The playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose plays Eurydice (Second Stage) and Dead Man’s Cell Phone (Playwrights’ Horizons) I saw when they opened off-Broadway, has been posting small essays in Paper Theatre’s online forum-magazine, Device. Ruhl is an amazing playwright whose work combines beautiful poetic language, off-beat humor and otherworldly, mythical elements in many of her plays. Her play Eurydice took a different path in the retelling the Orpheus/Eurydice myth by examining not only Eurydice’s connection to Orpheus but also that to her long dead father, who is in the afterworld and who hasn’t had his soul completely washed of his mortal bound memories, though she has and can no longer remember him or Orpheus. The question of connection to others through memories is central to this play and it is told in a very tender way, with the theme of loss sweeping over the entire production sans melancholy.
In Ruhl’s essays in Device, she poses some interesting ideas about the limits and challenges of live performance. I’m particularly intrigued with her essay on “The Scary” and the inability to terrify audiences anymore. In this era is horror only relegated to film? I also think that question may be worth investigating. I think she may not be considering the interactive performances found around Halloween that we call “Haunted Houses…” and I don’t mean the productions of the Haunted House but rather the interactive format of them. I know that about two years ago the theater company Les Freres Corbusier experimented with the Hell House by turning the fundamentalist Christian morality that is the foundation of the Hell House, on its head, by simply reproducing a Hell House with irony.
And, in the 1970s, the Argentinian playwright and novelist Griselda Gambaro, created several terrifying plays, one called Información para extranjeros (Information for Foreigners) in the format of the “walkthrough” through various rooms, each more hellish than the last. The play is essentially about Argentina’s Dirty War, the torture and disappearances of some 30,000 people the military junta considered degenerates and enemies of the state. The play captures various scenes of torture but does not show them directly for the audience to see, everything is hinted off stage and after a while those traveling through the guided tour see not only the obvious examples, but also more frightening ones in which individuals in the society are able to turn their backs on their fellow humans, comrades, neighbors, classmates, etc. In ignoring the situation all around them, Gambaro implicates not only the “characters” involved in the genocide, but also the people in the audience who are bearing witness to the disappearances and murder and doing nothing.
Yet, I don’t think that’s the type of horror that Ms. Ruhl is writing about, but maybe it is and maybe live performance is no longer capable of scaring us the way films still can. If live performance can return to the horror story, perhaps what is is necessary is again interaction, something film cannot offer its audiences. Perhaps embracing models of performance such as the seance or a return to basic storytelling “around the campfire” would work. Food for thought towards a future project…