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La mémoire comme instrument des discours politiques

« Breaking Down the Borders of Memory : The Transatlantic Politics of Metatheatre in Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play »

Au-delà des frontières de la mémoire : politique transatlantique et métathéâtre dans la pièce Passion Play de Sarah Ruhl
Rompiendo las barreras de la memoria: política transatlántica del metateatro en Passion Play de Sarah Ruhl
Noelia Hernando-Real

Résumés

L’article s’intéresse aux stratégies théâtrales que Sarah Ruhl déploie dans sa pièce Passion Play (2010) afin de questionner les descriptions monolithiques de la mémoire historique et ainsi jeter des ponts non seulement entre l’Europe et les États-Unis mais aussi entre le passé et le présent. Basé sur la théorie de l’hétérotopie de Foucault et de l’hétérochronie de Bakhtine, cet article démontre que les trois parties de la pièce fonctionnent comme un cycle mettant en scène le temps et l’espace comme une partie du continuum de la mémoire qui façonne les identités des personnages. Parmi les stratégies mobilisées dans la pièce, nous nous intéresserons plus particulièrement à l’analyse de l’utilisation du métathéâtre afin d’étudier l’importance de la transmission de modèles identitaires et le rôle des dirigeants politiques dans la manipulation de l’identité des peuples, phénomène qui, si l’on en croit Ruhl, marque profondément notre histoire, en Europe comme aux États-Unis.

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Notes de l’auteur

The author is grateful to the Instituto Benjamin Franklin-Universidad de Alcalá (Spain) research project, « Space, Gender, and Identity in North-American Literature and Visual Arts: A Transatlantic Approach », for providing financial support to write this essay.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Sarah Ruhl, Passion Play, New York, Samuel French, 2010, p. 9.
  • 2 Susan Manning and Andrew Taylor, « The Nation and Cosmopolitanism: Introduction », in Susan Manning (...)

1Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play is an enigmatic work aptly defined by its author as a conversation on the fluidity of identity in « very solemn times1 ». In three separated but interconnected parts, Ruhl puts onstage three Passion Plays at three different points in time and in three different places, which, at first sight, have nothing in common: 1575 Northern England, 1934 Oberammergau, and Spearfish, South Dakota, from the time of Vietnam through Reagan’s presidency. Written in a decade, the trilogy was completed in 2005, when Ruhl was commissioned to write a play about America. However, and although Ruhl examines America’s self-conception, the play gains wider significance if considered through the lens of transnationalism. Passion Play shares with Transatlantic Studies a common goal, which in Susan Manning and Andrew Taylor’s words is to challenge « the security of static and bordered spaces of all kinds, none more so than the defining authority of a nation2 ». The present article discusses some of the theatrical strategies that Ruhl employs to challenge spatially and temporally bordered descriptions of memory, bridging the gap between Europe and the United States, between past and present, and inviting to reconsider time and space as a continuum as regards the construction of identity.

  • 3 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 8.
  • 4 Una Chaudhuri and Eleanor Fuchs, « Introduction: Land/Scape/Theater and the New Spatial Paradigm », (...)
  • 5 Marvin Carlson, « After Stein: Traveling the American Theatrical ‘Langscape’ », in Eleanor Fuchs an (...)
  • 6 Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender, Cambridge, Polite Press, 1998, p. 180.
  • 7 Cole M. Crittenden, « The Dramatics of Time », Kronoscope, 2005, vol 5.2, p. 194.
  • 8 Ibid. p. 196.
  • 9 Dasha Krijanskaia, « A Non-Aristotelian Model: Time as Space and Landscape in Postmodern Theatre », (...)
  • 10 Mikhael Bakhtin, « Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel. Notes towards a Historical Poe (...)
  • 11 Michel Foucault, « Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias », Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 [online], (...)

