, “Does she not care about her family?” And you said—
She’s logically going to be the first to die because she’s the eldest, and you face that alone, really.
And the payoff is — I’m thinking of Eurydice, that similar moment where she’s left behind in the afterworld with her father — so her father enters from the audience and goes to her and does everything you’ve already described in the play: he never missed a performance. And they embrace, doing just what you said the Noh drama does.
Well, I think the other gift to my mom was to have her dad say he was proud of her. Which does not seem to be a thing that happened very much in her life. And I’m sure he was, I’m quite sure of it. So I thought it’d be nice if he could come back from the dead and just really say it.
Special thanks to the Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater for its generous support of this production.