100 Ways to Die

By Oliver Morrison

Sarah Ruhl, one of the most iconoclastic and successful modern playwrights, has invented a new style of non-fiction.

The title takes two full breaths to say: “100 Essays I don’t have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children and Theater.” Although the essays themselves are concise, the oxygen-sucking name prepares the reader for the loosely connected meanderings to follow.

They’re not essays in any formal sense; they’re philosophical musings and bits of insider theater gossip; personal vignettes and professional calls-to-action. It’s part feminist-manifesto and part artistic origin-story. The collection creates a mosaic of the modern theater world more than a grand, unifying thesis.

While all the essays are nominally about theater, some of the most striking passages are personal: her father’s death, a “difficult and Victorian” pregnancy, and her joyful but distracting children. She wanted to be a poet in college and her personal writing sings with imagery and metaphor.

Her philosophical musings, on the other hand, are scattered with irksome contradictions. She dismisses Kant’s arguments about the nature of objectivity in essay #60 with a single word: “No.” Then six chapters later she asks the very question she denounced, “Is objectivity possible in the theater?”

She uses the same kind of contradictions and manic punctuation as Niezsche, cutting at the fabric of the modern theater with sharp exclamation points and pointed questions marks, just as Nietzsche destroyed pre-modern philosophy by proclaiming “God is dead”—a topic of one of Ruhl’s essays. The “Theater is dead” and she wants to invent the gods who can save it.

Technology and finances are undermining theater, according to Ruhl: old people file into sterile auditoriums that look like airports, sit in seats with their names on them and promptly fall asleep. She bemoans that theater could soon be “relegated to the mode of ballet or opera”, “once-a-month luxuries for professionals.”

Funders are scared of risky work, she says, and instead opt for music, stars and TV plots. Seats are filled with impatient audience members unaccustomed to waiting for a fifth course let alone a fifth act, conditioned by cellphones and YouTube.

Its practitioners are gossipmongers who, in four weeks must be melded together without breaking union contracts. They are driven by Freudian theories of the subconscious that strip away the imaginative in favor of psychological realism.

Ruhl’s essays describe the kind of work theaters should produce. The focus would be on the language, word-to-word, sentence-to-sentence, moment-to-moment and the formal structure would change from play-to-play. They would have no humans and no backstory. They would be staged in an elevator shaft or abandoned hospital and there would be lots of kissing and nakedness, animals and little children. In short, just like the plays she has already written.

Ruhl’s lack of concern for the bottom-line gives her exhortations a whiff of naive purity. She champions intimate, challenging theater from a megaphone of financial and critical success. But the Thornton Wilders of the world, who she cites— playwrights who are both formally inventive and wildly popular, like herself— are the exceptions that prove the rule.