2The necessary demolition of time and space barriers to depict contemporary American society is evident in Ruhl’s preconception of the play. As she has affirmed, she wrote Passion Play in response to her feeling that « Never had the medieval world and the digital age seemed so oddly conjoined3 ». This link between the medieval world and contemporary times reconstructs Americanness as the sum of historical memories located both in the United States and across the Atlantic, which in turn invites to reconsider the roles of time and space in staging identity. For decades, theatre scholars have highlighted the politics of place as a useful tool in analysing contemporary theatre’s engrossment with staging identity. As Una Chaudhuri and Eleanor Fuchs have claimed, the theatrical landscape is « a figure of its own4 » whose importance, as Marvin Carlson has highlighted, dwells in its representation of the characters’ psyche5. Furthermore, given that, as Doreen Massey has pointed out, there are mutually constructive relations between identity and space6, the traditional existential question « Who am I? » had to be rewritten as « Where am I? » two questions now enriched by their temporal quality: « when? » Thus, in the same way that the stable meaning of place started being questioned – characters’ identity was depicted as malleable depending on the characters’ locality – modern writers, as Cole M. Crittenden has asserted, also felt that time could no longer be treated « in the classic, Newtonian sense, where ‘time is objective’, self-same, and simply a surrounding ‘ether’ to the events7 ». As Crittenden argues, « An inhabitable world, either real or created, obeys temporal and spatial rules characteristic of that world8 ». Consequently, playwrights started to interrupt the « steady linear development from past to future [...] by other time patterns such as flashbacks, dreams, slow motion, frozen time, etc9 ». From the fixed and closed poetic time characteristic of traditional drama according to Bakhtin10, there was a move to show the complexities of time. Resisting the Aristotelian division into beginning, middle and end, modern theatre that aims to portray the fluidity of identity has tended to show that the way in which time, and not only place, is experienced happens in a continuum. Ruhl follows this tendency by presenting Foucauldian heterotopia. Her metatheatrical stages bring « a whole series of places that are foreign to one another11 » to point out the heterogeneous nature of space. As Foucault observes,

  • 12 Ibid.

The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space. In other words, we do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another12.

  • 13 Ibid.

3Ruhl’s Passion Play proves Foucault’s words, that « Our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites13 », and furthermore, these sites are also depicted under the shade of Bakhtin’s heterochrony, described as

  • 14 Cole M. Crittenden, op. cit., p. 197.

an open depiction of time, in which things (and characters) are in a state of becoming, and in which contemporaneity [...] is revealed as an essential multitemporality: as [...] relics of various stages and formations of the past and as rudiments of stages in the more or less distant future14.

  • 15 Wai Chee Dimock, « Deep Time: American Literature and World History », in Susan Manning and Andrew  (...)

4Moreover, it could be argued that what, from the formal point of view, Ruhl does in Passion Play metatheatrically equates with the « deep time » of American literary studies. Wai Chee Dimock has recently used the term « deep time » to refer to a more extended duration of American literary studies, previously fixed by a space and a time (either 1620 on board of the Mayflower or 1776 in the newly-born United States). This deep time widens the scope of historical depth and suggests that time and space predate the adjective American15, a predation that Ruhl suggests in her play by showing that her characters are always the product of what has happened to other characters in other places and at different times.

5While the three settings in Passion Play apparently have nothing in common, Ruhl interconnects them to attack straightforwardly the hypothetical evolution humanity has undergone from medieval times to the present day, since these three settings respond to similar anxieties regarding identity and to the existence of a normative identity orchestrated by political leaders. The first setting, 1575 England, is oddly suspended between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, an anachronism in itself that suggests the characters’ unwillingness to adhere to Elizabethan cultural and religious changes. The characters, commoners who act in the Passion Play within the play, assume their participation in the play will assure their heavenly afterlife. In Carpenter 2’s words:

  • 16 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 17.

I have blisters and splinters and all for the glory of God. My father’s father was a carpenter. My father’s father’s father was a carpenter. We all have blisters and splinters in our fingers and all for the glory of God16.

6But this easy path towards salvation is blocked when Queen Elizabeth appears onstage to forbid the Passion Play, claiming a unifying Protestant national identity. The second setting also represents a time of crisis; it mirrors the beginnings of the Nazi expansion in 1934. The characters, used to playing their holy parts and moved by their political contexts, are now eager to foster the anti-Semitic essence of the text. And the third part, spanning three decades, conflates the Vietnam War with the latent fear of the Soviet Union, showing mostly characters who blindly follow political leaders and play their parts in the play either to have fun or to try to achieve some fame; characters which are thus used by Ruhl to criticise those idle citizens that go on with their petty lives while soldiers are losing their own. In spite of the temporal and local specificities of each part, Ruhl focuses on the relational rather than on the territorial, showing along the way the diverse networks typical of a transatlantic approach, re-imagining space, time, and identity in a changing continuum. Significantly, it may be argued that what Ruhl wants to suggest is that no matter the point in time, no matter where on the world, in essence human beings are the same, always subjected to political leaders, engaged in wars they rarely dare to question and constrained by gendered roles marked by their times and spaces. Nothing seems to reinforce national identities better than having an obvious enemy to fight. In Part One, the still Catholic community the town represents is linked by their struggle against sin and, upon Queen Elizabeth’s arrival, they will be forced to be linked against Catholicism to comply with their leader’s zeal to cleanse England of Papal traces. In Part Two, the enemy that provides a shared identity to the Nazi German characters are, obviously, the Jews. And in Part Three, both Vietnam and Russia appear as those « Others » that provide a sense of unity to the American characters.

