A Conversation with Sarah Ruhl
With nearly 20 plays and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant to her name, Sarah Ruhl is one of the most important and decorated American playwrights working today. Shortly before she arrived at the Met to begin rehearsals for Eurydice—her first opera libretto—Ruhl sat down with Kamala Schelling, the Met's Educational Content Manager, to discuss her play and the process of bringing it to the Met stage.
Do you remember how and when the Orpheus story first entered your life?
I remember I had a big book of Greek mythology, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, so maybe that’s where I first encountered it. But it’s one of those myths that you feel like you’re born knowing, or at least I feel like I was born knowing it.
A major topic for us this year is art as memoir. Is Eurydice in any way autobiographical?
Eurydice is one of the most personal plays I’ve ever written. I wrote it for my father, who was diagnosed with cancer when I was 18 and died two years later, and I think in many ways I wrote it to have more conversations with him.
So did you identify with Eurydice while you were writing this work?
Yes, absolutely. In some ways she’s not me, she’s an archetype. But there are also pieces of text that are like talismans from my life. For instance, the father’s directions at the end of the play are directions to my grandparents’ home in Iowa. So if you think of memoir as telling your life story, then I don’t think this is a memoir in that traditional way. Instead, it’s like taking significant fragments of your life and placing them within, or pushing them through, a giant myth that is much bigger than yourself.
That brings me to a question that a lot of our students have asked as we explore the art of memoir. Was it hard to share this story of your father? And if so, how did you find a way to bring these memories to the page?
I remember my first reading of the play in New York. It was beautifully read. But afterwards, I shut myself in the bathroom and sobbed, thinking, “Why did I let this story into the world? It’s too raw. I feel too exposed.” I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so I waited for the audience to clear out, and then I made my way outside. But through repetition (and the word “rehearsal” really means repetition), I was able to share the play, and share the grief.
There’s a wonderful intimacy that radiates outward in a collaborative process. With a play, you start alone. Then you add actors, which is a first layer of sharing (and shedding) vulnerability. And then you add the audience. In the case of an opera, the scale is much larger: First you have the safety of the rehearsal room, then you add an orchestra, and then you add the audience, which at the Met is enormous.
I also think that when you repeat grief enough times, it hopefully becomes less raw, less only-yours. I wrote Eurydice almost 20 years ago, so at this point I feel like the play really belongs to my collaborators—to Matt, to Mary, to the people acting and singing, and to the audience.
Can you briefly describe the process of turning this play into an opera?
Luckily, it was a pleasurable task, not an arduous one. Matt [Aucoin] would call me from some field in Vermont with the wind blowing, where he’d be composing, and he’d say, “Can we think about a cut here, or a little versification here?” And I’d say, “Sure!” Sometimes he’d ask me to change something and then decide the original was better. And I’d say, “Great!” (It’s always music to a writer’s ears to think that the original was better.) It helped that we already had an intact play to work with. The other lucky thing was that we’re intuitive as collaborators, and I think Matt is intuitive about making dialogue sing.
The amazing Mary [Zimmerman] came on board after the opera was written. She is someone I’ve always looked up to in the American theater. I was deeply influenced by her Metamorphosis, so it felt like incredible synchronicity to have her direct this production, and she created a remarkable visual life for what Matt and I had built, which made the work even more complete.
Mary Zimmerman recently told us that the production of Eurydice at LA Opera was the last thing she directed before the world shut down for the pandemic, and now it’s the first thing she’s doing after the world has opened back up.
It’s the same for me! We’re like the Rip Van Winkle cast: It felt like such a long time until we’d be at the Met, and then suddenly we woke up, and here we are.
Does it feel like the opera has changed over the last 18 months?
I suspect that the opera will feel more raw than it did a year and a half ago. but I think we won’t really know exactly how it’s changed until we’re in the room together rehearsing. So many people have lost loved ones, and this play is very much about grief. Oddly enough, the chorus in the afterlife wears death masks, so there was already an iconography of masking in the production. And the father and daughter are together in a kind of suspended time, like so many of us have been this past year.
One of my favorite things in your play is the trio of stones. Was this a reference to the chorus of ancient Greek theater?
Yes, definitely. I also remember being intrigued by the idea that Orpheus played such beautiful music that even the stones wept, and I was interested in using them both as a vehicle for laying out the rules of the Underworld and also as comic relief. Any time I felt like the play was getting too lachrymose, the stones enter and amuse us.
I’m fascinated by the use of string in the play, both the string that Orpheus ties around Eurydice’s finger and the string her father uses to make a room. What was, for you, the significance of this string?
I think when I wrote the play it was very intuitive, and it’s only afterward that I might analyze the imagery. The string is the umbilical cord, and it’s the string of an instrument. It’s also the idea of improvised care for others: If Orpheus can’t afford gold, what does he have? He has a string, a more fragile tool. The father can’t create a home out of bricks or straw, but maybe he has a bit of string. How can we show love and care for people with these very thin, tender, improvised objects?
What would you like a young viewer to bring to this show?
I’d love for them to bring their own experiences of having lost someone they love, their own questions about what the afterlife could look like, or their own questions about the power of music or art to reach the dead. I think there’s something about myth that allows you to understand it through your own individual experience—and I think that’s true of opera in general. What’s incredible about opera is that the scale is so large that you don’t see a direct reflection of reality. You’re seeing massive imagery—it’s almost a dream logic. So I’d invite the students to dream their way into it.