A Few Too Many Words About Life and a Play

Over interim, I saw a lot of plays. This was my third time taking Dr. Sebestyen’s interim course on Chicago’s Role in Contemporary American Theatre, and each time I have come away with a greater understanding of what theatre is capable of. This year, however, was my first time seeing a play that literally felt like a poem, and that play was The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl. Needless to say, after seeing this play (hey, that rhymes!), I immediately ordered every play by Sarah Ruhl that I could find on the inter-library loan catalog.

To give a brief synopsis, The Clean House involves a Doctor (Lane), her Brazilian maid (Matilde, pronounced Ma-chill-gee; also a comedian), Lane’s sister (Virginia), and Lane’s husband (Charles) who leaves her for a patient (Ana). We get a whole host of lessons about life and love being messy businesses through a slew of cleaning metaphors. I could go on and on about the themes in this play, but I’m going to talk about Ruhl’s form instead: the play is written like poetry. Seeing the play produced, even though I could not see the script (until later, when I read the play) or tell that the lines were written in poetic form (which they are), I could feel that the play ascribed to the rules of poetry – and I loved it. The play does not feel the need to follow traditional rules of structure or of time. In that, it carries all the beautiful clarity and ambiguity that characterizes poetry. This, combined with the fact that the play is clever and full of skillfully crafted aphorisms, made the English/Theatre double major in me really geek-out; it satisfied both of my passions.

Speaking of passions, Sarah Ruhl started off to be a poet! But after taking a class in college taught by some famous playwright lady, she switched to writing plays. I learned this about her in my interim class and it really fascinated me. As college students, we’re in the stage of life where we’re supposed to be making decisions about our future. For many, that involves switching majors five times, taking a random elective and loving it so much that you switch for a sixth time. I think Sarah Ruhl serves as a good example of Proverbs 16:9: “We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.” Ruhl started out as a poet and ended up writing plays, but that doesn’t mean she picked wrong when she tried poetry; her background in poetry played a role in making her plays what they are. So let that be an encouragement to you in your own college career. Don’t be afraid of picking the wrong major, or feel bad about switching. You never know how the steps you take now will affect the steps you come to later. And also read all of Sarah Ruhl’s plays.

Esther Sullivan

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