  • 17 Leslie Atkins Durham, Women’s Voices on American Stages in the Early Twenty-First Century. Sarah Ru (...)
  • 18 Charles Isherwood, « The Intersection of Fantasy and Faith », New York Times [online] 13 May 2010, (...)
  • 19 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 41.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 65.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 138.

7Besides this thematic interconnection among the three parts, Ruhl employs several theatrical means to bring together her heterotopic and heterochronic landscapes. Among these, Ruhl manages to provide a continuum through lighting, biblical imagery, costume and language. As Leslie Atkins Durham has noted, the sky turns to or from red throughout the three parts, while fish, boats, and birds appear again and again, reverberating with such an intensity that « epochs are colliding17 ». Costumes, as Isherwood has observed, « are a jumbled mixture of now and then », and language a free mixture of « period syntax with contemporary slang and [Ruhl’s] own timeless lyricism18 ». The overall effect of such a mixture is a sense of timelessness meant to drive the audience to question how vivid the past is in the present and how much or how little politics has changed throughout history. Furthermore, the repetition of several lines in the three parts has the same function. For example, the three characters/actors playing Pontius in the three plays, Pontius the Fish Gutter in Part One, the Foot Soldier in Part Two, and P in Part Three, refer to the play in similar terms: in Part One, Pontius the Fish Gutter refers to the play as a « little turd of a play. Plays aren’t real19 ». In Part Two, the same actor in the role of Foot Soldier affirms that « Plays aren’t real. The soldier’s boot – that’s real20 », and in Part Three, P, a traumatised war veteran, also insists that the play « is not real21 ». For these characters what is real is, respectively, having sex with Mary 1, who plays the Virgin Mary, joining the Nazi army, and the wounds inflicted during the Vietnam War. While the three characters who play Pontius at different times and places, significantly performed by the same actor, are the only ones to realise that the script of their lives can be changed, the metatheatrical and metaphorical landscape of the play points exactly in the opposite direction. The Passion Plays represented are real in the sense that the roles the characters play mark their lives, as argued later.

8Besides her use of costume and language, one of the main strategies Ruhl employs to show time, space and identity in a transatlantic memory continuum is metatheatre. It must be noted that, as seen previously in the case of the actor playing Pontius, the same actors play the same roles in the three Passion Plays, being at the same time another « real » character outside the Passion Play within the play. In order to discuss the theatrical implications of this technique, it seems necessary to recall the genesis of Passion Play and its relation to acting and gender identity theories. As Ruhl writes, the main question she tried to answer with this work was:

  • 22 Ibid., p. 7.

how would it shape or misshape a life to play a biblical role year after year? How are we scripted? Where is the line between authentic identity and performance? And is there, in fact, such a line22 ?

  • 23 Tzachi Zamir, « Theatrical Repetition and Inspired Performance », Journal of Aesthetics and Art Cri (...)
  • 24 Ibid., p. 368.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 368.
  • 26 Mikhael Bakhtin, op. cit., p. 84.
  • 27 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London and New York, Routle (...)

9It could be said that learning and repeating again and again the lines of the script equates with living up to our inherited memory. As Tzachi Zamir has noted, acting is a very subjective experience in which « we are what we become23 ». I agree with Zamir that through theatrical repetition, « Acting is an exploration of the hidden thickness of the present » and that « the actor has an opportunity to examine and re-examine24 » it. Nevertheless, rather than « amplifying life », which Zamir considers the main outcome of repeating the same role25, most of the actors in Passion Play find themselves exploring, examining, re-examining, and constraining their lives. Not only are they constrained by the politics of the specific places and times in which they live, or borrowing Bakhtin’s term, by their « chronotopes26 », but also by the script that tells them what they are supposed to become in the course of the play in which they act. In connection to the idea of exploring one’s identity through repetition, I find it highly significant to recall Judith Butler’s words in Gender Trouble, where she affirms that, « gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylised repetition of acts27 ». Significantly, Butler bases the foundations of gender identity on the repetition of acts in time, even if slightly, and space – something obvious in Ruhl’s play.

