Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“My play is not a restaurant!”

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Maria Dizzia in Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl

What did E.E. Cummings say, something like, “I write about such trite themes as love and death?” Those are all writers’ themes. I think we’re pressed in this country to think about our themes in terms of how they would sound in a grant proposal. So we’re pressed to have smaller issues—I won’t name them—but to write issue plays about tinier issues when I think most writers worth their salt should be kind of contending with love and death. But who has a nugget to say about that that’s compressible that could be in a grant application or that you could say about your own work? In that way, I think plays should be like poems: irreducible in their meaning. I don’t think all playwrights feel that way.

I have this theory that the world is divided into Arthur Millers and Tennessee Williamses. One is kind of an architect, that Arthur Miller kind of builds these structures that are amazing, and at the apex of the structure is a line that is the kind of moral message: “Attention must be paid. It’s all my sons.” And he’d build these amazing structures to contain a moral. So I think morality plays and mystery plays, Miller and Williams. I think Williams is a writer of mystery. It’s more subjective, less [objective], and the meaning is more irreducible. It doesn’t have a moral. It’s more about moment-to-moment experience. When I studied with María Irene Fornés, I always loved, she would get so mad when people would say, “What should I take away from your play?” She would say, “My play is not a restaurant, I do not have a doggie bag! There’s nothing you should take away.” She was fierce about redirecting the attention to the moment of watching. You talk to people about what they remember from a play. Is it ever even the writing? No. That’s the kind of astonishing thing.

Sarah Ruhl, in The Playwright at Work: Conversations

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