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December 21, 2009


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I've noticed that too. What gives? There's a lot of Jordan Harrison hate too, which also bugs.




She's a product of privilege... contributing to the non-diverse nature of "the system" and being a product of a "feeder" school where she was taught to write homogenized plays. A perfect example of everything that is wrong with American theatre today!

Bet she lives in NY, too!


Cale, I don't know if you're joking or not, but actually everything you just said is 100% correct. Even so, I don't think it's really worthwhile to hate on specific playwrights. Hate the game, not the player!


I wrote a play that parodies that attitude in myself. I take exception to being scolded!

No need to defend her, bro. Seriously. She's doing just fine.

Sarah Ruhl is as close to celebrity status as you get these days as a playwright. You get to that level, and it comes with criticism, fair and unfair. And she (as a subject not a person) hits a lot of people's buttons I'm sure (see: discussions about the prevalence of certain MFA programs).

I think it doesn't help that opinions on her work are so divided. People don't just "not dig" her plays. People actively dislike them. It's not like when people saw August: Osage County and were underwhelmed. It's a different level of mystified. Mix that with how the press loves her, and you have the recipe for cocktail party vitriol.

Still, she's a MacArthur Fellow, Broadway produced, published, massively well-reviewed. The Clean House has been done at what...every regional theater on earth? She is, as you say, extremely successful and beloved by many.

May we all be blessed with her problems.

Uke Jackson

Who's Sarah Ruhl?


I could be wrong, but I think the issue is not her or her work, but the way in which regional theatres treat her. I can't even begin to count how many companies produce her work and then give themselves a big pat on the back for a) doing relatively "new" work or b) doing a piece by a female playwright. You just want to say, "It doesn't count anymore! She's too well-established! Put in a little effort and find someone else to cover those bases!"

It reminds me of when theatres want "diversity" (whatever they take that to mean) in their season, so they throw in Joe Turner or Topdog/Underdog -- and feel pleased with themselves. Same reaction. You feel like they're not trying. I don't think anyone is actually mad at Sarah Ruhl, but rather at the complacency that endless productions of Clean House represent.

(I say this as someone who adored Dead Man's Cell Phone and is pretty excited for the Vibrator Play)

Thomas Garvey

The resentment comes from the perception that she doesn't deserve her success because she's a kind of fake; her plays just aren't that good. And fakes are generally resented. If you can't perceive the falseness of her work, of course the resentment of it is therefore a mystery.

But just btw, it's odd that you seem to imagine ("it's not Sarah Ruhl's fault that she's more successful than you") that the resentment must be driven by professional envy or something. (Why is that always the fall-back explanation of people who aren't artistically perceptive?) Plenty of people who don't want to be playwrights can't stand Sarah Ruhl. Plenty of very successful people can't stand her. I agree she doesn't seem to be a bad person - she seems like a fine person, in fact. But her career trajectory has been bizarre, and has obviously been coordinated by a small coterie of people led by Paula Vogel. There's a much wider base of people who perceive her weakness, and that gap - between the awareness of a wider audience and the preferences of a few insiders - definitely fuels the feeling against her, although I wouldn't call it jealousy.

Jack Worthing

What Garvey said. I don't care who she is, where she came from or where she's been produced. Her writing is simplistic, reductive, un-challenging, and twee. The classic example of an audience being led on an 'adventure' just to confirm what they already believe about themselves and the world. Producing her is a bait-and-switch act. Theatres think they can have it both ways: challenge the punters (just a bit), but pat them on their bottoms and send them home smiling. Jordan Harrison and Tarell Alvin-McCraney are also guilty of this. Sarah is a perfectly nice lady, but I hate phonies and I hate condescension.


Like I said, jealousy.

Jack Worthing

May an umbrella dance be your greatest statement about the world, Adam.


She's a woman and successful women are typically chosen as scapegoats in male oriented fields(read: most of the world).

Just a thought.


Caryl Churchill is a successful playwright who is revered by most other playwrights. Sarah Ruhl doesn't command the same respect (at least not yet). It can't just be jealousy or misogyny.

Jack Worthing

Caryl Churchill deserves every single good thing that's happened to her. She's all Ruhl isn't. And you know what? So is Paula Vogel.


To your question, Josh: What I"m being sarcastic about is that wherever she came from, whatever she's done, however she's written, there will always be a faction who will say that it's not good enough, doesn't meet their standards and will tell us that whatever her wins might be, they could never ever come from talent.

And, as we see, there are lots of opinions about her talent. But we also know opinions are like assholes: Everyone has one.


By the way, let's also remember that Sarah Ruhl is not exactly a conscientious objector in the aesthetic battlefield.

Really, Isaac, Adam and others, with all due respect, I think that you have a fundamental disconnect on this.

She takes many opportunities to describe how the audience is complacent and needs to be shaken up. She also takes the opportunity, as we all do, (only we do it from smaller platforms,) to tell everybody what is wrong with the state of theater today. Of course, she positions her own work as the solution to the problem - many others do this as well.

The highlight of this behavioral pattern was probably her interview with Kris Vire in Time Out Chicago, in which she said the problem with theatre is that it is too much like television. When Vire pointed out that much new playwriting, including her own, seems to actually borrow from the most cutting edge television, Ruhl backpedaled and said that she doesn't watch television so she wouldn't know.