  • 28 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 26.

10Going one step further in the analysis of metatheatre in Passion Play, the fact that most characters in the Passion Plays within the play are eager to live up to the roles they represent shows that in the play, as in real life, human beings tend to look for role models, inscribed in our cultural memory, to direct our lives. Most of the characters seem to agree that the way in which the community sees them is through the role they represent in the play, which is not far from reality, above all in Parts One and Two, where religion plays a key role in the substantiation of identity. For example, the Visiting Friar in Part One finds an explanation for the lesbian dreams of Mary 2, who plays Mary Magdalene: « It addles a young girl’s brain to play the role of a whore from a young age. I want you to say your penances, Mary, chew on a ginger root, and change parts with the shepherdess28 ». Or when Mary 1, playing the Virgin Mary, and Mary 2 want to switch roles and the Director intervenes:

  • 29 Ibid., p. 25.

I’m sorry, ladies, but you’ve signed your contracts. And besides, you look like a saint (to Mary 1) and you look like a whore. (points to Mary 2) There’s no getting around it. (to Mary 2) Look at that beauty mark and that gap between the teeth. And you’ve got a bit of a deformity in the chin – it just wouldn’t do for the Virgin Mary to have a bit of a deformity in the chin. (to Mary 1) And her smile. A smile like that would melt the devil’s heart. But not mine. Now finish memorizing your parts, ladies. There’s no time for all this driveling anarchy29.

  • 30 Ibid., p. 24.

11Ironically, Mary 1 wanted to switch her role with Mary 2 to be closer to the actor playing Jesus, for whom she cannot control her sexual drive. Confounding the play and reality, and thus showing the effect of the theatrical role on her life, Mary 1 feels sinful for desiring her fictional son – « it’s a sin to covet your own son30 », she says – and would feel more identified with the role of the prostitute in the play. As the director forbids this role switching by claiming that contracts have been signed and that physical appearances further enhance identification, it is suggested that there is no escape from the performativity of gender identity either in the play or in the real life of the play, an idea that is further reinforced by the cyclical chronotope established as the roles have to stay in the family.

  • 31 Ibid., p. 45.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 65.

12The evolution of the characters playing Jesus and Mary are remarkable case studies in this regard. In keeping with Ruhl’s casting the same actors in the same role in the plays-within-the play in the three parts, the same actor plays Jesus in the three parts and three other roles outside the play-within-the play in each part. John the Fisher in Part One, who has become the town sexual icon for having the leading role in the play, wants to be as chaste as Christ was, rejecting Mary 1’s sexual advances and volunteering to drink up « her sorrow » once she is impregnated by Pontius: « We’ll raise the child together as Mary and Joseph did before us31 », he says. The evolution of this character into Eric in Part Two points to a few significant changes regarding the duty and the effect of playing this role. Although he had inherited the role from his father, he feels no pride in it. He is, as he says, « tired of crucifixions32 » and agrees with the carpenter that this role is no fun. Blurring the line between illusion and reality, both characters agree on the constrictions that playing the role of Christ has in the real life of the actor:

  • 33 Ibid., p. 63.

Never understood how a man could stomach playing Jesus. Couldn’t have any fun. No rolls in the hay, huh? [...] Couldn’t even fart in church. I’d be shy of farting in my own home, come to think of it, were I playing the Christus33.

  • 34 Ibid., p. 84.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 65.
  • 36 Una Chaudhuri, Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Pres (...)
  • 37 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 78.
  • 38 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 92.
  • 39 Ibid., p. 97-98.
  • 40 Ibid., p. 96.
  • 41 Leslie Atkins Durham, op. cit., p. 81.

