The Clean House and Other Plays: No Acting Necessary
J. Gordon
7/21/2008 10:18:31 AM

Before Sarah Ruhl was a playwright, she was a poet. This is not a great surprise. I mean, just look at the format, imagery and dialogue found in The Clean House and Other Plays. This is drama, yeah, but it is drama that even contains poetic line-breaks!:

I feel I can deposit my pain
right there—like a coin, into a hole.

(from Melancholy Play, page 236)

In a March 2008 New Yorker interview, Ruhl calls herself “a fabulist.” She is someone whose characters build rooms of string and travel in raining elevators (Euridyce). In another story, Ruhl echoes Monty Python’s idea of jokes that can kill--only hers are used as mercy killings (The Clean House). Ruhl’s lesbian cowboy seems natural riding imaginary horses in Pittsburgh (Late: A Cowboy Song); and watch where you step, because the depressed are turning into almonds at almost every turn! (Melancholy Play)

The experience of reading plays is a different one from that of reading other fiction or non-fiction works. Plays stretch the mind to consider subjects such as lighting, sound, and props. As a list given here, such material might be perceived as mundane and dull. In Sarah Ruhl’s hands, they become magic. A lack of narrative and the addition of technical details doesn’t mean that the nuances of emotion are left behind as something only the actors can manage. Tears, real tears, are no doubt regularly shed as Ruhl’s readers feel the beautiful emotional-roller coaster moments on these pages: the strong father-daughter bond and ridiculousness of new romance in Euridyce; the love for parents and heartbreaking compassion of The Clean House; the true and false loves of Late: A Cowboy Song; and the sweet disorder of Melancholy Play.

Ruhl’s characters are full of wonderfully playful, bizarre contradictions: For example, the psychiatrist in Melancholy Play, LORENZO THE UNFEELING, takes every opportunity to enlighten the people he comes in contact with to the sad, tragic details of his childhood and to the fact that he not only feels, but has gone completely overboard, falling in love with his melancholy patient, Tilly. A Brazilian housekeeper detests housekeeping, and longs to be a comedian. A woman is irresistible to all men when she is miserable, but the moment she finds happiness, the world shifts and almost no one can stand her any longer.

Perhaps most fun of all reading a Sarah Ruhl play are the stage notes, which one would never have the opportunity to enjoy if sitting in the audience and watching the thing. In Melancholy Play, for example, Ruhl has notes about the casting.

Frances and Frank, we learn later in this play, are twins. However, in the world of this play, there is no need for twins to resemble each other. If your Frances and Frank look nothing alike, simply change this line on page 315: “TILLY: My God! You look exactly like her!” to “TILLY: My God! You look nothing like her!” or even: “TILLY: My God! You look a little bit like her!”

The Clean House and Other Plays is a collection of silly, enchanting and weird stories that, despite their oddness and impossibilities, still hold the ring of truth. Ruhl writes in a way that is so human it is impossible not to be moved. Having never seen a Sarah Ruhl play produced, this writer can tell you that it’s not the least bit necessary to enjoy this book. It stands on its own as a great piece of literature.


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