Sarah Ruhl: Writing Between Fantastic and Realistic

Happy birthday, Sarah Ruhl. Today, FF2 is proud to celebrate this prolific, MacArthur “genius” whose stunning works transcend the bounds of theatrical performance.

Sarah was born in Wilmette, Illinois on January 24, 1974. She was raised in an artistic home; her mother worked as a teacher, actress, and director in the theater. Sarah cultivated her theatrical talents starting at an early age; she attended theater workshops as well as arts summer camps.

Orlando would be the first of many professional markers of Sarah’s raw talent and aspirations.

In 1997, Sarah graduated from Brown University with a Bachelor’s in English. The following year, her stage adaptation of Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando opened in Illinois. A deeply ambitious work which seeks to capture the essence of Virginia’s flowering, resplendent prose within the bounds of a theatre stage, Orlando would be the first of many professional markers of Sarah’s raw talent and aspirations.

Sarah continued her work in adaptation with versions of Chekhov’s short stories “Lady with the Dog” and “Anna around the Neck” (both produced in 2001). That same year, Sarah also earned her Masters of Fine Arts in playwriting from her alma mater. Additionally, she wrote an original work, “Late: A Cowboy Song,” for the unconventional Clubbed Thumb theater company in New York City in 2003.

Undoubtedly, Sarah’s big break into the playwriting world came with the success of 2004’s The Clean House. A moving, slightly abstract, romantic comedy, The Clean House’s plot revolves around the tangled lives of Matilde (currently a cleaning woman and aspiring comedienne) and the couple for whom she works. The Clean House won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and was also named as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Click on image to enlarge

At the same time, Sarah was also working on another project: Eurydice. This play uses the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to explore themes of grief and love after death. Inspired by Sarah’s father’s own passing, Eurydice is a deeply moving piece of theater which centers Eurydice’s relationship with her father (rather than the myth’s romantic coupling). The play is a triumph to see performed or to be read, with prose that combines both ancient elegance and modern simplicity. In 2007, Eurydice opened Off Broadway. Thirteen years later, Sarah herself adapted her own play into an opera. In 2020 and 2021, Eurydice the opera was performed at the Los Angeles Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

In 2005, Sarah’s Passion Play trilogy opened in Washington, D.C.. The plays, which Sarah began writing during her undergraduate years and did not finish until almost a decade later, all situate the Passion Play in different centuries. The audience watches as Christ’s famous trials are reenacted in England of the sixteenth century, Nazi Germany, and the modern United States. 

In 2006, Sarah had the honor of receiving the estimable MacArthur Fellowship. In addition to being an astounding distinction, the grant money also allowed for Sarah to dream bigger—to create more with even fewer limitations.

In 2007, Dead Man’s Cellphone, a study in human connection in the age of technology, premiered Off Broadway. Two years later, Sarah had her Broadway debut with In the Next Room, a play concerning the history of the vibrator. The play opened to resounding success, becoming another Pulitzer Prize finalist as well as a nominee for three Tony Awards.

Since then, Sarah has published several new and noteworthy plays, as well as essays, poetry, and her 2021 memoir, Smile: The Story of a Face. In 2022, FF2 contributor Taylor Beckman had the opportunity to see Sarah’s play Becky Nurse of Salem at Lincoln Center. The play follows a modern woman walking through the ghosts of the past in Salem (Massachusetts). When creating the play, Sarah drew inspiration from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible along with the 2016 United States presidential election. 

In her review of the play, Taylor writes about Sarah’s inspiration: “The troubling nature of the plot of The Crucible, which places blame on the character of Abigail Williams – based on a real girl who was 11-years-old at the time – stirred her. Sarah Ruhl asked herself why the real blame shouldn’t have fallen on John Proctor who, after all, had relations with such a young girl?”

Sarah seeks once again to blur the lines between fantastic and realistic in order to catch a glimpse of truth.

How women can hold onto their own autonomy within a patriarchal world is the question which Sarah attempts to answer in her play. Witchcraft itself is a tried and true metaphor for power through femininity, as well as men’s fear of that power. In Becky Nurse of Salem, Sarah seeks once again to blur the lines between fantastic and realistic in order to catch a glimpse of truth.

Sarah currently teaches at the Yale School of Drama, where she shares her talent and view of theater with new students each semester. Sarah’s prolific career and subsequent contributions to playwriting are nearly immeasurable. Her take on tales, from ancient to modern, is fresh yet sincere—infused with the charity of a truly empathetic eye. Happy birthday, Sarah Ruhl, and thank you for writing.

© Reese Alexander (1/24/24) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read Taylor’s review of Becky Nurse of Salem here.

Visit Sarah’s website here.

Visit Sarah’s Wikipedia page here.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo & Middle Photo: Photo of Statue of Eurydice at Schönbrunn Palace (Vienna, Austria) by Yair Haklai is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED. Photoshopping for FF2 by Jan Lia Huttner.

Bottom Photo: Playwright Sarah Ruhl (center) with Laura Benanti and Michael Cerveris – the stars of her play In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) – at the opening night after-party. (11/18/09) Photo Credit: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: C2773D

In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) received three Tony nominations, and was a 2010 nominee for a Pulitzer Prize in the Drama category.

Tags: Anna around the neck, Becky Nurse of Salem, Dead Man's Cellphone, Eurydice, In the Next Room, Lady with the Dog, Late: A Cowboy Song, MacArthur, orlando, Passion Play, Pulitzer, Pulitzer Prize, Sarah Ruhl, Smile: The Story of a Face, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, The Clean House, Virginia Woolfe

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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