13In sharp contrast with John the Fisher in Part One, Eric has problems remembering the lines, basically because as he says, « there’s a difference, isn’t there? When you do – a thing – and feel – a thing – at the same time34 ». At least, in the second part the actor playing Jesus questions the significance of the process of identification between his own self and his role in the play. Even though he is repeating the lines again and again, he cannot feel them. And this is so for two reasons: firstly, because he is in love with the Foot Soldier, a homosexual feeling that had to be repressed in the Nazi context of 1934 Oberammergau. In keeping with the rules of his time and place, Eric understands his homosexuality as a deviation from normative identity and thus incompatible with playing Jesus – « The Christus cannot come with the Soldier », the Foot Soldier tells him35. Secondly, Eric’s erratic repetition of his lines suggests his unconscious rewriting of the text which, subjected to the politics of time and space under Nazi rule, is overtly anti-Semitic. In the performed text, the Jews are highly stereotyped and only Violet, the Village Idiot and indeed a Jew, seems to remember that Christ was a Jew. Fleeing away from his role as Christ the Saviour, Eric dreams of running away from the Nazi expansion, that is, he sees escaping from this place as the only way to be himself, breaking thus the theatrical dichotomy here vs. there which, according to Una Chaudhuri36, articulates modern drama. Nevertheless, although Eric’s dubitative nature as regards the text and his wish to « see the world37 » promise this character’s release from normative identity, the fact that Hitler’s appearance on the stage marks a turning point in his development utterly demolishes any hope for this change. After listening to Hitler’s speech, in which he states that « it is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of the Jews been so convincingly portrayed as in this representation38 », Eric’s face glows for the first time during the performance. Unfortunately, he has learnt to feel the repetitive act he is performing. The scene precludes the end of Part Two, when Eric, completely absorbed by Nazi ideology, comes onstage to take Violet to a concentration camp. Unsuccessfully, the Village Idiot urges him to remember what he had learnt from his lines in the play and see Hitler as a false prophet: « Many shall come in my name saying, ‘I am Christ!’ and shall deceive the multitudes ». The theatrical intertextuality does have an effect on Eric, as for a moment he can be seen « struggle[ing] against evil ». Violet’s second strategy is also theatrically located: « even if they watch you every second of the day – even if they give you a costume and boots and a hat – even then you’re not in a play! You are a man. And a man must decide for himself what he wants to do39 ». But elaborating on this metatheatrical transubstantiation of identity, Eric is unable to reject the role given by his new costume – he is now « wearing a Nazi uniform40 » – and by Hitler, his new director. Part Two ends with the sound of a speeding train as Eric pushes Violet forward into the grey light, symbolising that « Violet rode a train to a Nazi death camp, eventually becoming the smoke from the crematorium filling the sky41 ».

  • 42 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 43.
  • 43 Ibid., p. 53.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 53.

14The actress/character playing Mary also goes through troubles to keep up with the lines she has learnt from the script. Ruhl employs Mary 1 in Part One to draw the audience’s attention towards the fatal outcome of those who rebel against their given roles. Victim to her sexuality, and unable to have a relationship with John the Fisher, Mary 1 eventually has sex with Pontius. In her attempt to sustain the town fantasy that what happens in the play is real, and also to keep her part in the play within the play, she announces that she has been impregnated by God to play better the role of the Virgin Mary42. Partly comic and partly serious, the fact that she resorts to such a stupid plan – after rejecting others she found less suitable, such as eloping with Pontius, with Mary 2 or marrying John, possibilities that would force her to quit her part – subscribes to the dominant politics: as a Fallen Woman she would be punished. This issue becomes overtly politicised when Queen Elizabeth appears onstage. Besides demonstrating that the politics of time and space are subject to political leaders, since Queen Elizabeth appears to forbid the performance, her appearance also shows how gender politics vary depending on power. While she complains that she is obliged to have her face painted with thick layers of white paint43, the truth is that this is symbolic of how the Queen’s real self can be magically covered by make-up. The idea that Queen Elizabeth was a virgin, married to her royal role, is left uncontested, at the same time that she affirms that she wants « my subjects to remain clean » and « not to impersonate » holy figures44. Therefore, the leader can pretend who she is while her subjects cannot; even less in the case of Mary 1, who tries to pass as a virgin too, married to her role as the Virgin Mary, and is eventually led to commit suicide. The actress/character playing the Virgin Mary in Part Two, Elsa, also struggles to keep up with her role. She rejects several men to keep her part, but she eventually surrenders to Nazi power and secretly has sex with a Nazi official, thus giving up her identity when confronted by a political representative. Finally, while one could hope for a more resolute female actress in the role of the Virgin Mary in Part Three, Mary 1 is a self-absorbed woman who voluntarily has sex with J, her brother-in-law and the actor playing Jesus, while her husband, P, is in Vietnam. As good actors, though, Mary 1 and J manage to convince P for a while that Violet is the veteran’s daughter. By highlighting Mary 1 and J’s theatricality in real life, Ruhl seems to be suggesting that in contemporary America the well-known Shakespearian metaphorical line, « all the world is a stage », is as vivid as it was in the past.

