« Andrew Sullivan Explains His Blog | Main | Fear »

December 21, 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


The point I'm making is that you're comparing Ruhl to one of the foremost dramatists of the century and saying her plays aren't as good, so she's not worthy of production.

Caryl Churchill has been writing for what, four decades now? And Ruhl's been on the scene for part of one? So, yeah, I don't think that Ruhl's body of work stacks up against the Churchill canon. But then, I don't think there's any playwright who's been on the scene for five years who's work does. And, I dare say, there are plenty of people in Caryl Churchill's first five years of writing who called her work rubbish.

Jack Worthing

You're confused. I argued that I'm not jealous of anyone, and that success is no factor in the antipathy to Ruhl's work. If it was, the opinion of a MUCH MORE SUCCESSFUL writer like Churchill would be very divided.

I never measured her against Churchill, except to give an example of what's challenging. No one measures up to Caryl Churchill. Give me Gina Gionfriddo, Lucy Caldwell, Alia Bano, Amy Herzog, Lisa D'Amour, Polly Stenham, Honour Kane, Sarah Daniels, Catherine Johnson, Susan Mosakowski, Brooke Berman...all lesser writers than Churchill, sure. Different as they are from each other, their work is provocative, humane, and has aesthetic integrity.

But let's compare! Why not. As a playwright, Sarah Ruhl doesn't measure up to Henry James. Or Bulwer-Lytton. Or JR Planche. Or Florence Marryat...


My thoughts are here: http://99seats.blogspot.com/2009/12/if-you-see-something.html

For what it's worth, Jack, your entire argument just plain doesn't make sense. It boils down to: I don't like Sarah Ruhl's work, therefore she's not that good, therefore she shouldn't be produced as much as she is. Does the same hold true for every playwright you don't like? Do you hold each and every one of them in same antipathy? Does everyone else?

If she's so widely known as so bad, why is she getting produced?

Jack Worthing

99, I have a lot of respect for you. Whether you know it or not, we agree on a lot of things. But your post makes a few troubling charges about me. For the record, I didn't call anyone a 'sneaky, uppity bitch' or anything close to it. I said that I think Ruhl's plays are badly constructed, simplistic, and not challenging. I think they're produced a lot because they tap into the phony 'Theatre Must Be Theatrical' zeitgeist. There are no sofas; they're flashy; yes, they contain some very good line-by-line writing; and they ultimately confirm the privileged audience's belief about themselves.

Let's be clear: I've said this above. Not a word about affirmative action, or women, or Sarah conning anyone. THE PLAYS HIT THE PROPER MARKS. Give the subscribers something different. But not too different. Send 'em home smiling.

You think this is about affirmative action? Harrison and McCraney are equally guilty. I said that before as well. So, in their ways, are Rapp, and Patrick Marber, and Donald Margulies! Facile boulevard entertainment held up as high art because people like to be told what they already think. It has its place -- we all like television -- but let's call it what it is, hmm?

Again, to spell it out: when I call Sarah a 'fake', I mean that the plays break down -- become smaller, less humane -- on closer inspection. What initially seems to be new or engagingly ambiguous actually reduces life to greeting-card slogans and moral absolutes. That's disturbing.

This is a substantial argument based on the work and nothing else. I don't apologize for it, and nothing I've written here contradicts it. The next time you throw the word misogynist at me, refer to facts in evidence.

Jack Worthing

And I never said she shouldn't be produced. 99 is the second commenter to put words in my mouth there. Once again: line-by-line, SR writes very well. That's honest. But she can't make a play hang together. Ashley, above, misunderstood me, but she rightly pointed out that SR is a comparatively young woman. She may do great things. (Churchill wasn't even produced on stage until age 34.) But these plays are what we've got, and aesthetically I can't see why we're subjected to them all the time. They're held up as cultural documents. And that's why this matters more than other writers I don't like, 99. For some reason -- as you say -- SR has been anointed the voice of a generation. That frightens me. SR's ubiquity says more about current fashion and economics than it does about her. That's a discussion we should be having.


Jack, a couple of things:

A) In my post, I lumped your comments in with others on this thread, but the general criticism is of the tone of the thread, not simply about your comments. Not all of the specific things in my post refer to you directly.

B) The point, and I think Isaac's point, is that conversation is always about Sarah Ruhl and rarely about the actual system that elevates her. She's not to blame that people like and produce her play, it's not some game that she's playing or some trick. If you want to talk about the system that's elevating some writers and not others, let's do that. Whenever this conversation comes up, though, it bogs down. But the endless bashing of one playwright, particularly one playwright who just happens to be female, doesn't really move the ball forward. You mention Jordan Harrison and Tarell McCraney, but, honestly, I've never seen a thread like this about either of them. When this conversation comes up, no one mentions their names with the kind of vitriol that SR receives, not even close. (Of course, when you say it's not about affirmative action, one of the first names that pops into your mouth is a black playwright. That doesn't help your case much.)

