The Clean House: Purity & Danger

Photo by Daniel Haley

Riffing off Sarah Ruhl, my posts on dramaturgy are not necessarily faithful descriptions of my process but rather views of certain aspects of it from just to the left of the experience. 

After The Three Keys of Captain Hellfire opened my director, David Lee-Painter (DLP) asked if I would dramaturg his next project, This Random World by Steven Dietz in the fall. The idea of researching someone else’s play was vaguely terrifying. I knew nothing about how to do it. In the past, I would’ve fled. This time I said, “Yes.”

So it was that I began learning dramaturgy and researching The Clean House.

One of the fun parts of researching Ruhl’s The Clean House is that I got to bust out a couple of my anthropology books that I haven’t touched since grad school. On this post I wanted to share some of Mary Douglas’ text Purity & Danger which uses beliefs on purity to compare different religions.

For her purposes, Douglas defines dirt:

If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. ….It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involved rejecting inappropriate elements….[For example, s]hoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining table.

Douglas continues:

“There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder….Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.”

These ideas are reflected in The Clean House where Lane expects order. Activities within her home must follow a routine or a system. Virginia, Lane’s sister, see cleaning (organizing the environment) as progress.

Beliefs about pollution are used within societies to influence behavior through social pressure. These implied perils are intended to keep would-be offenders within accepted norms of behavior (Douglas). To step outside of these boundaries causes the transgressor to enter a transitional state.

“Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable. ….The theme of death and rebirth [transitional states], of course, has other symbolic functions: the initiates die to their old life and are reborn anew (Douglas).”

Transitional phases for Matilde are seen when she is mourning and the scene of her birth. For her mother when she dies. For Ana, her surgery—a liminal state where you are neither living nor dead—and then when Ana dies. Lane’s old life dies and a new one is born.

Cleaning is also a method of control.

It’s not uncommon for people in transition to be quarantined, shunned or marginalized (Douglas). Marginalized people are also outcasts who sometimes live near those who have banished them. Matilde is an immigrant, a lower-class worker, and speaks a language none but Ana understands. Ana is also in transition and marginalized at first for breaking up Lane’s marriage and later during her struggle with cancer until the other women readmit her into society.

In the second act, cleaning becomes cleansing. More juxtaposition abounds here. The cleansing needed for Lane’s ordered and sterile world requires that all become dirty. The ripples of her husband’s affair into her life rain down as apple cores. Her sister physically makes a mess in the living room during an argument. And when Ana’s cancer returns, her polluted body is brought into Lane’s home. It is there Ana prepares to end her transitional state and, in the process, cleanses the other women. In a neat reverse, after Ana clutters their lives with the messiness of being alive, they clean her body which is now out of its transitional state (Al-Shamma, Heller, Schmidt).

From clean to messy to cleanse, the women learn “to accept the chance collisions of life, the pull of desire, and the inevitability of death (Heller).”

Lines from an early poem of Ruhl’s called “Advice from a Father to His Daughters”:

But have a good tantrum once in a while –
throw a bowl of olives against the wall.
Then conjure grace and drink plenty of tea”

Both the play and the poem recognize that a mess is a part of the process of confronting our deep-seated fears of disorder. Something deeper is at work here as well, as the play’s conclusion reveals: a cleansing mess is a step on the path to letting go of the world more completely (Heller).

Al-Shamma, James Zuheir, “Grief and Whimsy in the Plays of Sarah Ruhl,” dissertation, UC-Santa Barbara, 2008.
Heller, Jennifer, “To Follow Pleasure’s Sway: Atomism in Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House,” Modern Drama, Volume 60, Number 4, Winter 2017.
Schmidt, Heidi, “Sarah Ruhl’s Women: Gender, Representation And Subversion In The Clean House, Eurydice And In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play,” dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2010.

The Clean House Joke

Photo by Daniel Haley

Riffing off Ruhl, my posts on dramaturgy are not necessarily faithful descriptions of my process but rather views of certain aspects of it from just to the left of the experience. 

After The Three Keys of Captain Hellfire opened my director, David Lee-Painter (DLP) asked if I would dramaturg his next project, This Random World by Steven Dietz in the fall. The idea of researching someone else’s play was vaguely terrifying. I knew nothing about how to do it. In the past, I would’ve fled. This time I said, “Yes.”

