Thursday, September 13, 2012

Theatrical Myth

Carmela Corbett and Alex Knox as Eurydice and Orpheus.
By Kimberly Colburn

In Eurydice, Sarah Ruhl uses a classic Greek myth for inspiration but turns it on its head. Traditionally, it’s the story of the musician Orpheus descending into the Underworld to rescue his wife, who died on their wedding day. Swayed by his beautiful music, the lord of the Underworld tells Orpheus he can take Eurydice back to Earth—as long as he doesn’t look back at her on the way out. Tragically, he fails in this mission and the two lovers are torn asunder forever.

Most versions of the story focus on Orpheus, with Eurydice merely a supporting player. In Ovid’s version of the story in Metamorphoses, she doesn’t speak at all and in Virgil’s epic poem she says only a few words after Orpheus has already looked back at her, whereas Ruhl’s version tells the story from Eurydice’s perspective. Eurydice loves words in contrast to Orpheus’ love of music, and she has a penchant for interesting people and ideas.

Costume renderings for Her Father, Eurydice and Orpheus by designer Soojin Lee.
Ruhl also includes Eurydice's father as a key character, who died before the play begins and is therefore already in the Underworld. He has tried to write letters to Eurydice, but he can never be certain they’ve reached her. Eurydice, meanwhile, has become engaged to Orpheus. During her wedding reception, she meets A Nasty Interesting Man, who lures her away from the party with the dangling carrot of a message from her dead father.

Ruhl’s own father passed away from bone cancer when she was 20. “I partly wrote the play to have more conversations with him,” she says, “but I wasn’t consciously aware of that at the time.” These imagined conversations start with letters to Eurydice from her father. After her death, she is reunited with her father in the Underworld. The rules of the Underworld state that all souls who enter must be dipped in the river first—the river that causes you to forget names, stories and who you are. Her father has spent his time learning how to remember, but when he greets Eurydice it is clear that the water has washed her memory clean and he must patiently wait and see if she’ll ever remember who he is.

Gerard Howland's set rendering for Eurydice.
Eurydice’s entrance to the Underworld is noted in the stage directions as:
The sound of an elevator ding.
An elevator door opens.
Inside the elevator, it is raining.

The idea of an elevator that rains inside is one example of how Ruhl embraces imagination. She also references Alice in Wonderland when describing the Underworld because it is literally “the world we live in turned upside down.”

The elements of the fantastical were part of what drew director Marc Masterson to the piece. “You've got to love a play with a character called Nasty Interesting Man,” he jokes. “Ruhl is a unique voice and I love the poetry and theatricality of her storytelling.” When asked what he would want to tell the audience before seeing the production, he noted that “Eurydice is funny and sad and surprising in many ways. This is a Greek myth told for a modern generation.”

There have been many musicians, writers, and other artists who have been inspired by the myth. Ruhl purposefully didn’t read or see any other versions until after she had completed the first draft, relying instead on her memory and impressions of the myth. “I kept thinking about that moment when Orpheus looks back—to lose so much in such a small moment.” After the first draft, she spent two years refining the play, and began to discover just how many different artists have been inspired by this story. Ruhl has crafted a play that uses the inspiration of the myth to explore questions about love—not only romantic love, but the love between a father and a daughter.

About Sarah Ruhl

By David Myers, Shank Playwright in Residence

Sarah Ruhl exploded onto the American theater scene in the early 2000s and continues to be one of its leading authors.  She is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and 2010; a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship; and, with this fall’s production of Eurydice, a playwright to grace SCR’s stages four times over the past eight years.

Ruhl has been praised for her unique ability to marry comedic lightness with moments of genuine and mythic pathos.  She traces her lineage more to Ovid than to Aristotle, and expresses a preference for stories with “small transformations that are delightful and tragic.”  Ruhl says “I like plays that have revelations in the moment, where emotions transform almost inexplicably … psychological realism makes emotions so rational, so explained, that they don’t feel like emotions to me.”

Ruhl’s birth as a writer is often connected to the 1994 death of her father.  She started writing poetry and then came to the attention of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, who was her professor at Brown University.  Vogel recalls reading Ruhl’s first writing assignment—in which Ruhl wrote about a father’s death from the point of view of the family dog.  Vogel says, “I sat with this short play in my lap in my study, and sobbed.”  At Vogel’s encouragement, Ruhl pursued playwriting.  She graduated from Brown, studied English literature for a year at Oxford, and then enrolled in Brown’s MFA playwriting program, where she again was under Vogel’s tutelage. In her final year of study, she wrote and workshopped Eurydice—considered to be her breakout play on the national scene.  It was later given its world premiere at Madison Repertory Theatre in 2003.

Mary Lou Rosato, Adriana Sevan and Mary Beth Fisher in The Clean House.
After first getting attention for Eurydice, Ruhl received widespread praise for her play The Clean House, which received its West Coast premiere at SCR in early 2005.  The play went on to be produced around the world, including productions at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, in 2006; Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C., in fall 2005; and Lincoln Center Theater in New York in 2006.  Other notable works include Passion Play; Dead Man’s Cell Phone, produced at SCR in 2008; and In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, produced at SCR in 2010.

Ruhl’s poetic sensibilities and skill with language are present in her all plays.  In a 2008 interview in The New Yorker, Ruhl shared a story of her father taking her and her sister out for pancakes every Saturday morning when she was a child.  Her father would teach them a new word, along with its etymology.  This moment, and even some of his words—“ostracize,” “peripatetic,” “defunct”—appear in Eurydice, though Ruhl has recast the memory of filial affection against a mythic story of loss and longing.

Ruhl’s writing balances quiet intimacy with mythic grandeur: she brings a playful touch to the gravest of subjects without denying their complexity or trivializing their weight.  In the prologue to her Passion Play—which juxtaposes different interpretations of Christ’s Passion throughout history—Ruhl addresses the audience in her characteristic style:
We ask you, dear audience,
To use your eyes, ears, your most inward sight
For here is day (A painted sun is raised)
And here is night (A painted moon is raised)
And now, the play. 

1 comment:

  1. Well done. Thank you. (there's a transposition of words in the first sentence in the next to last paragraph).