Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Les Waters
Limited Season · Thrust Stage
October 15–November 21, 2004
West Coast Premiere
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
The tragic story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a cornerstone of western mythology: shortly after her marriage to the musician Orpheus, Eurydice is fatally bitten by a snake and sent to the underworld, leaving her young husband behind to grieve. Seducing Hades, the lord of the underworld, with his beautiful music, Orpheus strikes a deal that will allow him to bring Eurydice back to life—as long as Orpheus does not look back until they have left the underworld. Reimagining this classic text from Eurydice’s point of view, with contemporary characters and ingenious twists, Sarah Ruhl’s award-winning play is a truly original tale. Ruhl’s lyrical writing and poetic imagery have marked her as a young playwright on the rise, talents confirmed by Eurydice, on which the age-old theme of “love and loss” takes on a whole new meaning.
Sarah Ruhl · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Scott Bradley · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Russell H. Champa · Lighting Design
Bray Poor · Sound Design
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Professor Crawford H. Greenewalt, Jr. · U.C. Berkeley Classics Department
MaryBeth Cavanaugh · Movement
Eddie Kurtz · Assistant Director
Maria Dizzia · Eurydice
Aimée Guillot · Loud Stone (Chorus of Stones)
Ramiz Monsef · Big Stone (Chorus of Stones)
Charles Shaw Robinson · Eurydice’s Father
Daniel Talbott · Orpheus
T. Edward Webster · Little Stone (Chorus of Stones)
Mark Zeisler · Nasty Interesting Man & Lord of the Underworld
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
It’s always a thrill to be able to introduce the work of a new writer. Sarah Ruhl made a deep impression on our artistic staff from the moment we first came across her writing. Having garnered a considerable reputation as a young artist of great talent, her plays have been eagerly anticipated and read by many theatres across the country. What any playwright wants and needs, however, is for his or her work to be actually produced. The “staged reading” format, while a worthwhile endeavor that may be helpful in the development of a script, cannot yield the ultimate result: it cannot predict if the three-dimensional reality of a play will work in front of a “real” audience. Since all theatres are fearful of failure, many young playwrights stay trapped in an endless cycle of readings, frustrated that their work is never fully realized. With this production of Eurydice, we proudly endorse the breaking of this cycle for Sarah Ruhl.
If the marketplace is jittery (as it is), and the risk of producing new work is higher than that of mounting a “tried and true” play (a stock hypothesis which I think is losing its validity, but that’s another conversation), then one must ask “Why new work?” The answer is really quite simple: any theatre worth its salt is attempting to make a contribution to the field; attempting to say something about the world we currently inhabit. The plays we categorize as Classics manage to do this through metaphor. The issues they address and their brilliant mode of expression are such that they still speak to us. We measure ourselves against these works and we revere their place in the canon of dramatic literature.
But Sophocles, Shakespeare, Molière and Chekhov were nothing if not citizens of their time. Each spoke with pressing urgency to topical issues facing his particular society, as well as to larger, metaphysical concerns. They were once unknown, struggling for their voices to be heard. Part of the mission of Berkeley Rep is to provide an arena for dynamic, fascinating new voices; people whose artistic talent is undeniable and who have a contribution to make to our culture. In you, we have an audience open to new experiences and able to recognize and appreciate good theatre. We are optimistic that the care we take in presenting this work continues to earn your trust, and that together we can continue to build a theatre that is truly unique.
I hope this evening’s performance surprises and delights you.
More than a backward glance
Playwright Sarah Ruhl and the Myth of Orpheus
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is iconic in western art and literature. The list of artists that have taken on the doomed lovers’ tale reads like a who’s who of cultural heritage: Ovid, Anouilh, Hainey, Cocteau, Rilke, Berlioz, Gluck, Haydn, Offenbach, Stravinsky, Weill, Rodin and Rubens. Most of these artists are male, and concerned more with Orpheus than Eurydice. “So many major authors felt the need to grapple with it,” says Chicago-born playwright Sarah Ruhl, “Orpheus became a metaphor for themselves.”
Would it be fair, then, to consider Eurydice a metaphor for Ruhl? “The whole play is a prism which refracts and is in some ways transparent in terms of my life. But Eurydice has her own soul, which is separate from mine. We are different. “For example,” she offers with understated humor, “I’ve never been dead before.”
And yet the transparent relationship between the play and Ruhl’s own life is, in fact, about death: her father died of bone cancer when she was 20. “My father was a very gentle man. It was inspiring to see how gracefully he handled being sick. I partly wrote the play to have more conversations with him,” she says, “but I wasn’t consciously aware of that at the time.” She has given Eurydice’s dead father a prominent role in her re-telling of the myth and, as she wrote, she gradually became aware of art imitating life. Sarah’s father, like Eurydice’s, taught his daughter words, although the purpose and setting were very different. “My father would take me to a pancake breakfast every week and teach me some new complicated word. It probably warped me for life—a seven-year-old, knowing words like ostracize.”
Ruhl uses the word “subterranean” several times in discussing the process of writing Eurydice. Her relationship to the original myth is intuitive, not analytical. “I kept thinking about that moment when Orpheus looks back—to lose so much in such a small moment.” Her most direct literary inspiration was the Rilke poem “Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes,” and she read the section about them in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (see accompanying text), but mostly she was relying on the basic myth we all know from oral tradition. “There’s not a lot in the original Greek—Ovid has two pages, that’s it. There was a play, but it didn’t survive. There are a few mentions in Virgil. And of course there’s plenty about the cult of Orpheus, but Eurydice didn’t get much consideration in that.”
