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Q&A: Sarah Ruhl

Date: Dec 07, 2009


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Sarah Ruhl's plays, which include The Clean House and Dead Man's Cell Phone, have made her one of the most distinctive and celebrated playwrights to emerge this decade. Already the winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, she's currently making her Broadway debut with Lincoln Center Theater's production of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), a 19th century period drama that explores a surprising intersection of sex, medicine and electricity.


TDF: Your journey from downtown to Broadway has seemed almost meteoric. Does it feel that way for you?

SARAH RUHL: I know what you mean.  Inside of it, you just try to do the work and you don't think about the frame around it so much. If I focused on all the trappings, I might dissolve into a puddle. All that stuff is potentially confusing.

TDF: What inspired this play?

SR: I read The Technology Of The Orgasm by Rachel Maines, and I was so shocked and fascinated to find out that doctors treated women with vibrators in the 19th century for hysteria. The other fact that I found equally interesting was that before the invention of vibrators, the doctors stimulated the women manually, and it wasn't seen as sexual at all. Once I started writing, the characters came to me, and then the relationships got complicated and entangled. You're lucky if voices start speaking to you, which they did in this case, and then you follow the characters.

TDF: Do you think any of the characters are actually hysterics?

SR: Probably not. It's interesting how fluid the definitions of diseases are in different centuries.

TDF: Since an audience of today knows more than the characters do, how do you keep modernity out of the writing?

SR: Ultimately, that double sightedness is important. You can't ever completely write a period piece when you're writing from a contemporary sensibility because you're always looking back. I tried to maintain a real innocence and to tell it from the characters' point of view. I didn't want it to turn into a wink-wink, nudge-nudge campy version. You hear the word "vibrator" and some people want to laugh because it has a set of campy associations. Not that I don't admire and appreciate a certain kind of camp, but I wanted this to feel human rather than to make a joke out of their sexuality.

TDF: You show so much compassion for the doctor in the play…

SR: Maybe because I am surrounded by doctors in my family, I have a lot of respect and compassion for doctors in general. Reading historical accounts, these men were not perverse. They genuinely wanted to help these women, and in a way you have to believe that they did, even as weird and misguided as it seems today. I didn't set out to write a treatise about gender politics in the 19th century. I was interested in him as a full human being.

TDF: Do you see this play as a stylistic departure?
SR: People have said it is, but I don't purposefully write in a stylistically different way, except insofar as I have the need to have people talk in a way that I find interesting. Because this play is set in the 19th century, I felt a permission to write dialogue in a somewhat elevated language, because we don't really know how people talked then. I wanted the frame around the play to be very real and grounded --- it looks, sounds and smells like a costume drama. I didn't want people thinking that these vibrator treatments were something that I thought up and that the play was in some dream landscape. The content of the play is so radical that I needed the audience to believe in the world.

TDF: Do you write in broad strokes or labor over every word?

SR: I obsess over every word. Perhaps because I started as a poet, where you might have twenty words and each one matters, I think of theatre that way too. A big rewrite for me in a day might be to cut two words and a semicolon. The first rewrites I did were mostly due to the technical challenges of having two rooms happen simultaneously --- you need to be very exact about how long it takes to unbutton a corset while a line is being said. The rewriting in New York that was partly based on what the actors were bringing. I've adored working with them; they're not egoists, they all submit to telling the story, so I was never writing around them. If Laura Benanti can't say that line, or if Michael Cerveris can't make something work, then there must be something wrong with it, and it ought to be changed.

TDF: Is there a theme that runs through all your plays?

SR: Probably an obsession with love and death. This play and Dead Man's Cell Phone share a curiosity about what technology is doing to us as human beings culturally and psychologically. I do hope that during some of the speeches about electricity that people are reflecting about how seismic shifts in technology affect our psychic life.

TDF: What do you hope the audience is thinking about women?

SR: I was very moved on opening night by some formidable actresses, who were moved that the play was told from a woman's point of view. You don't read about vibrating treatments or wet nursing in 19th century novels. Even on a contemporary stage, there are certain elements of a woman's experience that are left out. It's important for me to draw a curtain aside. I think putting some of those things on stage is saying something, but as for what exactly it is saying, I would leave that to the men and women who see it to refract from their own experience.

Patrick Lee is a regular contributor to Theatermania and has written for various other theatre sites including BroadwaySpace. He serves on the jury for GLAAD Media Awards for New York theatre. He blogs at Show Showdown, which he co-founded, as well as at his own site, Just Shows To Go You.