- Women’s Voices on American Stages in the Early Twenty-First Century: Sarah Ruhl and Her Contemporaries by Leslie Atkins Durham
Since the mid-1990s, only 20 per cent of plays produced during any Broadway season have been written by women, prompting scholars and playwrights to demand change. Leslie Atkins Durham, in Women’s Voices on American Stages, wishes to promote contemporary female playwrights and connect them through their shared topical concerns. Durham’s goal is twofold: first, to reinforce Sarah Ruhl as a serious playwright; and second, to contextualize her work within the dramatic community. Using Ruhl’s plays as thematic guideposts for each chapter, Durham positions two other plays alongside Ruhl’s, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle inspired by the third-wave feminist impulse to emphasize congruous concerns or overlapping [End Page 275] methodologies among women’s work, without prioritizing any one play over the other.
Anthologies typically devote a chapter to each writer’s creative achievements, style, and development, whereas Durham smartly places her writers’ works in conversation with each other, not only creating echoes among the plays but also giving greater significance, by dint of collective appraisal, to topics such as care-giving or feminist theology. After a brief nod to Ruhl’s artistic development, Durham divides her advocacy project into five chapters: “Emotional Journeys,” “Caring Labor,” “Theatrical Devotion,” “Mobile Lines,” and “Natural Forces.” The book’s originality lies in this method of examining women’s artistic work, not only along thematic lines but also via creative perspectives on topical issues; however, even in light of Ruhl’s popular success, it seems limiting to take any one writer’s corpus and make it the defining parameter of the group.
The usefulness of Durham’s approach is evident in several chapters – notably, when she demonstrates how the comparative consideration of a similar topic by several playwrights (usually in plays produced within the same year) raises important questions. For example, plays such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear stand as illuminating responses to Ruhl’s treatment of death and mourning in Eurydice. As these women reclaim grief as a cultural gesture, we are reminded – in the contrast between the desire to mourn and the need to control emotions – of the risk of doing so: Didion’s voice sounds eerily clinical as she details her grief, while Ruhl personifies a chorus of Stones, who warn against emotional displays. Durham draws upon contemporary theorists to further contextualize the meaningful topicality of the plays; here, for example, she incorporates Sara Ahmed’s study The Cultural Politics of Emotion, to criticize the harmful prioritizing of rationality over passion.
Another chapter, “Mobile Lines,” integrates theories about mobile technologies – that is, cellular phones and online chat rooms – with the dramatic analogues offered by women playwrights. Comparing Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful with Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Durham provides evidence of how mobile technologies challenge our concept of stable identities or relationships: Hudes’s characters find themselves liberated by their online identities, even as this liberation causes trouble in their real lives, while Ruhl’s shy character, Jean, escapes her sense of urban isolation when she locates a cell phone belonging to a deceased man. The paradoxical contradiction between the seemingly fixed locale an individual inhabits and the unfettered mobility of technology also becomes dramatically apparent in Bathsheba Doran’s Kin, where cellular technology, Facebook, and online dating enable proximal closeness across considerable geographical distances; all three plays witness familial attachment despite time, space, age, and life trajectories. By illuminating such parallels between [End Page 276] plays, Durham provides instructive readings of little-known plays and substantiates their specific cultural relevance.
Ruhl’s surrealist style defies easy interpretation. And, because her plays have not received much scholarly attention, Durham’s readings address a critical need. For example, through an attentive reading of the dialogue, Durham shows how In the Room Next Door or the Vibrator...