Sarah Ruhl has four plays associated with Lincoln Center Theater -- The Clean House, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), and The Oldest Boy have been produced over past seasons, and How To Transcend a Happy Marriage is the latest. Four, as it happens, is also the number of epigraphs at the beginning of that last play’s script. The other morning, before a rehearsal, I asked Ruhl about them rather than about the play’s story: the LCT production is the work’s first, and surprises must be maintained.
The first quotation comes from the first century Roman poet Ovid: “Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed into different bodies.” Ruhl commented, “I’m fascinated with Ovidian transformations. They often involve magic or animals or song.” She continued: “The metamorphosis – a person turns into a tree or an animal – often occurs when an emotion is too much to bear or when there is a threat of sexual violence.“
Shakespeare drew a great deal from Ovid. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, (which, along with King Lear, Ruhl cites as her touchstone Shakespeare plays) includes some of the most direct references to the Roman. “I was interested in the fact that Ovid wrote about Pythagoras” – the 6th-century B.C.E. mathematician and philosopher – “and that Shakespeare encountered Pythagoras in Ovid.” Especially relevant to Ruhl’s new play is Pythagoras’s belief that humans shouldn’t kill animals, because animals have souls.
Ruhl’s second epigraph is a comment the 20th-century writer Paul Bowles made about his wife, the writer Jane Bowles. “She…changed from hour to hour like mercury. She was an odd bird; but she was a woman, she wasn’t a man, and I arrived at the conclusion that a woman can change from one minute to the next without anyone saying anything about it.”
“I love Jane Bowles,” Ruhl said, “and I nod to her in the new play by giving one of the couples her first name.” Ruhl said she found the quotation in a book she happened upon while working on the play in the New York Society Library, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a place of creation for another LCT-associated playwright, Wendy Wasserstein. “The Bowles book happened to be in the carrel where I was working,” Ruhl said.
The third epigraph comes from the American poet e. e. cummings (1894-1962): “A lot of people ‘love’ because, and a lot of people ‘love’ although, and a few individuals love. Love is something illimitable and a lot of people spend their limited lives trying to prevent anything illimitable from happening to them.”
“e. e. cummings is very dear to me,” Ruhl said. “Like Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, he was initially considered part of an avant-garde. Then he became popular and trendy and the avant-garde association fell away.” She added: “I hope his reputation will one day cycle round to include what was, at the time, his formal boldness.”
As for the cummings’ quotation, Ruhl said, “My dad quoted it in a letter to me long ago. What struck me was that cummings says ‘illimitable’ love rather than ‘unconditional’ love. It’s a great coinage. ‘Unconditional’ makes you think of conditions. Cummings asks us to look at love in a more expansive way.”
The final epigraph is the tersest: “Great sluts are made, not born.” It is taken from the 2009 volume The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy.
“A friend gave that book to me,” Ruhl said. “He thought I might be interested in it, and I was.” She went on: “I was fascinated by all the rules you need to construct a polyamorous life. There’s constant negotiation.” Ruhl explained that there are many brands of polyamory as defined by The Ethical Slut “including the free-love movements of the turn of the 20th century or of the 1960s.”
And there are many different cultural expressions of it: “ “For example, there’s a matriarchal society in Mongolia where the women have sex with as many men as they want. And among some of the nomadic groups in Tibet two brothers will share a wife. And, in the Bible, brothers share wives all the time. The difference with polyamory in the U.S. today is that ours is freely chosen. It’s not a part of a wider cultural norm.”
And how does all this relate to How To Transcend a Happy Marriage? “Audiences will soon see,” Ruhl said.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com