  • 45 Ibid., p. 121.
  • 46 Ibid., p. 79.

15If the world is a stage, directors are needed for the success of the performance. Ruhl wittily draws consistent parallelisms between the political leaders and the directors in the three parts. As in a theatrical production, the actors do not just have a script to follow, but a director that keeps reminding them that they have to respect the script for the play to succeed. Applied to the lives outside the plays within the three parts, the piece of advice is unambiguously made clear: learn lines by heart, rehearse until exhaustion and a stable identity will be the reward. Ruhl explicitly draws the connection between theatre and society as she makes the Director in Part Three wonder, « If we can’t get along in a theater when the world is falling apart, then how can you expect anyone to get along in this world45? ». That is, the difficulties and disagreements within the theatre groups represent the darkest cornerstone of our global memory: the failure of human understanding outside the walls of the auditorium. This is why the Director of the three plays appears as that false Messiah that can make things work. In Part One, the Director’s endeavour to put the play together is fruitless as soon as a higher political being, Queen Elizabeth, appears onstage. The link between directors and political leaders is overtly verbalised in Part Two, when the Director says, « There are times in every man’s life – in his personal life even – when he needs a director. [...] He needs someone with vision – me – someone stronger – me – to tell him what to do46 ». Similarly, Queen Elizabeth in Part One, Hitler in Part Two, and Reagan in Part Three, all played by the same actor/actress, appear on the stage with one obvious mission: to tell the actors what to do or not to do regarding the plays, their lives, and their very identities.

  • 47 James Al-Shamma, Sarah Ruhl. A Critical Study of the Plays, Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 2011, p. 139.
  • 48 Ibid., p. 131.

16Although the actors’ entrapment in their theatrical roles and the firm political control under which they find themselves at first sight suggests Ruhl’s pessimistic view of contemporary society, there is an actor who does not follow blindly his directors/political leaders and who resists being catalogued as a passive victim of his location and temporality. Surprisingly, it is one of the most ostracized characters, the actor playing Pontius in the three parts, who emerges as a hero. As pointed out earlier, he is the one who consistently questions and disregards the importance of the play in which he acts in each part, thus denying its transcendence beyond the theatrical performance. Such questioning and disregard erect this character as the only one that, as James Al-Shamma has suggested, « strives for self-definition47 ». Noting the interconnections among the three parts, it seems he is the only one who, after considering what has happened in 400 years of transatlantic history, eventually reacts. As a stinking neglected fish gutter in Part One, Pontius kills himself. As the Foot Soldier in Part Two, he is forced to hide his homosexuality, but in Part Three P, the paranoid war veteran, is the only one to realise that he is « a puppet, in this case manipulated by the state48 ».

  • 49 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 117.
  • 50 James Al Shamma, op. cit., p. 136.
  • 51 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 132.
  • 52 Ibid., p. 150.
  • 53 Ibid., p. 152.

17Transatlantic and temporal interconnections are made clear through P in Part Three. In a delusion caused by P’s post-traumatic stress resulting from his Vietnam experience, Queen Elizabeth appears onstage to make P question his president’s honourableness in sending soldiers to a war in which he is not present: « What man would die for a leader who was not rushing to the battle-field with him – their blood soaking into the dust together49 », an indictment overtly directed « at modern leaders in general50 ». In another delusion he is later visited by Hitler, whom he orders to get out51, alluding to P’s growing political insight and commitment to change in contrast with the Foot Soldier in Part Two. Significantly, when P returns from war and resumes his role as Pontius, he has a critical mind that makes him question the text in a way the German actors in Part Two never did. P, because of his own experience in Vietnam, has discovered the rhetoric of power politics: leaders who look like one thing but are the opposite – that disastrous relation between leaders’ charisma and their potential escalating danger – and the manipulation of people to rationalise killing. P is seeing in Pilate a mirror of his American President, one who never went to war but cheered Americans to join the army. In the words of the character of Ronald Reagan, « That’s what a great leader does. You don’t even need to be at the game52! » « I never served in the military, but I feel as though I did. I made training films for soldiers during the war. It was one of the happiest times in my life53 ». Reagan’s fantastic happiness is sharply contrasted with the derelict state in which P finds himself upon his return from Vietnam. But this experience has allowed P to change the script of the play to re-write the reality of political leaders, who – as Ruhl suggests – are the greatest actors of all. To start with, P begins to question the text itself during a rehearsal:

