by Victoria Pagán
The story is familiar. Musician marries the love of his life; on their wedding day, she dies. He grieves until he wills his way into the Underworld and is allowed to retrieve her on one condition, which he violates. Thus, even the theme is the same: the fallibility of the human condition and the inability of art to triumph over the persistence of suffering and the finality of death. Nor is Eurydice a strident feminist with a point to prove, after centuries of silent existence as nothing more than a catalyst for the erotic narrative that is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. For contemporary American playwright Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice is foremost a daughter who learns the hard way that all relationships are constructed of words that cannot always withstand the insistent tensions and demands of parents and spouses. Since language is so deficient, Ruhl deploys light, space, distance, and depth to hone the banal into razor-sharp instruments capable of exposing emotional vulnerabilities most audience members would rather not admit existed. For Ruhl, in the theater space must yield to imagination, not, as in film, the other way around.
Sarah Ruhl (1974–), born in Wilmette, Illinois, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 and a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 2006. She earned her MFA at Brown University, where she drafted Eurydice in 2001; it premiered in Madison in 2003 and made its New York premiere off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in 2007. In 2009, I saw it performed at the Hippodrome State Theater in Gainesville, Florida, under the direction of Lauren Caldwell.
Judgments on the play are not unanimous. Gentle critics notice logical inconsistencies. Demanding critics complain of “mannered writing that’s less mature, veering frequently into poetic preciousness” (Rooney 2007). Harsh critics accuse Ruhl of murdering the myth: “Until Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, I never saw a writer make such active efforts to snuff the life out of [a Greek myth]” (Feingold 2007). Still, the play is acclaimed as “full of both woe and wonder,” walking “a tightrope between the mythic and the mundane” (Lahr 2007). It is hailed as “the most moving exploration of the theme of loss that the American theater has produced since the events of September 11, 2001,” by a critic who confessed he “fought off tears for half the play, not always successfully” (Isherwood 2006). My favorable attitude toward the play is betrayed by the hold it has had on my imagination since 2009. I too fought off tears, not always successfully, although I also gagged on lines intolerably cloying. To my mind, the success of this play lies in the way it attracts and repels audiences by professing its own pretensions.
The cast of Eurydice is small: Eurydice, Orpheus, A Nasty Interesting Man / The Lord of the Underworld (played by the same actor), and a Chorus of Stones named Big Stone, Little Stone, and Loud Stone. In addition to these characters who derive from the ancient version of the myth (Orpheus, Eurydice, Hades, and a chorus as would appear in a Greek tragedy), Ruhl has added the character of Eurydice’s Father, who appears in all three acts and is therefore central to her concerns in the play.
The elevator in which it is raining is the play’s signature feat of engineering (Figure 1). Rain inside an elevator is both impossible and improbable and therefore poetic. It is easy to imagine an elevator that transports people from the upper to the lower world, from life to death; likewise rain connects sky to earth. Yet the combination of these two simple ideas results in a complex and even visceral space. Audiences are at once struck by the sound of falling water. The elevator is dark inside, but back-lit so as to bring the rain into full relief. The elevator is only big enough for one person, but because the rest of the theater is dry, it seems to contain a whole world of its own. Only the horizontal opening and closing of the doors signals the vertical ascent and descent. Thus the raining elevator manipulates light, space, and depth.
The play opens with Orpheus and Eurydice at the beach. They gaze out at the immense sea so that we, the audience, are obviously distanced from their world. Scene two breaks the horizontal line of sight between Orpheus and Eurydice on the beach and the audience at sea; instead, the audience must look up to see the Father standing on a catwalk (figure 2). He reads a letter explaining that although he has been dipped in the River of Forgetfulness, he is one of the few dead who still remembers how to read and write. If the Lord of the Underworld finds out, he will be dipped again. He drops the letter, filled with platitudes for his daughter on her wedding day, into an imaginary mail slot. Communication is thus vertical and unidirectional.
Eurydice marries Orpheus but then wanders off from her own wedding reception and meets a “Nasty Interesting Man” purporting to have in his possession a letter from her Father. The Nasty Interesting Man lures her to his penthouse and attempts to seduce her. She pinches the letter from his pocket but then falls to her death.
Eurydice arrives in the Underworld in the raining elevator. She wants to speak but when she opens her mouth, only white noise comes out. The Chorus of Stones in unison explain that “Eurydice wants to speak to you. But she can’t speak your language any more. She talks in the language of dead people now.” Little Stone: “It’s a very quiet language… Pretend that you understand her or she’ll be embarrassed.” And Big Stone responds, “Yes—pretend for a moment that you understand the language of stones” (Ruhl 2006, 359-60). Thus, the suspension of disbelief that allows the drama to continue in the Underworld crystalizes the pretense of so much ordinary social intercourse. Pretend or she’ll be embarrassed; pretend for a moment. Sometimes pretense is necessary.
Eurydice and her Father converse, although she misunderstands most of his meaning, since he can remember her, but she has no memory of him. Mistaking him for a porter, she asks to be taken to a hotel room, but her Father explains there are no rooms because people do not sleep here. She starts to cry, and so her Father does something extraordinary: he constructs a room of string. In silence the third scene passes. Using a pulley to hoist an umbrella with strings attached to the ribs, he creates a pyramid space made of tension and void in which they can at last communicate. This is for many spectators the most moving scene of the play. It made me sad to watch a father try so hard to make something useful, necessary, and even fun out of practically nothing, just empty space, a bit of string, and an old umbrella. The scene drove home in utter silence that hard reality: sometimes we cannot give as much as we want to give, and in these moments, even genuine gratitude is tainted by pretense: “Thank you. That will do,” Eurydice says as if to a stranger.
