Tim Sanford on Stage Kiss
When you first encounter Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, you might be slightly surprised to find what looks like a relatively straightforward and accessible backstage comedy. In fact, I would dare say its robust humor, unabashed romanticism and tightly conceived structure give it the stature of a crowd-pleaser. It starts with an audition. After a lengthy hiatus from acting for motherhood, a woman tries out for, and is cast in, the revival of an obscure ’30s comedy of manners. On the first day of rehearsal, she learns her leading man is being played by her Capital E-X ex. The next thing you know, she’s stage kissing and stage kissing and stage kissing this man. What happens next? Will life imitate art? Or will art imitate life? It’s funny as all get-out—but where is the Sarah Ruhl play?
The answer actually lies in the knotted spaces between the aforementioned two questions. Reality and the imagination always butt up against each other in her plays. She often depicts dreamy, poetical parallel worlds, painted from a palette of wonder and sadness. It is telling that—in Sarah’s own words, described in her contribution to this bulletin—she frames the dichotomy as reality-versus-illusion. Those of us who have loved Sarah’s plays from the beginning balk a bit at the characterization of her vivid and idiosyncratic dreamworlds as illusory. When I think of the role of the imagination in Sarah’s plays, I am reminded of the Aristotelian assertion in The Poetics that poetry is “better,” more universal and philosophical than history (and more real than philosophy). The poetics of Sarah’s theatrical imagination does not seek to escape reality, nor does it treat reality as its laboratory. But we always have the sense that she seeks something that transforms the ephemerality and indignity of life into beauty and meaning.
In a play-within-a-play, the interplay between reality and the imagination is business as usual. The structure of a play-within-a-play embodies the gulf that inherently separates our ideals from our reality and renders it faintly comical. Writers since Shakespeare—strike that, since Aristophanes—have loved to poke fun at pompous theatricals, swooning superciliously. Just as commonly, we laugh at the decidedly unglamorous living conditions actors endure for their art. And really, even if the thought of practice kissing over and over sounds titillating at first, at the end of the day, don’t we have to admit it also seems tacitly undignified? But the play-within-the-play also intrinsically celebrates the quicksilver versatility and rambunctious positivity of actors holding their heads up and persevering through every situation.
Familiarity with Sarah’s other work will also help contextualize the journey her protagonist takes in the play. Most of Sarah’s work playfully re-examines traditional female roles and imbues them with a complexity and agency that gives them a kind of off-kilter heroic stature. A prime clue to this method in Stage Kiss lies in the fact that Sarah names her protagonist, She. There is a lot more to She’s journey than that of an adulterous actress throwing off her domestic chains. She is an archetype of a woman approaching middle age, seeking and demanding authenticity and truth in a world of artifice and petty realities. Her journey at first seems to lead her to a kind of fashionable notion of personal autonomy, but Sarah’s work never seeks simply to abandon outmoded notions of love: her work is more nuanced and poetical than that. Being human is interrelational. So the trajectory of Stage Kiss ultimately leads us to an affirmation of love that is fantastical, grown-up and artistically satisfying.