So it was that I began learning dramaturgy and researching The Clean House.

The perfect joke makes you forget about your life.
The perfect joke makes you remember about your life.
The perfect joke is stupid when you write it down.
The perfect joke was not made up by one person. It passed through the air and you caught it.
A perfect joke is somewhere between an angel and a fart.
—Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House

Sometimes I’m thinking so hard that I miss the joke.

The Clean House opens with a joke. A joke told in Portuguese. It is a long joke. Being unable to understand the joke itself, the audience is left with only the shape of a joke. A device to make the audience observe the joke from the outside (Muse). It is another way of making the familiar strange. Ruhl let us into The Clean House on what was for me—these are my ruminations—an abstract point of entry that proved to set the tempo for the rest of the story.

From: DLP
Subject: The joke
I’m ruminating about the opening of The Clean House.
THAT first joke is super important. It’s in Portuguese
– and we can’t understand it.
WHEN is Matilde telling it? To whom?

“WHEN is Matilde??” With that trigger, ideas move. Ruhl’s story has an elasticity. It’s a joy to pull and stretch. The freedom she gives to explore. Burning through ideas but ultimately returning to the truth of the story she has created. To read it again. And again. The script is a tether.

It’s the past. Before she’s a comedian in deed.
Before the perfect joke comes to her.
It’s Brazil and somewhere safe.
May be with her parents.

It is now and the death of her parents cloak her
from telling the perfect joke which she also fears.

If top of show is the future, then she’s moving
backwards through time in the null space?
At the end of the story is her birth.

In her dissertation on comic dramaturgy, Jennifer Goff references the writing of Andrew Stott. (I know quoting someone else quoting is a no-no, but this is a blog.) In the realm of stand-up, a comic can present multiple perspectives in setting up a joke. Often they show us one point of view before presenting another that is incongruent with the first. “….like a silent but parallel conversation that could audibly erupt at any moment.”

Goff describes the technique as a “comic subversion.” She finds that Ruhl uses it and repurposes it “in service of a deeply profound view of the power of the joke.”

Are jokes apples?

There’s something compassionate about humor; it has a saving power. It seemed to me that if you took the most sublime version of a joke— the Platonic ideal of a joke—that it could transport you somehow. I remember when my father was sick that humor was a form of grace in the household. Humor pushed to an extreme, like any emotion, has a transformative power. In the play the joke is abstracted, but we see the compassion of one woman killing another woman with a form of euthanizing humor. Mathilda is willing to do this for Ana without even thinking about it—she takes pity on Ana and kills her with a joke, and that’s the emotional heart of the play.—Sarah Ruhl  (Weckwerth)

From: Ariana B
Is Clean House trying to be the perfect joke?

From: DLP
Damn fine question – the joke is so important –
both kills her mother and Ana. 
One causes great pain,
one relieves great suffering.  

From: Ariana B
Or may be both relieve great suffering.
That final transformation……

“Heaven is a series of untranslatable jokes.”
–Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House

#DLPAnotherFineMess #theatre #dramaturgy
Photo by Daniel Haley


Dunne, Will. The Architecture of Story: A Technical Guide for the Dramatic Writer.
Goff, Jennifer Ann. “If More Women Knew More Jokes…” The Comic Dramaturgy Of Sarah Ruhl And Sheila Callaghan, dissertation, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, 2015.
Muse, Amy. The Drama and Theatre of Sarah Ruhl.
Weckwerth, Wendy.  More Invisible Terrains, Sarah Ruhl, Interviewed by Wendy, Theater (2004) 34 (2).
Zuheir Al-Shamma, James. Grief and Whimsy in the Plays of Sarah Ruhl, dissertation, UC-Santa Barbara, 2008.

It Begins

Think of subtext as to the left of the language and not underneath it. –Sarah Ruhl

Riffing off Ruhl, my posts on dramaturgy are not necessarily faithful descriptions of my process but rather views of certain aspects of it from just to the left of the experience.

After The Three Keys of Captain Hellfire opened my director, David Lee-Painter (DLP) asked if I would dramaturg his next project, This Random World by Steven Dietz in the fall. The idea of researching someone else’s play was vaguely terrifying. I knew nothing about how to do it. In the past, I would’ve fled. This time I said, “Yes.”