P. I, Pontius Pilate, at the desire of the whole Jewish people, condemn – Wait. The Jews are saying: kill Jesus! But they’re religious men, right? And Pilate was a bad guy, a tyrant. How come they want to kill him and I’m being all heroic – like – no, no, I can’t kill him?

YOUNG DIRECTOR. The Jews want to kill Jesus because He’s too powerful. That’s how it’s written in the Bible. Isn’t it?

MARY 2. Kind of.

MARY 1. We’re just telling the story, honey, the story from the Bible.

P. Just telling the story, bullshit! Either the Jews killed Jesus or else they’re innocent!

YOUNG DIRECTOR. Look, we’ve had the Anti-Defamation League here, haven’t we? [...]

  • 54 Ibid., p. 132.

P. I don’t care about a fucking league, I’m talking about a man, a real man54.

  • 55 Ibid., p. 142.
  • 56 Ibid., p. 133, emphasis in the original.
  • 57 Glenda Frank, « Review. Passion Play, A Cycle », Theatre Journal, October 2007, vol. 58.3, p. 501.

18P, independently of whether the Anti-Defamation League has agreed on the text or not, goes beyond the story in the Bible to question the real man behind Pontius Pilate and how he is being presented to contemporary audiences. The truth of the text should be true to its reality. This is why P wants to play Pilate « Like a hung-over politician in a God-forsaken province who took stupid orders on a really fucking bad day55 », but who also recognizes and assumes the outcome of his deed. Defiantly, P rewrites the text to adjust it to what he considers Pontius’s responsibility in killing Jesus really was: « I want to change it. I’m gonna say: I, Pontius Pilate, an agent of the State, condemn this man to death. Not the Jews, not history. I will take responsibility. Now take him and crucify him56 ». Thus, P, presented, as Glenda Frank has said, as « a hero of our time, the sacrificed (drafted) son and killer for the state57 », forces the audience to reconsider the real role political leaders have always had in marking who we are supposed to be and our responsibility in changing a memorised script to be our real selves.

  • 58 Charles Isherwood, « The Life and Times of Theater’s Life and Times of Jesus », [online] 12 Septemb (...)

19To conclude, while Passion Play has been rejected by some critics as an « incoherent play » with an « incendiary subject matter [...] [that] never catches fire58 », I would say that it is painfully coherent and igniting. As argued throughout this article, it is a play that brings America and Europe close in its critique of political leaders and of their role in shaping a transatlantic memory built upon our submission to the script they write for us time after time. In answer to Ruhl’s questions, « How are we scripted? Where is the line between authentic identity and performance? And is there, in fact, such a line? » it seems the line has always been blurred because it is believed that our political and social scripts have been written in stone. Nevertheless, and with a note of hope, Ruhl ends her Passion Play with a Brechtian call to spectators to resist such scripts. In the Epilogue, completely bringing down the fourth wall, P addresses the audience as he ends the play:

  • 59 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 153.

Seems to me everyone needs a good night’s sleep. That way we’d all wake up for real in the morning. It’s good to be awake. When you’re awake you can fight for what you believe in, no matter what costume you’re wearing59.

20Using P as her spokesperson, Sarah Ruhl shows that the way to be ourselves is full of thorns, but that this would be our own way and the only way, in fact, we would never be ashamed of when walking down memory lane. No matter on which side of the Atlantic.

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Notes

1 Sarah Ruhl, Passion Play, New York, Samuel French, 2010, p. 9.

2 Susan Manning and Andrew Taylor, « The Nation and Cosmopolitanism: Introduction », in Susan Manning and Andrew Taylor (eds.), Transatlantic Studies. A Reader, Edinburgh, Edinburgh UP, 2007, p. 18.

