“Scenes from Court Life,” a new play by Sarah Ruhl, had its world premiere this weekend at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The play opened the Rep’s 50th Anniversary Season and marked playwright Ruhl’s sixth collaboration with the Rep. A two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama and former professor at the University, Ruhl gave a phone interview with Culture to discuss “Scenes from Court Life,” tennis, the Bush dynasty and the 2016 presidential election.
Q: Where did you get the idea for “Scenes from Court Life,” and do you think it would have played out differently if Jeb had won the nomination?
A: I started working on the play about three years ago and, recently, I was interested in political dynasties and sibling rivalry — and not necessarily in the Bushes proper, but they seemed like a really interesting family to explore in terms of those themes. And then, as I started to do the research, it seemed likely that Jeb would be running against Hillary Clinton and there would be two sorts of political dynasties at play in the election. And then, of course, we have a kind of much more alarming scenario, so that really changed the nature of the play. In some ways I think Jeb sort of becomes a tragic figure.
Q: I read in a different interview with you that the idea of sibling rivalries came up because you’re a mom, so did your kids have any influence on how you were writing this?
A: Absolutely. I drew from watching my children fight with each other and memories of fighting with my own sisters and just thinking a lot about what it is to share resources within any one family.
Q: Right, right, and that must all be heightened when the stakes are so much higher with political dynasties.
A: Exactly! I mean what fascinated me was, you know, so much inequity — either real or perceived in every nuclear family — and then if you create repercussions for that [which] extend not only to your country but also to other countries, then it becomes really complicated, I think.
Q: Was it difficult for you to write about people who are still alive? I know you’ve written in the past about people who are real, as in “Dear Elizabeth” or in “Passion Play.”
A: It was strange. It was the first time I’d done that, written about political figures who are still alive. I think Ronald Reagan had just died before I finished “Passion Play” and it was a relief to me, [it gave me] some leeway. And, with the Bush family, I did a lot of pulling from actual sources, so there’s a lot of authentic sources in the play, a lot of quotations, a lot of documentary stuff. It was a new way of working for me. It was really interesting.
Q: I’m kind of curious as to if they’d ever come to see it, and how they might react to it.
A: [Laughs] If the Bushes would ever come to see it? I highly doubt it.
Q: Where do you feel like, in the trajectory of your past work, this play fits into your career and your goals for your writing in general?
A: Well, I don’t have goals for my writing in general. I think it’s enough to fully immerse yourself in each play as it happens. I feel like the way this play fits into a larger, I guess, narrative about my work for me really has to do with how I like to work with collaborators over and over again. Like Mark Wing-Davey [the play’s director], whom I had loved working with on “Passion Play.” He had come to me with this idea to do a joint project … And because I love working with Mark and I’m always interested in new ways of collaborating and creating theatre, that was why I dove into this. It was really more of an interest in changing up my process than anything. Writing for a particular ensemble of actors and letting actors do research — that was really exciting.
Q: Is it nice to be back at the Yale Rep for the sixth time?
A: Oh, always, it’s such a pleasure. And I just love working with James Bundy so much, he’s such an incredible artistic director and he just makes artists feel so listened to and respected. And one of the actors who’s in the show, it’s his first time at Yale Rep after a lifetime working in theatre and he said, “Oh, it’s so incredible to be here, they really treat you like an artist and try to give you what you need to make a piece of art.” So I think that to have an artistic home at Yale has a huge impact on [an artist’s] career. In fact, I got this really nice award from Samuel French where they give money to a regional theatre that a playwright chooses that’s impacted their career. So I chose Yale Rep and a theater in Chicago that was involved in a very early production of one of my plays. I think we’re in such a product-centered culture, and for an artist to really grow and keep writing, you need a sense of refuge, an artistic home — which the Yale Rep has been for me. It seems like a place I can experiment safely and with a lot of love surrounding me.
Q: I also read about how you used tennis in this play? What motivated that decision?
A: Well I was reading about two [political] periods, the Stuart period and also about the Bush family, and tennis kept coming up over and over again. In the storied Bush family history, there were serious tennis players going back a couple generations. And Bush Sr. was a big tennis player, Jeb is a big player — George W. Bush not so much. And in the Stuart era, people played royal tennis all the time, and they turned the tennis courts into theaters after the restoration. Our modern conception of a proscenium theater is actually based on the dimensions of a tennis court. So I was really interested in tennis as a metaphor for a certain kind of competition in a family and in political life, and then the fact that it becomes a theater. So that’s why tennis.
Q: In terms of this election, there’s been a lot of art circulating around. So how did trying to get beyond a public-persona factor into your creation of the characters?
A: Well, I think you have to have empathy for your characters when you write. So even though I feel critical of a lot of the policies, particularly under George W. Bush, [through] writing about him in a long-form way, I came to have empathy for him and particularly for Laura Bush and Barbara Bush. And I think that people are writing a lot about what’s happening in the election right now because the stakes are so high. It’s such a scary time to be an American and for artists, one feels that you have to take part, you have to comment, you can’t completely stay out of the frame.
Q: Is there anything you want to say about political theater in general?
A: I think this play is a more overtly political play than other plays that I’ve done. I think that theater is such a democratic institution from the time of the Greeks, because you come together as citizens to watch something together. I think it’s always a political act in some way or another. It was kind of fascinating writing this play and dealing with real historical personages. For me, the way I think I came at it personally was as a mother, and emotionally identifying with the [three different] mothers in the play.