So, Isaac, let's first dispense with the idea that Ruhl is some type of Margaret Edson. I really believe you are smarter than that. "All she's done is write some plays and have some babies." (Oh, please!)

She is a CAREERIST and a aesthetically political one at that. That doesn't make her a bad person, or untalented, (and I don't begrudge anybody a living in the theatre,) but it certainly opens her comments and her work up for discussion, debate and, yes, disagreement.

Thomas Garvey

Yes, Caryl Churchill rocks! And thanks for the note, Art, about Sarah's critical pronouncements, which are as addled and superficial as her work. Also Jack, the umbrella dance line was priceless!

Thomas Garvey

And btw, we know the playwright's connections, but has anyone charted the connections of her supporters to those "seven top MFA programs"? Just wondering.


Of all the foolish things I've heard people call a successful theater maker, CAREERIST may take the cake. I don't love all of Ruhl's work by any means. In truth, I enjoy only one of her damn plays (and hey, guess what, it's the one that finally got her to Broadway). But to criticize someone for positioning themselves to have a successful career, and to mock someone for playing the game in the theater INDUSTRY, to me reveals an extraordinary willingness to criticize someone simply for their success.

And to chime in on another criticism that I'm constantly hearing about Ruhl: to use the word "un-challenging" to describe a Broadway debut that is about women stimulating each others' genitals with electrical vibrators in the 19th century (with a brief foray into male-on-male mechanical prostate stimulation) is both illogical and unfounded. To look at the new plays that go up at the Biltmore and the American Airlines and half of what's new in commercial theater in America and to then call Ruhl "un-challenging" is daft. Go to a production of "Brooklyn Boy" or "Mauritius" or "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" or half of the predictable sappy crappy formulas that comprise 1/2 the major off-broadway and regional theater's seasons. Then see "In The Next Room" and tell me she is un-challenging.

Thomas Garvey

Sarah Ruhl is unchallenging. Plus she's sappy and crappy.


Hey JMdirexordus,

Maybe you'll read carefully next time. Like you, I wasn't using "Careerist" as a negative. Jeesh.

Remember, fools rush in. Your comment shows an extraordinary willingness to say something, anything and make it sound like you're making a point.

I see, however, that you have no problem labeling the uber-successful Rebeck, the award-ladened Marguiles and the critically proclaimed Greenberg as sappy and crappy.

I won't blame you though. After reading this comment thread I guess the stylish thing to do would be to dismiss your ravings as the delusions of a mind made mad by jealousy of their careers.

Jack Worthing

You tell me what's challenging:

Melding time-bending magical realism with ruthless family drama, demonstrating how, even in this 'enlightened' age, women are forced to make untenable decisions and do awful things to get ahead? (TOP GIRLS)


Gently suggesting that the secret of life is in letting go of our sexual hang-ups, being curious and learning to take care of ourselves? With a final snow angel to drive the point home? (IN THE NEXT ROOM)

...I could make a comment about television here, but I can imagine what I'd get called.

Kris Vire

For the record, I didn't conduct the Time Out Chicago interview Art references, though his characterization of it is otherwise accurate. You can read it here: http://bit.ly/8K3x49

As for Ruhl, I think the depth of animosity some have toward her work might have to do with her sheer ubiquity. In a three-year span she had four major productions in Chicago, at Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens and twice at the Goodman. I can't think of another contemporary playwright about whom you could say that.


What's up with all the comparisons b/w Ruhl & Churchill, a thoroughly canonical writer probably 30 years her senior whose work couldn't be more aesthetically different than Ruhl's?

Caryl Churchill is a once in a generation talent. There are plenty of writers who are worse than Caryl Churchill but are still good enough to produce, and produce often.

It's like comparing a contemporary black playwright to August Wilson, saying he's not as good, and therefore shouldn't be produced. If every white male writer had to better Pinter in order to be judges worthy of production, we wouldn't see a whole lot of plays by white men.

I don't know if I've explained myself well, but this really rubbed me the wrong way. "people like Caryl Churchill, so the disdain for Ruhl can't be sexism" feels a lot like "Barack Obama became president, so racism no longer exists."

Jack Worthing

Let's do some mad libs here:

'It's not CARYL CHURCHILL'S fault that she's more successful than you ... All she's done is write some plays and have some babies.'

Precisely. A certain reactionary element assumes that Sarah Ruhl must be hated because she's a successful woman. No mention of aesthetics there. I happen to love the substance of Churchill's plays. I think Ruhl's are, quite literally, rubbish. A lot of very successful people agree with me. So do a lot of audience members.

Both Churchill and Ruhl happen to be outrageously successful; Churchill even more so. If I was a jealous person, I'd look at Churchill's career and put a gun to my head. But I'm not. A fair argument can be made that Sarah Ruhl just isn't a very good playwright.

Notice I said 'playwright.' Sentence for sentence, her work can be lovely. But taken as a whole, you could call it a facile, labored and disconnected collection of images and metaphors that flatters the audience.

Though why waste time arguing merit when it's so much fun to play the victim?

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