Sarah Ruhl: She Ruhls
The works of playwright Sarah Ruhl rewrite history and document tragedies from her own life.
Sarah Ruhl is a celebrated playwright and essayist. She has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and a Tony Award for Best New Play.
Ruhl was born in Illinois in 1974. She studied poetry at Brown University and switched to playwriting at the urging of Pulitzer-winning author Paula Vogel. She earned her MFA at Brown in 2001. Since then, she has written over fifteen original plays and adaptations that have been staged by theaters across the United States and elsewhere.
Ruhl is known for her deeply psychological work that reexamines history and literature from a woman’s perspective. Her breakthrough play, The Clean House, a whimsical story of a maid who would rather tell jokes, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Her Broadway debut, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (2009), a period piece about the history of the vibrator, received a second Pulitzer nomination and a Tony nomination. In 2020, her retelling of the Orpheus myth, Eurydice (2003), was adapted into an opera at the Los Angeles Opera.
Ruhl teaches playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.
Though she’s now one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, Sarah Ruhl once believed she was destined to be a poet, but at Brown University she met a teacher who would change everything. The Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel, a dedicated and occasionally devious mentor.
Sarah Ruhl: So, she snuck a play of mine into a new play festival, it was called Passion Play. And I got in a car accident on the way to the theater. My mom was driving, we got blindsided, and I hit my head and I blacked out. And I woke up, and my mom said, “Oh my God, are you okay?” And I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “We should take you to the hospital for an MRI, make sure you don’t have a concussion,” I said, “No. We have to get to the show. We have to go see my play.” So, we went to the play, and it was so thrilling that night, seeing the thing in three dimensions, seeing the audience react, and I kind of, that was it. And I thought I’m never looking back. But there’s part of me as an origin story that feels like, did I die? Has my whole life been a dream since? I mean, it’s just strange to me that there was a complete and total blackout before this change of vocation happened.
Ruhl stayed at Brown to earn her masters under Vogel and work on well-received adaptations of Virginia Woolf and Anton Chekhov, but her breakthrough came in 2004 with The Clean House, a story about a maid who’s more interested in telling jokes than tidying up.
(Excerpt from The Clean House)
Virginia: I’d be very happy to come here and clean Lane’s house for her, before Lane gets home from work. That is what I’m telling you. Only don’t tell her. She wouldn’t like it.
Matilde: I will let you clean the house if it will make you feel better.
Virginia: Let’s start in the bathroom! I love cleaning the bathroom. It’s so dirty. And then it’s so clean.
Ruhl says that all her plays have a point of interest, where an idea takes hold. In the case of 2009’s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, Ruhl’s starting point was Rachel Main’s 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm. It explains how, in the earliest days of electricity, vibrators were invented as a medical tool for treating hysteria.
Ruhl: The doctors said it was this amazing time-saving device, they were so grateful, but they really didn’t see it as sexual because they just thought they were giving women medical paroxysms, that apparently was helping as many as two thirds of women, which of course, two thirds of women probably could use an orgasm. So, the point of departure for me was sort of how can this be, how could the doctors have been, you know, it’s not prurient, but really thinking they were providing a medical service.
AJC: And with that, were you attempting to shift the needle on anyone’s ideas or behaviors apropos their attitude to women’s sexuality?
Ruhl: I think I don’t have a conscious, “I will perform this action on the audience.” It’s just not how I write. But if I were to analyze it after the fact, I think even just the act of putting women on stage having orgasms in 19th century frocks, I mean I think it does something. I don’t know exactly what it does. But there’s a stage direction in the play about wanting the actress who has to perform the orgasm to do it in such a way that it’s not how we imagine that all women orgasm, because now we have a lot of pornography and a lot of cultural references, we think we know how women are supposed to sound when they orgasm, but in the 19th century women didn’t know how they were supposed to sound or how they were supposed to register this strange paroxysm. So, I was really interested in how could that experience for the actress, too, be a really internal discovery.
(Excerpt from In the Next Room)
Mrs. Givings: Wait, Elizabeth. Before you leave, perhaps you can settle a question. Mrs. Daldry and I have had two experiences of the very same event. Have you ever had the sensation? Either you feel shivers all over your body and you feel like running, and your feet get very hot as though you’re dancing on devil’s coal.
Mrs: Daldry: Or you see unaccountable patterns of light, electricity under your eyelids, and your heart races, and your legs feel very weak as though you cannot walk.
Mrs. Givings: And your face gets suddenly hot, like a strange, sudden sunburn.
Mrs: Daldry: Or there are red splotches on one side of your entire body, a strange rash here.
Mrs. Givings: And a feeling of burning, as though you’ll get no relief, and your mouth is dry and you lick your lips and your find your face is making an ugly expression so you cover your face with your hands.
