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Sarah Ruhl Talks Writing and Motherhood

Prize-winning playwright shares stories about her twin passions

By Rod Machen, 1:23PM, Thu. Oct. 17, 2013

Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl
Photo by Rod Machen

Sarah Ruhl has earned a place in contemporary theatre as one of the best dramatists of our time, but her heart is split between this important work and a home life she relishes.

Reading last night from an unpublished set of essays, Ruhl ruminated on a life lived in the theatre with all the extra joys and complications that come from being a mother of three.

During the Michener Center for Writers-sponsored talk, she explained to an on-campus audience how she was told that a working female playwright should have no more than one child. Ruhl refused this advice, even knowing how hard the journey would be. Her essays themselves were often interrupted by her children, painting a picture of a writer in her home, doing her work while never taking a break from the work of raising children.

The most compelling portion of her reading dealt with Ruhl’s struggles during the pregnancy of her twins, William and Hope. She came down with a hellish case of itchiness, and after protestations to the contrary, was eventually diagnosed by her doctor with a very serious liver disorder, one that could be dangerous to her unborn children.

She had to endure the stress of the possibility of her children expiring in her womb, requiring heart-stopping sonograms twice a week. When they were born, both ended up in the neonatal ICU, but thankfully came through unscathed. These struggles resonate as a nightmare scenario for parents everywhere.

Children can be great teachers when it comes to drama. Ruhl’s children have certainly been that for her, and not just in the ICU. In a child’s world, speech becomes reality. Just saying the words makes something real, like the sidewalk turning into lava for game of chase. Ruhl wonders why adult audiences can’t be moved in the same way, without the use of all the props and sets required to mimic reality. A child’s mind needs no such help.

Ruhl is aware that mothers aren’t often given their due on stage. When they are presented, it is usually from the perspective of a son, and often in unflattering terms. Is it that not enough playwrights are mothers? Is motherhood “unplayable”? Drama often lags behind in matters such as these, but Ruhl is hopeful for a renaissance of motherhood onstage.

An audience member asked Ruhl to comment on a now-famous quote from novelist Eleanor Catton that “male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel." Ruhl didn’t like either of these choices and said she preferred to be “androgynous” in this regard.

Ruhl’s mother was a stage actor in Chicago, but writing plays never seemed a viable career choice until she attended college at Brown University. Since then she has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice, and in 2006, she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant. She currently teaches at Yale while living in Brooklyn.

She now does her writing out of the house, but her children stay front and center in a life that continues to find professional success along with familial satisfaction. For her, there is no other way.

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