So it was that I began learning dramaturgy and researching This Random World—I mean The Clean House.

A few weeks after we’d spoke, DLP messaged me. In about sixty days he would be directing The Clean House. On a whim, I sent him some articles on Sarah Ruhl.

From DLP: Can you also dramaturg Clean House?

I was so new to dramaturgy that I didn’t know what I was making or what it was called. And now he wanted two whatchamacallits. I did it.

Research is an immersive process for me. Consequently, I’m voracious in collecting information, possessed with a desire for thoroughness and continually frustrated by the nagging thought that I have not seen everything on the subject at hand.

When I compiled history notes on 18th century pirates for the cohort producing my play, I quickly came to the heartbreaking realization that not everyone is interested in the pictureless, scholarly articles that I savor. Crazy, I know.

That was my first lesson in dramaturgy.

Compiling my research on the two upcoming productions would involve rendering what I found down to its essentials. I wanted to create something informative and readable.

The Clean House & This Random World are shows well-suited for dual research. I found them to be different parts of a whole. They would make for a crazy double-bill but that was not the goal this time.

Both plays engage in making the familiar seem strange, bumping the audience into a different level of awareness, if only for a moment. Typically when attending the theatre, I anticipate becoming immersed in the story presented on the stage. These scripts deal with topics that are so much a part of our lives that it is necessary to bump us to prevent complete immersion. With a subtle shift, we as viewers watch something well-known “as if for the first time (Jestrovic).” From that prospective we are able to look at it, think about it, and respond to it consciously.

Johann described Ruhl’s style as “visionary and fantastical. As though the playwright has a shamanic role of reaching into the void and bringing back visions that explain us to ourselves (Johann).” The Clean House’s world has characters eating apples on a balcony and being able to chuck the remains into Lane’s home at a distant location. The two places exist in the play’s physical world and yet overlap in some fashion that allows apples to span distance and time. And they become more than apples. These symbols of original sin clutter Lane’s clean house with the messiness of a lived existence.

In This Random World, estrangement is the underlying architecture of Dietz’s story. He derailed the viewers’ expectation by having scenes happen offstage or not at all. “[Dietz says] ‘What if I subverted this? What if that was a list of scenes that cannot be in the play?’(Pender)”

A break-up is not shown to the audience but described by Claire after it has happened. Gary attempts to correct her narrative, but her story shapes what we understand happened. We are forced to rely on her interpretation of the event.

Dietz’s various characters are expected to meet and finally have a much anticipated encounter. They never do. Denying the audience this jars it into another view of the story and engenders a different response.

Both Dietz’s & Ruhl’s writing styles are different. I find Dietz’s to be more relaxed, easing me into the story and the ideas therein. His interviews read like casual conversations over coffee. His vision and process are apparent and relatable.

Ruhl crushes me with her philosophical background. The course I took in college made me feel like I was drowning as I struggled to understand the concepts presented and here I was once more. Drowning. It was a challenge to analyze her interviews and then apply them to her work, to understand the architecture she built. The Clean House was written crisply and sparingly. Sitting in the audience, I’m not aware of the architecture’s presence but studying the script, I see the overwhelming strength that structure gives to the entire work.

After studying and reflecting of the anatomy of their scripts, I reassembled them, stepped back, and looked at them holistically once more. Then I wrote up my findings. The Clean House packet was finalized and sent to DLP shortly before he left for rehearsals.

From DLP: GOLD – pure Gold. Is it possible to have this done for Dietz sooner rather than later so the team can ruminate on this GOLD earlier?

Oi.

It’s a good thing I love digging for buried treasure.

#DLPAnotherFineMess #theatre #dramaturgy
Photo by Daniel Haley


Jestrovic, Silvija. Making the Familiar Strange in Theatre and Drama: From Russian Formalist Avant-Garde to Brecht, dissertation, University of Toronto, 2002.

Johann, Susan. “Sarah Ruhl,” Focus on Playwrights, Portraits and Interviews, University of South Carolina Press, 2016. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6wgmrn.17

Pender, Rick. “Ensemble Theatre Is Growing, Thriving in OTR,” Cincinnati CityBeat, Oct. 9, 2017. https://www.citybeat.com/arts-culture/theater/media-gallery/20978565/ensemble-theatre-is-growing-thriving-in-otr

Ruhl, Sarah. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.