Monday, March 03, 2008

The TOO Clean Room

Thom Garvey on the critical phenomenon of Sarah Ruhl:

Like Paul Thomas Anderson (whose There Will Be Blood I critiqued
below), she seems driven not by inner ghosts, or visions, or demons, but by a compulsion to better manage the culture she was born into. The Clean House, for instance, is more like a perfect mix tape than a play. What's weird is that I'm not sure Ruhl herself is aware she's a kind of multi-cultural drama jockey, spinning a sleek mix of high-end chick lit and arthouse hits. Does she realize she borrowed her joke-so-funny-it-kills from Monty Python, and her dirt-obliterating-a-white-living-room from Tommy, and her adulterous-apples-popping-up-in-other-people's-lives from John Updike, her chicks-bonding-over-chocolate from some Susan Sarandon movie, and her saucy Latin maid from too many 70s "foreign films" to count? Somehow I actually think she imagines this is all her own stuff. Which is a little scary.

What's scarier is that the critics seem only to happy to cooperate with her delusions.


isaac said...

Calling something derivative is a cheap shot. All art is derivative of other art. Nothing comes from nothing. If the issue is that he feels that Ruhl doesn't synthesize her influences in an interesting way, that's one thing, but if Garvey's point is that he can spot what her influences are, the only thing that proves is that Garvey has a certain amount of to kind of cultural knowledge that qualifies one to be a critic. (For more on this, I'd check out Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence" from Harpers)

Further more, I don't see why art has to be driven by inner demons, necessarily. This kind of tortured artist mythology is extremely limiting. True, The Clean House isn't Long Days Journey Into Night, but in general artists write the play that comes to them, not the play they hope will get them taken seriously by reviewers.

If it's inner demons he wants, however, I would suggest Ruhl's Euridice.

Thomas Garvey said...

Of course all art is influenced by what has come before. Even Shakespeare borrowed his plots from other sources. The general expectation, however, is that the artist provides some original twist or new perspective on the base material. This Ruhl does not do, at least in The Clean House. Indeed, just as she operates as a deejay, we quickly learn to react to her play the way we would when flipping the dial on the radio: when the "twist" on the borrowed material comes, we recognize that, too, from another source.

On the other hand, as I pointed out in my review, Ruhl's technique is becoming more prevalent, and accepted, in the culture at large, which has already accommodated singers who can't sing and musicians who can't play any instruments. We now have playwrights who don't actually write their plays; it was really a very small jump. The only thing I'd ask is that we come up with some new tag for this kind of work. Perhaps meta-play? Or derived-drama? Those are just suggestions.