Shelf life: Sarah Ruhl

Opera theater


Welcome to the lifespan, The books section of, in which the authors share their most memorable readings. Whether you’re looking for a book to console you, move you deeply, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers of our series who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Maybe one of their favorite tracks will become one of yours as well.

Smile: the story of a face

When theaters closed last March due to the pandemic, playwright Sarah Ruhl wrote a New York Times editorial encourage people to read and write poems like Shakespeare did. A month earlier, she had published her first collection of poetry. Now comes his memoirs, Smile (Simon & Schuster), about her struggle with Bell’s palsy which she was diagnosed with after giving birth to twins in 2010.

Ruhl, a native of suburban Chicago and based in Brooklyn, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for The clean house in 2005 and In the next room, where the vibrator plays in 2010, which was also nominated for the Tony Awards. The MacArthur Fellow and the Whiting Award winner teaches at the Yale School of Drama and is playwright in residence with Signature Theater.

His game, Eurydice, adapted into an opera for which she wrote the libretto, firsts at the Met Opera at Lincoln Center in November. (While writing it, she tried to learn Latin read Virgil and Ovid.) She also wrote the libretto for Elvis Costello’s upcoming musical A face in the crowd.

Besides a play about speaking land masses written in 4th grade, Ruhl wrote his first play in sophomore year at Brown for playwright Paula Vogel, who would later go on to carry out Ruhl’s wedding ceremony; participated in the online theater Home project which raised funds for No Kid Hungry; recently learned make sauce; is inspired by rain; account King Lear Where A Midsummer Night’s dream like her favorite game; wrote For Peter Pan on the occasion of his 70th birthday for her mom’s 70th birthday; dressed up as Moira Rose, Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi and Yoda for Halloween; co-founded the 3Views theater website; and has a dog named Minerva, the Roman goddess among other things, of poetry and the performing arts.

The book that:

… Helped me get through a breakup:

The second sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Nothing like heartache at 16 to give birth to a feminist. I never saw the world the same way again after reading this book.

… made me miss a train stop:

In my twenties I was reading madly The Magic Mountain in the subway and fell asleep in a strange reverie influenced by Thomas Mann on a long drive from Harlem to Bensonhurst. I woke up, missed my stop, and saw that a very sad man was kneeling at my feet, begging me to feed myself spiritually. The whole train was looking at me.

… made me laugh out loud:

at Samantha Irby Wow, no thanks. I like belly laughs, and I would normally go to the theater for that kind of laughter rather than a book (because there is something to cackle with others rather than alone), but this book ( which was given to me by my sister who also makes me laugh) made me giggle all to myself. I was trying to find the Irby line that made me laugh the most, so I had to search for the word “ass” and there were 28 uses of the word, which made me happy; but the one that really made me laugh involved burning diarrhea and a blizzard.

… made me cry uncontrollably:

Many books made me cry uncontrollably; for some reason, that of Kafka Metamorphosis stands out, because it doesn’t seem usual to cry over a man who turns into a bug. But when I read it, my father had cancer, and his body had transformed as if overnight into a different body, a still body. And the rubbish of this sad bug was swept away like rubbish by the housekeeper at the end, as the girl stood up and “stretched out her young body.” I must have felt some guilt for being able to stretch my young body and desperation at the betrayal of the body – how insane, tragic and absurd it is to be embodied at times.

… I recommend again and again:

During my forties I continued to recommend (and buy manic for friends) One year with Rumi translated by Coleman Barks, because reading a poem by Rumi every day calmed me down. Rumi always seems to have a spiritual elixir for the dark nights of the soul. And Barks’ translations are so alive, so contemporary; deceptively frank and deep.

… I swear that I will finish one day:

War and peace. Oh and Moby dick. I know it probably makes me an inferior human / writer that I haven’t finished these two books but I think it’s as good a place as any to make my horrible confession; reader: I haven’t finished them. These two massive texts written by men both seem to proclaim that they could make sense of the whole pot. Maybe that’s why – the effort to make sense of the whole – that I resist. Not even during the pandemic, when many of my brothers were reading War and peace in an online book club together, could I finish War and peace.