Mrs. Daldry: And sometimes a great outpouring of liquid and the sheets are wet.
Mrs. Daldry: But it’s not an unpleasant sensation, but a little frightening.
Elizabeth: Is that a riddle?
As well as plays, Ruhl still writes in other forms. In 2014, she penned a collection of 100 essays she didn’t think she’d ever have time to write. Four years later came Letters from Max, a compilation of correspondences between Ruhl and a beloved student, Max Ritvo who died of cancer in 2016.
Ruhl: He was clearly an exceptional human being, and it’s almost like he had this ancient light bulb hovering over his head, and then at the end of the semester he had a recurrence of a pediatric cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. And I felt as his teacher, it was really important to see him through it. And so, we became close, but then when he graduated he went to Columbia and got his MFA, and he just said all I want to do is write with the time I have left.
AJC: So, he knew at this point that he wasn’t going to live to be an old man?
Ruhl: There was the hope, but also he knew what the numbers were like. And so, for a while we just wrote the normal kinds of logistical emails, but at a point they got more philosophical, and considering things like the afterlife, and poetry. And at a point we thought it would be a fun project to intentionally write to each other. And partly he traveled a lot, he went to the NIH for trials or California, and I thought it might distract him from chemotherapy, and also, I felt a sense of mission to get more of his words into the ether, because I knew he was a genius, and I knew that there was limited time.
(Excerpt from Letters from Max)
Rain falls on the house.
My mother dries dishes
in the dark house in the rain.
“I’m your little dish,”
I tell her, even though I ought to be a man.
“You’re a big dish.”
“You mean I’m very wet.”
I haven’t seen much,
and don’t see much:
The jungle of my short life is one row of white, straight
The vines are white and fall apart in my hands,
as if dissolved under the tongue.
Every living thing is screaming dust.
To imagine a heaven is to admit
there are things in this
world you think you could never bring yourself to
even given an unlimited number of attempts.
“Learn to love everything– the world becomes
“That sounds hard, I have a better idea, pass the soap.”
Ruhl: It was a really sad time, after he died.
AJC: And there was none of that consolation of it was a release, or was there some consolation in that? Because the body he was occupying at that point was no longer functional?
Ruhl: That’s true. And I do think the body is an amazing teacher. And my own father died of cancer, and seeing that up close twice, that prepares you for death in a way that, I think in a funny way like pregnancy prepares you to have the baby. It’s like you can’t get any bigger, something has to give, and with Max or my father, the body was so riddled with pain. Something had to be released. So, I do think there’s that preparation.
Today, Sarah Ruhl is continuing to move forward preparing to revive, or maybe even revise history. Her next play, Becky Nurse of Salem is a comedy about the Salem witch trials, that takes great pleasure in repudiating many of the supposed facts of those events as told by the great 20th century American playwright Arthur Miller in his 1953 opus, The Crucible. In Miller’s version of events, which has been told and retold, the panic that leads to the trials is sparked by a gaggle of young girls led by Abigail Williams, a villainous 17-year-old desperate for the attention of John Proctor, a 30-year-old family man, with whom she once had a brief affair. The girls accuse innocent townspeople, including Proctor, of witchcraft, which ultimately leads to his hanging. The play has traditionally been read as an allegory for McCarthyism, the US government’s persecution of so-called communists during the Cold War.
Ruhl: It’s as though Arthur Miller has relocated the witchery, and he’s put it in these young women. Like, not the women who died, and certainly not the valorous John Proctor who died, but put the evils in these young girls who want to have sex with John Proctor, Abigail Williams, and I thought something’s fishy. I thought Abigail Williams doesn’t want to have sex with John Proctor. Why does Arthur Miller think that? Apparently at the time, he really wanted to have sex with Marilyn Monroe, and he felt really guilty about it because he was married. So, his libidinal way into the play was to have a man saying, “Oh I can’t have sex with this young wench, I’m married to a really virtuous boring woman, but I want to.” And the truth of the matter is Abigail Williams was six years old, historically. So, he aged her up, and he aged John Proctor down from 60. What I find maddening about that, I feel like we all have libidinal impulses where we write our plays and whatever, we transmute things, we transform things, fine. But he is so pedantic in the stage directions, making it seem like actual history, so you kind of look at it as Arthur Miller’s writing a history of what really happened, but he fails to mention what he changed, and that’s sort of the heart of the play, Abigail Williams wanting to have sex with John Proctor and then taking revenge and creating this hysterical problem.
AJC: So, are you righting the wrongs of The Crucible?
Ruhl: I’m trying to.
AJC: Good luck.
Ruhl: I know, it’s an impossible task.
But Sarah Ruhl, it seems is undaunted by the impossible.