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  • Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth and the Mourning of Friends
  • Thomas Butler (bio)

Proposition 1:

That melancholy is a necessary bodily humor—

That there is a certain amount of necessary mourning—

—Sarah Ruhl, The Melancholy Play

One might just as well say friendship is never there; it’s as simple as that.

—Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship

The Guardian’s 2003 obituary for Maurice Blanchot, begins, “The French writer Maurice Blanchot, who has died aged 95, was not so much a private person, it was almost as if he was perpetually absent.”1 Indeed, he was famously reclusive in his life; therefore, it is somewhat surprising that his work returns repeatedly to the idea of friendship. What is less surprising is that Blanchot offers a peculiar way of thinking about friendship. After the death of his friend Georges Bataille in 1962, Blanchot suggested that it is in fact distance and not proximity between friends that sustains a friendship. In “For Friendship,” which concludes his book Friendship, he writes, “We must give up trying to know those to whom we are linked by something essential; by this I mean we must greet them in relation with the unknown in which they greet us as well, in our estrangement.”2 A friend, then, for Blanchot, is someone who is fundamentally unknowable.

What animates a friendship is precisely what makes a friend different from oneself and therefore unknowable. Friendship, then, operates at a remove from knowledge and interrupts cognition. Blanchot writes, “It is the interval, the pure interval that, from me to this other who is a friend, measures all that is between us, the interruption of being that never authorizes me to use him, or my knowledge of him (were it to praise him), and that, far from preventing all communication, brings us together in the difference and sometimes the silence of speech.”3 The distance between friends is what brings them together in their relationship. Or as critic Patrick ffrench puts it, “The most intimate is also the most distant.”4 [End Page 67] Intimacy in friendship results from the friends’ refusal to think of the other as a thing to be known.

Certainly, Blanchot’s claim that distance and interruption are important aspects of friendship is unusual. For the most part, philosophers over the years have instead emphasized the harmony between friends. Montaigne marks the high point of this tradition when he refers to his friend Etienne La Boetie as nothing less than “myself.” Against the backdrop of such conflicting conceptions of friendship stands Sarah Ruhl’s most recent play, Dear Elizabeth. In an interview coinciding with its opening at the Yale Repertory Theatre in the fall of 2012, Ruhl notes theatre’s discomfort with friendship: “It is what makes us human to a degree, and I feel like we don’t talk about it much in literature because we don’t know how to tell the story of it somehow. We’re so obsessed with romantic love. We’ve got the buddy movie, but real friendship between a man and a woman? Where do we see that?”5 Ruhl’s script consists of excerpts from letters the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell wrote to each other between 1948 when they met and Lowell’s death in 1977. Ruhl arranges selections from their letters to present their friendship, which is marked by good humor and deep affection. Yet the friendship on stage is filtered through the characters’ recitation of the letters and by the theatrical experience itself. This filtering is crucial to Ruhl’s success in presenting in the theatre the recalcitrant matter of friendship. It works as mediation, which is paradoxically essential to the intimacy between Bishop and Lowell.6 In presenting such a close friendship by attending to the friendship’s reliance on mediation and distance, the play deftly cuts across the grain of traditional understandings of friendship. The theatrical rendering of Lowell and Bishop’s friendship highlights the distance, the longing and even the mourning at the heart of their relationship.


The most enduring descriptions of friendship in the Western tradition suggest it has more to do with unity than with resistance. Aristotle, for...


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pp. 67-84
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