… is currently sitting on my bedside table:

Life by Carrie Fountain, an exquisite poetry book with a focus on motherhood that is existential, funny and tender. The tradition, Jericho Brown’s magnificent book of poetry. Also Essays on Idleness and Hojoki by Kenko and Chomei, spiritual autobiographies of two Buddhist monks, from the 14th century. And The Selected Letters from Ralph Ellison, letters of deep wisdom that I have read slowly over the past year. And the astonishing memory of the playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, My broken tongue.

… I would give a gift to a new graduate:

The I Ching, a private translation by Richard Wilhelm. The new graduates, many of them, are full of indecision. I myself was indecisive in my early twenties and based many of my major decisions in life on I Ching. It took comfort to me that Carl Jung also viewed the volume, as did John Cage, and the narrator of Sheila Heti’s Amazing Book. Maternity. I might also have to give a new grad Letters to a young poet by Rilke for good measure. Anyone in their twenties who is confused about love might need Rilke.

… has the best opening line:

The first line of the new happiness through Katherine mansfield captures the joy perfectly, even in the sentence structure: “Although Bertha Young was thirty, she still had times like this where she wanted to run instead of walking, doing dance steps on and off the sidewalk. , play the hoop, throw something in the air and catch it, or just stand still and laugh at – nothing – nothing. And because I’m a playwright, I have to share my favorite first line from a play: How i learned to drive, by my teacher Paula Vogel, who effortlessly attracts audiences. The phrase is “Sometimes in order to tell a secret you have to teach a lesson first”.

… has the greatest ending:

The last verse of Elisabeth Bishop‘s “One Art”: “It’s obvious / the art of losing is not too difficult to master / although it may sound like (Write that!) like a disaster. These 20 words are big enough to contain both irony and deep sentiment; then create a ritual act when writing the poem.

… I brought my first solo trip out of the country:

Betsy and the big world by Maud Hart Lovelace. Betsy-Tacy’s books comforted me and guided me throughout my childhood. I reread the series until the books fell apart and put them back together, sometimes sleeping with them under my pillow. When I was 20 and went to study in England, I took Betsy and the big world with me, and I followed in Betsy’s footsteps, traveling to Oberammergau where she saw the Passion game. I wondered, what if the guy who was always supposed to play Pontius Pilate wanted to play the part of Jesus? It became the seed of my first complete play.

… everyone should read:

Toni Morrison Beloved, because it is arguably the most important work of fiction written in America in the 20th century. No one else writes in Morrison’s language, or his incisive combination of honesty and empathy, or his reach. Reading about the cost of slavery for one particular mother, Sethe, expands the moral imagination and the heart.

… I bought for the last time:

The last novel I bought was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I devoured it; I think it’s a contemporary classic. I’m not sure how Lee is able to sketch an entire generation so skillfully with such bold and quick strokes, you feel like you know each character intimately, then time flies by in an instant, and the reader moves on to the generation. next, and then the next – meditate on the complicated tragedy of how generations are interconnected, from country to country.

… presents the most beautiful book cover:

My favorite covers are the creations of the painter Vanessa Bell for her younger sister, Virginia Woolf. Towards the lighthouse is a particular favorite. I think book covers are such a big mystery (why are they so ugly? Why is it so hard to make them look good and look so good for the book? What makes people pull out a book? ‘a shelf?) and I think Woolf solved the mystery by having her sister design the blankets for her. If I ever asked the painter Richard Boulanger (who does intricate book cover portraits) for a book portrait I would most likely ask Bell’s cover Towards the lighthouse.

… I would like signed by the author:

A Ride in time. I wish I could go back in time and find the first autographed book I ever had an author signed – it was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ride in time. Maybe it’s appropriate that it’s lost or damaged by water in a basement – or maybe this particular volume exists in quantum time – in a tesseract. I have such a clear memory of standing in line and standing in line for L’Engle to sign the book – an author –a true living author—and One of my favorites– and how I looked her in the eye as she sat at the table in Chicago. I remember how she took her time to sign the book and how she made me feel seen. I like that she is fabulist, and also deeply moral.

… has a great title:

How to write an autobiographical novel by Alexandre Chee. I love this volume so much, and the title is kind of a Zen koan. The book is not really a book on how to write an autobiographical novel, but like any good paradox, it’s sort of is– but not in the way you might think.

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