Since her death, the bereft Orpheus has been trying in vain to reach her; he sends five letters and even attempts a phone call. Her Father can remember how to read, so he reads the letters to her, which she only ever partially comprehends; again we witness language buckle beneath insistence. Because Eurydice loved to read, Orpheus sends her the Collected Works of Shakespeare, but she only shouts at the book, “What do you do? What do you DO?! Say something!” (Ruhl 2006, 376). The narrative conceit of her amnesia powerfully intersects with the commentary on the inability of language to do anything. The Father knows what to do: he opens the book. It is a dangerous moment for any playwright to allude to Shakespeare and so overtly; one runs the risk of trivializing the moment with a line so familiar to the audience as to deflate the scene. Of course it is also possible that Eurydice’s intense injunction to “Say something!” can only be answered by a master like Shakespeare. Ruhl selected for the Father King Lear’s lines to Cordelia: “We two alone will sing like birds in the cage. When thou dost ask my blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness; so we’ll live, and pray and sing…” (Ruhl 2006, 377). With this the play begins to unravel—the room of string that was their Utopia is become a cage. Its tension and void will collapse with the revelation that even the gift of speech and song is a prison house.
In Act Three, Orpheus arrives in the Underworld as Eurydice did, in the raining elevator (Figure 1). He demands his wife, and the Lord of the Underworld states the condition of her return: “Start walking home. Your wife just might be on the road behind you. We make it real nice here. So people want to stick around. As you walk, keep your eyes facing front. If you look back at her—poof! She’s gone” (Ruhl 2006, 391).
Thus the Father escorts Eurydice, who is brave but then hesitates. The Stones command that she keep walking, but she wants to go back to the Father. As she is suspended between life and death, between father and husband, so the audience too is kept in suspense as we wait for Orpheus’ fatal error.
The Stones are happy now that Eurydice is dead again. The Father resolves to dip himself in the river to forget everything. He dismantles the room of string—the space made of tension and void in which he could communicate with his daughter. Eurydice returns hoping to be reunited with him, but the Stones cruelly declare, “He can’t hear you. He can’t see you. He can’t remember you.” Finally Eurydice knows exactly what to say: “I hate you! I’ve always hated you! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” (Ruhl 2006, 405).
The Lord of the Underworld returns to claim Eurydice, who resigns herself but writes one last letter filled with platitudes for Orpheus’ next wife. She then dips herself in the river. Orpheus returns once more through the raining elevator, and he too has forgotten. He picks up the letter which he can no longer read. The play closes without memory, without language.
Although Ruhl preserves from the ancient myth the characters, setting, marriage, death, retrieval, and fatal retrospection, she does not include Orpheus’ songs of mourning and his subsequent dismemberment at the hands of the Thracian maidens. Instead, Ruhl adds the Father, in a move that is intensely autobiographical. When Ruhl was twenty years old, her father died of bone cancer. She admits that “Eurydice is a transparently personal play. I wanted to write something where I would be allowed to have a few more conversations with him” (Weckwerth 30). However, when Big Stone directs us to “pretend for a moment that you understand the language of stones,” the line suggests that some people may not understand all that the playwright is trying to convey. She may not be able to construct a play that conveys her every intention—especially since the major premise is the incapacity of language. With this line, the playwright nudges the audience to pretend for a moment. This pretense, this false assumption of dignity, I believe, is what makes people uncomfortable and what drives negative criticism of the play: nobody likes to be called pretentious, yet the only way to comprehend the play is to pretend.
The Hippodrome production of the play was quirky, no doubt: Eurydice wore legwarmers and the Lord of the Underworld, tricked out like Johnny Rotten (lead singer of the 1970s punk rock band the Sex Pistols), glided about on a Segway. Yet the script lends itself to such whimsical production choices: it is at once irrational, frivolous, and silly, in stark contrast to the classical origin of the myth and classical form of theater. This juxtaposition surely drives the artistic momentum of the play, but it also makes heavy demands on the audience. In Eurydice Ruhl does more than challenge the classical; she demands responsibility for the failures of language and for the pretense those failures necessitate. Like a room of string, drawn and tense, pretense will collapse upon exposure. If Ruhl’s aesthetic is troublesome, perhaps it is because she so effectively exposes our own underlying pretensions.
Feingold, Michael. 2007. “Mything Persons,” The Village Voice, June 19, 2007. http://tinyurl.com/pxhow7o, accessed July 24, 2015
Isherwood, Charles. 2006. “A Comic Impudence Softens a Tale of Loss,” The New York Times, October 3, 2006. http://tinyurl.com/pffmqm4, accessed July 24, 2015
Lahr, John. 2007. “Gods and Dolls: Sarah Ruhl Reimagines the Orpheus Myth,” The New Yorker, July 2, 2007. http://tinyurl.com/q7stnks, accessed July 24, 2015
Rooney, David. 2007. Review: “Eurydice,” Variety, June 18, 2007. http://variety.com/2007/legit/reviews/eurydice-4-1200558476/, accessed November 17, 2017
Ruhl, Sarah. 2006. The Clean House and Other Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group
Weckwerth, Wendy. 2004. “More Invisible Terrains: Sarah Ruhl, Interviewed by Wendy Weckwerth,” Theater 34.2: 28-35
Victoria Pagán, Professor of Classics at the University of Florida, is a Research Foundation Professor for 2014–2016 and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Teacher of the Year for 2010. Her research focuses on the Roman historians and Tacitus in particular. Known also for her work on gardens, she is co-editor of Disciples of Flora: Gardens in History and Culture, forthcoming with Cambridge Scholars Press. She can be reached at email@example.com.