Ruhl tried not to read any material that was reminiscent of the story while actually writing the first draft of the script; however, while rewriting, she saw Cocteau’s “brilliant, gorgeous” Orphée, and loved the “obvious, crude theatrical special effects.” She is also a fan of the Brazilian film Black Orpheus, as well as Anouilh’s stage-play. Ruhl is glad she did not read his version until after she had written her own, “or I probably would have been too daunted to write at all,” she says.
Although she was not strongly influenced by other artists’ renditions of the myth, Ruhl had inspiration along the way. She wrote the first draft of the play in one month for a New Plays Festival at Brown University, and then spent two years rewriting it. It was during those two years, once her own relationship to the story was clearly established, that she reached out more consciously toward other sources. Her eye was drawn to anything about Orpheus or Eurydice; she absorbed what was useful and discarded the rest. Deciding that the physical reality of the play required a lighter touch, she re-read Alice in Wonderland because “it’s the world we live in turned upside down”—an inspiration she translated quite literally into the Underworld. She also found inspiration in Samuel Beckett. “How could one consider using a chorus of stones without thinking a little about Beckett…his understanding of silence, stillness and vaudeville all at once.”
But inspiration came in all forms, from the specific and spontaneous—like the tricycle, a found object added during a workshop—to the conceptual, in the form of Ruhl’s own musings upon “the nefarious category of ‘interesting’,” which led to the character of the Nasty Interesting Man. “There is a certain kind of person who forever delights in ‘interesting’ over ‘good’ or ‘bad’,” Ruhl observes. “It’s an empty category of intellectual experience. [In the play] Orpheus is more interested in dividing the world into ‘beautiful’ and ‘not beautiful’, but it’s harder for Eurydice to accept that. The Nasty Interesting Man is a projection of Eurydice’s desire. He uses the word ‘interesting’ to suck her in.” Sometimes the inspiration was subtler, less direct: the string room, for example, was to Ruhl the image of building a nest, a parent creating an invisible, spiritual home for a child, “the ability to build security out of thin air.” (She speaks with amusement of talkbacks held during workshops of the play, when people would ask her why she wanted to “work with string” when avant-garde director Richard Foreman “had already taken string to such extremes.”)
Some sources of inspiration remain a mystery to her. She has no idea where the elevator came from, but it does strike her as a contemporary expression of approaching the Greek Afterlife, especially since traveling in elevators can be very disorienting—the door always opens in a place other than where it closed. Ruhl is now fascinated with elevators; whenever she sees one she wonders, “Would this elevator be in the Underworld?”
If some of these images seem more symbolic or poetical, there’s a reason. Ruhl’s original life plan was “to get a PhD and become a professor who wrote poetry.” With that in mind, she was studying English and Creative Writing at Brown, focusing on non-dramatic forms (“bad fiction,” she calls it). A graduate-student instructor encouraged her to study playwriting and Ruhl quickly became smitten with the teaching and work of the renowned Paula Vogel, who runs Brown’s playwriting program. After graduation and stints in both Chicago and New York, Ruhl returned to Brown to attend the graduate playwriting program there, where she studied with Mac Wellman. A year after grad school, she moved from Providence to L.A. for love; she “can’t think why else anyone would move to Los Angeles.” When asked if Los Angeles, then, is a kind of Underworld for her, she replies, “Yes, without the moral and spiritual structure that an Underworld implies. But I’ve written two plays since I’ve been here. And I’m starting a third. The world seems to be generous in surprising ways when you try to do hard things for love. Which is not always the lesson that the Greeks teach us.”
From Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book X
Translated by David R. Slavitt
Hymen went…To preside at Orpheus’ wedding, which didn’t go well. A bad job all around. The bride, on the grass among her attendant naiads, stepped on a viper, whose sharp and envenomed fangs killed her at once. The wedding abruptly turned to a wake. Orpheus, the bridegroom, all but out of his mind with grief, went into mourning, carrying his complaints to the ends of the earth and beyond, even down to the shadows below, where the insubstantial spirits shimmer. There, he sang out in pain and anger:
“Gods of the dim domain to which we are all consigned sooner or later, hear me…I am here to follow my wife, my bride…I have tried to bear it, to come to terms with the world’s inherent unfairness, and master my grief, but I cannot. I cannot go on this way. In the name of love, I am here to throw myself on your mercy…Desperate, bereft, I appear to ask: Restore to me that young woman you took before her time. We all come in the end to our ultimate home here. You receive every man and woman. And you shall have her as well, but, until she has lived her allotted years, let her be with me, either above, alive, or else accept me here and rejoice in the death of us both. Let me remain with her.”
…Orpheus’ lyre drew from the insubstantial shadows physical tears…and the queen of darkness granted the suppliant’s prayer that his wife, Eurydice, be summoned…She came, still limping from the viper’s bite, and the mistress of shades gave her up to the singer-hero of Thrace with this one proviso only—that he should not turn to look back until he had left Avernus and returned to the world of the living. Hesitation or doubt, and the gift would be nullified. A simple enough condition? It ought to have been, and the singer led the way, ascending the sloping path through the murk.
A long way they traveled, almost all the way, and, concerned for her, or not quite believing that it wasn’t a cruel delusion, a dream or mirage, he turned to confirm for himself what he couldn’t unreservedly trust, and there she was, but slipping backward, away, and down. He reached out his empty arms to hold her, touch her, catch at the hem of her garment, but nothing. Not even words of complaint, for what could she charge him with except that he’d loved her, loved her too much perhaps? She spoke but only one word, “Farewell,” which he barely heard as he watched her vanish back into darkness.