The Short Version: Sarah Ruhl, author of impossibly beautiful plays, brings us a collection of short essays on the theatrical experience, on motherhood, on writing, and on creativity in general.
The Review: My last performance in college was in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. (Incidentally, it was one of the first book reviews on this blog.) And it was in college that I developed an abiding love for Ms. Ruhl’s plays – for their oddity, their beauty, their poignancy, and eventually for their wonderful difficulty. As a performer, I’ve only ever been challenged so much one other time – and as a theatergoer, I can count on Ruhl to provide a theatrical experience made all the stronger by knowing just how difficult those actors are working to make the show float like a cloud across the several hours traffick of the stage.
It turns out Ruhl’s gift with language extends beyond her theatrical writing, too: she can provoke hours of thought from a page or two-page essay. Therein lies one of the great feats of this collection, actually – for the number of essays would seem overwhelming at first. “100 essays – especially ones you don’t have time to write? What is this going to be?” a reader might be tempted to ask. But wonderfully, these tossed-off thoughts feel (for the most part) as meticulously crafted as Ruhl’s full length plays. Broken up into four loosely theme sections, some of them are smirking (#60 asks “Is there an objective standard of taste?” and simply reads: “No.”) while others feel so ebullient that it even the snarkiest reader would be won over – but all of them feel honest. They are real questions and observations of a universal nature that just happen to come from an idiosyncratic voice.
Your mileage will vary, of course – the non-theater-people among you might find the book a little, well, heavy on the theater and there are those within the theater community who will find Ruhl’s thoughts on practice and process to be anathema to their own stylings. But every creative person can find something in this collection for them. Even if you don’t agree with a particular stance she takes, the debate will blossom in your own mind about why you disagree. And as such, you’ll have to re-evaluate your position and why you’ve taken it – and such soul-seeking is never a bad thing.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of the collection – for me, anyway – was not the thought-provoking theatrical stuff… but the stuff about parenthood and how the relationships we have with our own parents and then as parents can affect the creative process. My friends and I are, for the most part, a ways away from having kids – and our creative energies are our children for the moment. The books and plays and songs and films that we write/produce/perform/etc are what we’re giving birth to right now – but they’re all united by the fact that we’re young and “selfish”. We don’t have wee creatures who rely on us fully for their survival. And that changes the creative mind in curious ways, which Ruhl explores candidly. This is unknown territory and I enjoyed watching someone else explore it at a time when it’s nothing I have to be thinking about.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Although the sheer number of essays does weigh the collection down as a reader comes to the end, the simple honesty wins out in the end. Ruhl’s plays are often ethereal but full of serious questions – and the essays are no different. While they might fly by in the reading, they linger long after you’ve put down the book. She is one of our most magical theatrical practitioners and this is a must-read for anyone who loves art.