Ana Hein // Blog Writer
Normally, buying a book for a six-hour plane ride is a good idea, but when you’re already bringing three books on said plane (and have about another twelve in a checked bag), the addition of one more might be the straw that breaks the overpacked camel’s back. But buy one more book I did, and the camel’s back remained, miraculously, unbroken. The book in question? 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl.
Ruhl is primarily known for her playwriting talent, having penned multiple plays that have been nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Awards. I’ve only recently gotten acquainted with her work by reading the scripts themselves, not through seeing productions. I’ve read two of her plays in the past year, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially In the Next Room, (or The Vibrator Play), arguably her most well-known work (which, admittedly, I bought solely because of the title). Her plays are intellectually stimulating while still remaining accessible to the average theater going person – that is to say, they are plays anyone can find something to like about. In my experience, her strength lies in using the specifics of the stage in her writing, like having the entire action of a play take place between two rooms the audience can see at all times and where simultaneous scenes occur. This seems like a “duh” statement; plays are performed on the stage and written with that in mind. And films are shot on a camera, and books are ink on paper, and dances are composed of inhumanly flexible people contorting their bodies to music. But how many plays in recent memory couldn’t have functioned just as well, if not better, as films or tv shows? Honestly think about it. Is the live audience, the illusion, the inherent artifice and grandiosity of The Theater really so intrinsic to the work it regularly produces in the 21st century?
These are the kinds of topics Ruhl writes about in her essay collection. From the title alone, it appears to sell itself as an assortment of random subject matter held together by their collective shortness and lack of detail, and while the work is unified in this specific way – almost all of the essays are three pages or less – the real driving force behind it is Ruhl’s musings about every aspect of contemporary theater: the writing process as specific to plays, the various different approaches of actors, how audiences and critics react to the work, and the many different ways the play itself can be produced. Because of the brevity of each essay, Ruhl only dives into the meat of her specific topic, whether it’s about how hard it is to stage privacy, arguing against the actor’s objective of “wanting” something in every scene, or wondering why comedy is not seen as having the same level of merit as drama. Every word is needed, and nothing is wasted; it does not overstay its welcome.
But sometimes, it does leave the party before it could even take off its coat. Occasionally, the shortness of each essay only serves to whet the reader’s appetite, and before the main course can be delivered – the “ah-ha!” moment – the essay is over and it’s on to the next. I found myself wanting more explanations and answers as the book went on. Lots of the essays end in questions like, “How long have we been giving the audience responsibility for helping us to write the play rather than the freedom to enjoy it?” and, “Is it better to be a will-be than a has-been? And why is there no word for being in a state of being, an is-being? How to cultivate the state of being an is-being?” (108,136). At the end of essays like these, I often wanted to shake the book in hopes of finding a couple of extra pages hiding somewhere. I wanted more, dammit! Ruhl has such interesting ideas and poignant concerns about her art form and the world of theater, not to mention her incredible wit and sense of humor on display on almost every page (the first essay in the collection, “On Interruptions,” is particularly notable in this regard). I can’t help but want to read more expanded versions of these essays.
But if the only major criticism I have for the book is that I want more (and it is), then I would have to say that it is the best criticism one could have. If you have any interest at all in the world of theater, you should not only take a look at this book, but all of Ruhl’s wonderful other work as well.