- The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl by Amy Muse
In the conclusion to The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl, Amy Muse notes that it's perhaps too early for a critical volume assessing Ruhl's work to come out. The playwright is, as Muse puts it, "essentially mid-career, with surely many more years and likely many theatrical revelations ahead of her" (175). Although this is undoubtedly true, Ruhl has made such an impact on contemporary US theatre that Muse's volume is an important contribution to the scholarship on Ruhl's dramaturgy. As part of Methuen's Critical Companions series, The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl provides a great introduction to and overview of Ruhl as an artist, tracing the dramaturgical, political, and ethical techniques that make her body of work coherent and unique.
Muse divides the main analysis of Ruhl's plays into four sections focused on distinct aspects of Ruhl's evolving aesthetics. Between them, the first four chapters discuss each of Ruhl's eighteen plays (to date) organized by the dramatist's artistic and ethical concerns. The first chapter analyzes plays where Ruhl both engages with her intellectual/theatrical influences-Virginia Woolf, Anton Chekhov, and [End Page 178] Maurice Maeterlinck—and "creates moments of being where characters, and audiences, experience connectedness, or wonder, or bewilderment" (2). The second chapter focuses on Ruhl's use of stage directions to script moments of transcendent experience wherein she asks actors to exist on the stage without imagining or implying a character's subtext or background (27). The next chapter examines how Ruhl creates equitable relations based on mutual respect between characters. This is how she establishes interpersonal connections: "that is, attuning oneself to the other, allowing the other to be him or herself" (63). The fourth chapter examines Ruhl's use of quasi-religious aesthetics to create moments of connectedness where characters or communities come together through ritual, memory, and performance (98). Each chapter has its own focus, but core concerns establish continuity: Ruhl's interest in transcendent moments, the importance of genuine interpersonal connections, and her aesthetic devotion to lightness, which Ruhl describes as "a philosophical choice to temper reality with strangeness, to temper the intellect with emotion, and to temper emotion with humor" (qtd. in xiv). Muse does an excellent job drawing out consistent elements of Ruhl's artistic practice by analyzing a wide range of plays and aesthetic/ethical concerns.
These chapters are supplemented by an interview with two of Ruhl's frequent directors, and finally a section of essays from other scholars. Muse's fifth chapter contains an interview with Sarah Rasmussen, artistic director of Minneapolis' Jungle Theater, and Hayley Finn, Associate Artistic Director at Minneapolis' Playwright's Center. Both have repeatedly worked with Ruhl, and in the interview they reflect on directing her plays. The closing section includes three essays from other authors offering close analysis of individual plays. First, Jill Stevenson argues that intimate, community theatre style productions of Passion Play are effective at engaging audiences because they evoke performative historiography (143). Thomas Butler then looks closely at Ruhl's use of philosophical lightness, which goes beyond the whimsy and quirkiness critics often evoke in describing Ruhl's plays (28, 60-61, 155). Butler claims that "in Ruhl's imaginative world, lightness…successfully brings together both the experience of mourning and the experience of joy" (156). Finally, Christina Dokou turns a psychoanalytic lens on Eurydice, arguing that Ruhl repurposes the Electra complex as part of a sophisticated critique of women's lack of choice under patriarchy and of eroded interpersonal connections (174).
Being part of the Critical Companions line, The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl devotes much of its page space to summarizing and contextualizing the plays. This is an important function for readers to be aware of, because unlike most scholarly monographs, Muse is not foregrounding her own argument so much as she is locating Ruhl in artistic, theatrical, and aesthetic contexts. Muse's stated purpose is: "rather than try to...