Playwrights' Perspectives

Sarah Ruhl on Stage Kiss: The Metaphysics of Backsides


Kissing on stage is both real and not real. Like urinating on stage, you sort of have to do it, there is a physical reality to the act, but the context renders the action fake. The actor’s body, one presumes, is flooded with all sorts of hormones while kissing on stage, but some attachment to reality keeps actors from falling in love with each other. (Except for when they do fall in love.)

Most plays I’ve written have some kissing in them. And when I come to work, sit behind a table, and watch people kiss for a job, knowing that the actors have also come to work, and are now kissing for a job… well, over the years, I’ve thought: how strange.  And so I wanted to write a play about the phenomenon of kissing on stage.

The indefinable slipping point between the actuality of the kiss and the illusion of the kiss reminds me of the actuality of love and the stories we tell ourselves about love. The ordinariness of a long and stable relationship is non-narrative by nature, whereas the combustible romance (and I think the word “romance” almost implies an ending) has extraordinary narrative power over us. Our imaginations want a romance, our practical natures want a marriage.  So what to do?  How to live?

Theater seems like the proper place to investigate the slipping point between reality and illusion, manufactured emotion and authentic emotion, and the sometimes impoverished language we have to describe our inner states. I’ve always found it strangely moving to walk backstage while the audience is still in the house, talking (perhaps wildly excoriating my play) and buying candy. When I work at a theater with a grand proscenium or curtain and walk backstage during intermission, the whole enterprise reminds me of Plato’s cave. I am aware of the grandness of the arch, and the seeming impermeability between the watcher and the watched; yet all that is required to burst through the illusion is to slip behind a curtain and use the facilities.

Slipping through so easily from one state to the other calls to mind the seeming impermeability between different states of being and how quickly they are punctured; between the sick and the well, between the state of being alive and being, well, dead—where the divide seems absolute but the crossing is as swift and simple as passing behind a curtain.

Walking behind the curtain, I find that it’s often the back of the tapestry that turns out to be more beautiful than the front; being able to see all that work—the waiting, the drudgery, the pricks of blood, the human effort required to maintain an illusion, and the reality of the people whose job it is to maintain illusions… Sometimes I think that if audiences could come to rehearsals they would never come to performances, because rehearsals, with all of their ordinary magic, are often superior. But as soon as there is an audience, the rehearsal ceases being a rehearsal and becomes a performance. The watcher undoes the thing watched.

I recently saw an exhibit at the Rubin museum showing the front and the historically hidden backsides of Buddhist paintings. I was especially moved by a tapestry or thankga which depicted a Boddhisatva on the front in full color, and on the back was painted the outline of the Boddhisatva’s back. I was moved that the artist considered the back, the invisible, the underneath, the process, to be as mysterious, and important, as the image that was presented. In most of these religious paintings, the backside, which was never seen, was considered as important as the meant-to-be-seen front.  It felt like a bit of a cosmic joke.

And so I wanted to look at backsides. That sounds prurient. And I wanted to look at kissing.  I guess that sounds prurient too.  And I wanted to write a play with a bad 1930s drama inside it because I love 1930s drama and think that the inflated language they used to talk about love is no less authentic than our more granular, broken-up, what-we-take-for-natural, contemporary language.

In a way this play is a love note to all the actors I’ve ever worked with—to their bravery, their silliness, their wonderful glad animal way of moving, how they wear a dress, how they wear a cravat, how they drape themselves on furniture, how they flicker with an intelligence that eludes dusty books, how defiantly beyond description, how generous they can be (or how delightfully narcissistic), how mercurial and present—now open like a hollow tree, now just out of reach, now gazing out a window, now laughing me right out of myself—I wrote this play because I dearly love each and every one of you, and I thank you.

Sarah Ruhl
November 2013