C) As a matter of aesthetics and theatre criticism, one of the reasons this conversation bogs down is that these are matters of taste. You don't think her plays hang together, with legitimate reasoning. Other people do, with equally legitimate reasoning. It's a fair cop. People like different things in plays. Reiterating over and over again, more loudly, that you don't think her plays are great doesn't really help your point. Not to overstep my bounds here, but I think you know perfectly well why you think we're "subjected to [her plays] all the time." You just don't like it. Not that you should. I think the system is completely unfair and busted and should be re-thought or dismantled. But the why is the thing we should talk about.

I think the last two sentences of your last post are right on. I think we probably do agree on more than it seems like, but, on this point, it may be time to, in the words of the great philosopher of our time, leave Sarah Ruhl alone.


What 99 said.

I honestly feel like this comment thread basically proved my point.

Rob Kozlowski

Following up on Kris Vire's comment, yes, the vast majority of the animosity toward Ruhl is her ubiquity. When I saw "Passion Play" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone," I was absolutely flummoxed that the Goodman and Steppenwolf thought enough of these works to give them major productions. They're very shallow works. Naturally, I then thought I must be stupid for not understanding the appeal of these and why such important regional theaters would consider them wonderful, and resented that I felt I was being made to feel stupid. It's sort of a domino effect of the mind, I suppose.

It was interesting, when a telemarketer called me to subscribe to the Goodman a couple of years ago and told them I wasn't going to do so because of "Passion Play" the telemarketer sighed and said, "We get that a lot." I don't think the reaction toward her work is just confined to jealous theater types.

I'm actually looking forward to "In the Next Room" because people who hate her work seem to like it.

Oh, and one more thing: I think Ruhl is in the unfortunate position of being the most visible symbol of the kind of twee, whimsical playwriting style that a lot of people just can't stand, especially 'round these here parts. Critics in Chicago absolutely LOATHED Peter Sinn Nachtreib's boom, for example. But people don't complain about Nachtreib because he isn't as well known as Ruhl, at least nationally. So Ruhl ends up being a target instead.

Zak Berkman, Executive Director, Epic Theatre Ensemble

oh how I hesitate to jump into this, but given that my company is about to produce the New York Premiere of Sarah's PASSION PLAY, I thought I'd toss in my two cents, (actually more like a half-penny - a hay-penny will do?), but here it goes.

I first learned of and met Sarah seven years ago through an actor friend who appeared in an early Wisconsin production of EURYDICE. And ever since then I have discovered that Sarah is a writer so beloved by the actors she's worked with - actors truly loyal and vocal in championing the work separate from their own personal participation in any reading or production -that she does possess a distinct advantage. These actors are like the young Obama activists in snowbound Iowa, devoted and passionate, articulate and open, telling everyone they know about the beauty and purpose of Sarah's writing.

And yes some of these actors went to school with her - which is part of the leg-up many MFA grads enjoy. Sarah's not alone in that by any means and there are various other writers I could name with troupes of actor-advocates. But still, by any measure, Sarah is distinctive in this realm. And it's been true long before she was a "name", genius, or Broadway playwright.

In Sarah's case - in large part this devotion has to do with a mutual understanding of the collaborative, communal nature of making and experiencing theatre. In fact, this appreciation and empathy is at the heart of her PASSION PLAY. So while her success may spark giddyness in some, envy in others, I hope this community and others don't miss out on applauding an artist whose own personal efforts are to engage and include rather than alienate. And while I'm at it - come see PASSION PLAY this spring (www.epictheatreensemble.org)!

Okay, that was maybe a nickle. Happy Holidays!


Not that anybody cares, but to clear up my earlier comment...

In going back and forth with people I see that my choice of words with "Careerist" was very bad. All I meant was that she is a practicing professional, functioning at a high level in her field, with all of the politics, publicity and problems that comes with that. In other words, she in the system and of the system. To be VERY clear, I would say the same of Adam Rapp, Edward Albee, David Mamet, Theresa Rebeck, and on and on and on.

As I pointed out to 99 in his comments section: I have criticized, as well as supported at times, things all of these people have said in interviews or on panel discussions. That was the whole point of my comment.

I can only assure people I did not mean the standard definition of careerist which, I have found out, is all negative. I honestly didn't mean that, and in my defense, I kept saying, over and over that I didn't mean it in a negative way.

I wish I could correct my comment and substitute Professional with Careerist, but it doesn't seem to make that much difference anyway.

After all, 99 indicates that he still thinks I'm a misogynist.


Thanks for the clarification. And in the spirit of fairness, I should make clearer that, while I do think this conversation smacks of sexism, I don't think that everyone involved in it, or any criticism of Sarah Ruhl is, in and of itself, sexist. Cooler heads and an appropriate amount of sleep can calm the rhetoric down to a dull roar for blood.

And I'll even weigh in on Zak: thanks for the commentary and the openness. It actually adds tons of grist for other issues that have been bouncing around. More on that later, I'm sure.

And Rob (since I'm here): I also want to make clear that I think criticism of her work, of her "status" and the poster child nature of her coverage is totally fair game and in many ways warranted and necessary. I just want to steer clear of attacks that seem more about her as a person.

Okay. We cool?


I think what this comment thread proves is that life is too short to waste on responding to ad hominem criticism.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad

# of Visitors Since 11/22/05

  • eXTReMe Tracker