3 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 8.

4 Una Chaudhuri and Eleanor Fuchs, « Introduction: Land/Scape/Theater and the New Spatial Paradigm », in Eleanor Fuchs and Una Chaudhuri (eds.), Land/Scape/Theatre, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2002, p. 3.

5 Marvin Carlson, « After Stein: Traveling the American Theatrical ‘Langscape’ », in Eleanor Fuchs and Una Chaudhuri (eds.), op. cit., p. 157.

6 Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender, Cambridge, Polite Press, 1998, p. 180.

7 Cole M. Crittenden, « The Dramatics of Time », Kronoscope, 2005, vol 5.2, p. 194.

8 Ibid. p. 196.

9 Dasha Krijanskaia, « A Non-Aristotelian Model: Time as Space and Landscape in Postmodern Theatre », Foundations of Science, Sept. 2008, p. 339.

10 Mikhael Bakhtin, « Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel. Notes towards a Historical Poetics », in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Texas, University of Texas Press, 1981, p. 104.

11 Michel Foucault, « Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias », Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 [online], 1984, consulted on 5 February 2015. URL: http://foucault.info/documents/heterotopia/foucault.heterotopia.en.html

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Cole M. Crittenden, op. cit., p. 197.

15 Wai Chee Dimock, « Deep Time: American Literature and World History », in Susan Manning and Andrew Taylor (eds.), op. cit., p. 160.

16 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 17.

17 Leslie Atkins Durham, Women’s Voices on American Stages in the Early Twenty-First Century. Sarah Ruhl and her Contemporaries, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 82.

18 Charles Isherwood, « The Intersection of Fantasy and Faith », New York Times [online] 13 May 2010, consulted on 11 March 2013. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/13/theater/reviews/13passion.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

19 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 41.

20 Ibid., p. 65.

21 Ibid., p. 138.

22 Ibid., p. 7.

23 Tzachi Zamir, « Theatrical Repetition and Inspired Performance », Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2009, vol. 67.4, p. 368. 365-73.

24 Ibid., p. 368.

25 Ibid., p. 368.

26 Mikhael Bakhtin, op. cit., p. 84.

27 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London and New York, Routledge, 1999, p. 179, emphasis added.

28 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 26.

29 Ibid., p. 25.

30 Ibid., p. 24.

31 Ibid., p. 45.

32 Ibid., p. 65.

33 Ibid., p. 63.

34 Ibid., p. 84.

35 Ibid., p. 65.

36 Una Chaudhuri, Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2000, p. 139.

37 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 78.

38 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 92.

39 Ibid., p. 97-98.

40 Ibid., p. 96.

41 Leslie Atkins Durham, op. cit., p. 81.

42 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 43.

43 Ibid., p. 53.

44 Ibid., p. 53.

45 Ibid., p. 121.

46 Ibid., p. 79.

47 James Al-Shamma, Sarah Ruhl. A Critical Study of the Plays, Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 2011, p. 139.

48 Ibid., p. 131.

49 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 117.

50 James Al Shamma, op. cit., p. 136.

51 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 132.

52 Ibid., p. 150.

53 Ibid., p. 152.

54 Ibid., p. 132.

55 Ibid., p. 142.

56 Ibid., p. 133, emphasis in the original.

57 Glenda Frank, « Review. Passion Play, A Cycle », Theatre Journal, October 2007, vol. 58.3, p. 501.

58 Charles Isherwood, « The Life and Times of Theater’s Life and Times of Jesus », [online] 12 September 2005, consulted on 11 March 2013. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/12/theater/reviews/12pass.html

59 Sarah Ruhl, op. cit., p. 153.

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Référence électronique

Noelia Hernando-Real, « « Breaking Down the Borders of Memory : The Transatlantic Politics of Metatheatre in Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play » », Les Cahiers de Framespa [En ligne], 24 | 2017, mis en ligne le 29 mars 2017, consulté le 21 septembre 2017. URL : http://framespa.revues.org/4290 ; DOI : 10.4000/framespa.4290

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Auteur

Noelia Hernando-Real

Noelia Hernando-Real is a researcher at the Instituto Benjamin Franklin-Universidad de Alcalá and Associate Professor of English and North American Literature at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain). Research project: «Space, Gender, and Identity in North-American Literature and Visual Arts: A Transatlantic Approach».

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