Thursday, November 10, 2011


I hate reading plays.

There’s no excuse for it. I’m a playwright. I have to read plays. But I hate it. A friend of mine, Paul Meshejian, is the artistic director of PlayPenn. He is taking the 100 semi-finalists for the 2012 conference with him on his winter sojourn to Puerto Rico. He’s going to read them all down there. I told him it sounds like torture.

There are good reasons for a difficulty in reading plays. Most plays are bad (though that’s also true of most fiction, non-fiction, etc.). More importantly, plays aren’t meant to be read. They’re meant to be performed and seen. These are the good reasons for not liking to read plays. They are not, however, my reasons. I get confused. I can’t remember who’s who. God forbid there are more than twoo people talking at any one time. Then I’m totally lost.

Still, sometimes I read plays. Sometimes I even buy plays, as I did recently when I bought a collection by Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House and Other Plays. I bought this collection for two reasons:
  1. I saw Ruhl’s play Eurydice a few years ago and really liked it.
  2. I never get to see anything because of commitments to job and small child. She is the most acclaimed playwright of the day, so I wanted to see what she’s been up to.
When people gush about art that they love in print, my eyes tend to glaze over. It is usually an avalanche of laudatory adjectives (“brilliant”, “searing”) that lose all meaning being by bunched up and lumped together. So I will just say about The Clean House that there is in it some combination of gentleness and tragedy, a mix of effortless comedy and life-or-death stakes, that absolutely blew me open.

There is a moment near the end of the play that was particularly resonant to me. One of the characters is dying of cancer. Her lover, a doctor, flies off to the Alaskan forest because he believes the sap from one of the trees there can save her life. While he’s gone, the woman suffering from cancer says, “He wants to be a hero, but what I need is a nurse.” Later, her lover the doctor misses the moment of her death trying to get the tree he has brought back from Alaska through her front door.

I’m not sure how much of the impact that moment had on me has to do with my own personal psychology. I feel like many times in my life I have performed a grand, futile gesture rather than attend to the simple, practical task at hand. I suspect that I am not alone in this, that it is an impulse common to men, which can be baffling and frustrating to women. But that may just be my projection.

Whatever the reason, the comedy and tragedy of watching that man trying to get that tree through the door as his wife dies felt like the distilled essence of the play. It is also something else. It is incredibly theatrical. Part of the power of reading that moment was in how easy it was to visualize - the huge tree, the little door, the desperate man struggling. It must be a special moment onstage. I look forward to seeing it someday. 

Why, you may ask, have I spent my whole Blue Coyote Commission blog post talking about somebody else’s play rather than my own? I think one of the points of this project is for the writer’s to open up about what inspires us. Sarah Ruhl, and The Clean House, inspires the hell out of me. And not just to be a writer, either. To be a writer of plays.

In my hectic little life, I spend every spare moment I can find reading books. Given that, and my aforementioned distaste for reading plays, I occasionally wonder why I have turned my talents (such as they are) to playwriting. The Clean House reminded me why.

- John Yearley

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