Ovid v. Aristotle

I saw In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play last night here at the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre.  I had not read the work before seeing it performed, and I was so excited by it!  Er… stimulated by it.  Ah… intellectually stimulated by it?

Whatever.  The point is that I’ve talked on this blog in the past about the problem of gender balance in the professional theatre world, and it’s exciting to be reminded that there are women finding success writing complex, literary pieces that subvert the male gaze.  Go Sarah Ruhl!

I’ve been trying to tease out what it was that worked so well for me in this piece, and I am reluctant to say that it has to do with Ruhl’s gender.  I hate when “women’s writing” is separated somehow from “writing,” and while this blog does talk a lot about gender and the arts, that wasn’t originally its purpose.

Yet Ruhl’s story in ITNR very obviously concerns women, and the historical dismissal of legitimate female emotion as “hysteria” in a world that left no place for it to be expressed and received.  The play cleverly interpolates visual metaphors with cleverly crafted dialogue patterns to drive home its themes— the overly loose and tumbling “female noodlings”(as Stoppard might call them) of Mrs. Givings vs. the sterile, clinical speech of her husband, the (sometimes comical) artificial stiffness and stoicism of the closeted lesbian assistant that gives way in the second act to the emotion beneath… most of all, Ruhl’s writing sympathetically portrays the tragic tension between men and women in a world that restricts their actions as effectively as a corset.

When I read this piece on Ruhl from the New Yorker, I thought “This is it. This is why her play feels like an authentic female perspective.”

As a storyteller, Ruhl marches to Ovid’s drum rather than Aristotle’s. “Aristotle has held sway for many centuries, but I feel our culture is hungry for Ovid’s way of telling stories,” she said, describing Ovid’s narrative strategy as “one thing transforming into another.” She went on, “His is not the neat Aristotelian arc but, instead, small transformations that are delightful and tragic.” And she added, “The Aristotelian model—a person wants something, comes close to getting it but is smashed down, then finally gets it, or not, then learns something from the experience—I don’t find helpful. It’s a strange way to look at experience.

Read more of this New Yorker Profile of Playwright Sarah Ruhl: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2008/03/17/080317crat_atlarge_lahr#ixzz1u6IOxdKP

I can’t help comparing this to the historical distinction between “men’s work,” which is linear and progresses through a series of concrete accomplishments, and “women’s work,” which is cyclical: laundry is clean, then dirty, then clean again, and meals must be cooked every day ad infinitum.  The popular narratives that we are used to consuming through film, TV and literature almost all follow that Aristotelian model.  Every novel writing handbook that I have marked up emphasizes its importance, to the point where Aristotelian storytelling is conflated with storytelling itself.  This may be a rational approach, but it’s not a real one.  In our lives, one plus one does not always equal two.  Put two experiences into the human brain, and the result of their collision could be anything: the color of sunset over the cemetery in your hometown, the taste of cold air on a summer morning, the sound of conversation in the next room while you are trying to sleep.  Are these connections and experiences any less real because we do not understand their meaning?

The irrationality of emotion is one of the themes to which Ruhl’s plays continually return. “I don’t want to smooth out the emotions to the point where you could interpret them totally rationally, so that they have a clear reference point to the past,” she said. “Psychological realism makes emotions so rational, so explained, that they don’t feel like emotions to me.”
In Ruhl’s plays, turbulent feeling can erupt at any moment, for no apparent reason; actors are challenged to inhabit the emotional moment without motivation.
I like looking at stories through this new lens— less about gender (which, like race, has more to do with the constructs that our culture builds around it than inherent qualities of the thing itself) and more about the structure of the narratives we consume.  Little metamorphoses can be just as weighty as bombastic conclusions.  I would love to see a shift away from the constant need for climax  into a space where the action itself is meaningful.

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