Late: A Cowboy Song by Sarah Ruhl

Late: A Cowboy Song by Sarah Ruhl

A few weeks back I had my first encounter with Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” and I was all prepared to write a post with a punny title, something to the effect of ‘Sarah Ruhl’s “Clean House” and My Dirty Condo,’ but then I got caught up in the debate in the theatrosphere last week about critics and reviews and never got around to finishing the post. But it is coming.

In the meantime, I just finished reading one of Ruhl’s earlier plays, the tragicomedy Late: A Cowboy Song (2003), and feel compelled to get out my initial thoughts about it.

I went into reading it without any prior knowledge of the story that unfolds, and let’s just say I was not expecting the play to be about a couple whose child is born with ambiguous genitalia and a female cowboy, not to mention its potential to feature a live horse on stage.

The play contains only  3 characters: Crick and Mary, childhood sweethearts that decide to marry when Mary’s period is “late” and she discovers she is pregnant;  and Red, the singing cowboy of the title and a former high school classmate of Mary’s.  When the play begins, Mary is “late” for the dinner Crick has prepared because she has just reconnected with Red; this marks the beginning of many more late arrivals for Mary and also the beginning of what proves to be her personal awakening about herself, her marriage, and her sense of happiness in life.  By the play’s end, Mary does, indeed, leave Crick and ride off into the sunset with Red.

But, to be clear, this play is not about a “straight” married woman who leaves her husband for her lesbian lover.  In the text, not so much as a kiss is exchanged between the two women.  In fact, the play is not even really overtly about sexual orientation.  But it is, however, a play that employs subtlety and ambiguity (in characterization and dialogue) to explore the complexity of gender and sexual identity.

Red is a queer and androgynous figure in the play, and it is not an accident that she lives, quite happily, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh where she tames colts, rides horses, and sings herself to sleep under the stars, alone.  But, she is not an outlaw, though she does choose to live outside of society’s labels and strictures, literally and figuratively.

Red’s whole persona–her personal peace, her self-sufficiency– speaks to something in Mary, who is at odds to get her husband, with whom she has increasingly less in common, to hold down a job and value hard earned money.  When Mary and Crick’s baby is born with ambiguous genitalia, the tension between them heightens and their fundamental differences in opinion become more apparent, at least from Mary’s perspective.  As Mary relays it to her mother, the doctors performed surgery, “so I guess it’s a girl now. I don’t know why they couldn’t have left well enough alone.”  Mary and Crick’s inability to agree on a name for the infant (he prefers Jill; she prefers Blue) underscores the excessive weight society has placed on making names, not to mention colors and clothes, clear and definitive markers of sexual (biological) identity.

In the preface to the play, Ruhl notes her indebtedness to a book entitled Sexing the Body (2000) by Anne Fausto-Sterling.  While I’ve not read the book, if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say Fausto-Sterling discusses the ways in which the medical community and society at large attempt to keep sex (and gender and sexual orientation) neatly contained in two separate boxes, reducing all to an  either/or scenario: male or female, masculine or feminine, straight or gay, so that identity can appear unambiguous.  Around this time, in 2002, Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins, edited a collection of writings called Genderqueer that also resonate with these ideas and those Ruhl explores in Late.

Ruhl’s play also came in the years just following the documentary film The Brandon Teena Story (1998) about Brandon Teena, a transgendered male (biologically female, but male-identified), whose death was a result of homophobic discrimination and savage hate crime, and the feature film Boys Don’t Cry (1999), featuring Hilary Swank as Brandon.  MV5BMTI2NTAzMTQ5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTgxNDkxMQ@@._V1._SX98_SY140_

In spite of the play’s many virtues, there were a few points that gave me trouble: one had to do with Red’s lyrics, particularly her singing about “cricks” (creeks), and the fact that the only male character is named Crick.  Perhaps, there was something more to this that I missed, but it annoyed me.  And on the topic of Crick, the stage directions describe him as a lover of modern art, “charming, fragile and childlike.” And the play opens with him surrounded by dirty dishes; in fact, he spends most of his stage time at home.  Ruhl imbues him with stereotypically feminine traits, plus he effusively expresses love for Mary, yet he also has moments of threatened violence, such as when he awaits her return with a bat in his hand. I just couldn’t get a good grasp of his character.

On the whole, Late: A Cowboy Song, was a meaningful and though-provoking read. I’d like to see it performed.

5 Responses to “Late: A Cowboy Song by Sarah Ruhl”
  1. Rivoire Holden says:

    I think that you have missed much of the genius of Late: A Cowboy Song. Throughout your article you referred to each character from the surface. You have labeled Red as “a queer androgynous figure,” I think that if the play is not about sexuality, which i do not think it is, why use such stereotypical labels. I think this is part of what ruhl dislikes about our culture, we label people “queer” “androgynous” “straight” “childlike” because we cannot accept things by their actions, and learn to call them by their right name, but rather we put them into an easy to swallow pill. Whether for our sake or for the sake of writing an article. “so I guess it’s a girl now. I don’t know why they couldn’t have left well enough alone.” Mary remarks to Crick after the transformation of their baby into a girl. I think the idea is that, human beings exist fully without any label. Identity is found through character, character is developed through action; labels are ways to measure action and filter character. Ruhl attempts to show her audiences, that there can be complete satisfaction living without the confines of a frame.
    Crick is seen with the frame, he has a passion for art. Yet in his frame there is no picture. The audiences looks in on his dirty life, dishes everywhere. This is contrast. He wants the frame, but he does not care about the strokes of the painting, as long as it belongs to him. He discusses with Mary that he does not want other people to be at their wedding getting drunk, it is about them, yet he does not mind if their love is messy, as long as it is theirs. as long as they are married. Crick struggles with ownership, and labels. If he can have Mary as only his, if they can be in an exclusive family situation, then the frame is set, and what happens inside of it is manageable.
    Mary, abandons the frame, she goes to the outskirts of town, she feels what it is like to be accepted as more than a wife, as more than a mother, as more than a pocket full of money or a childhood sweetheart, but as a woman with an opinion and choices.
    in terms of Mary and Crick’s child, Blue, i feel there are many reasons for the naming. One of them being the contrast to Red, as mary mentions. A desire for her child to escape the convenient boundaries of their social structure. Blue, as Red, is also a primary color, a basis of what creates all the other colors that embellish our lives. Ruhl suggests that it is not sexual identity, or labels of any sort that are the basis of our character, but that there must be something basic, something primary that is the foundation for where we have found “queer” “straight” “androgynous” and “childlike” what lies beneath convenience?

    Crick does not have femenine traits. I challenge you to quit labeling emotions out of convenience without any deeper exploration. He is sensitive to the fact that his childhood sweetheart is choosing to spend her time elsewhere. He is losing the love of his life. Heartache involves a lot of delicate fragile emotions, but delicate and volatile are not on the opposite side of the “emotional scale” they are right next to each other. I think americans enjoy thinking of life on a scale of “unhappy to happy” but truly the scale is “numb to alive” and on the side of alive there is joy, despair, volatility, sadness, boredom, bliss, and many other things. It is our rights as humans to be alive and in each new moment of our life feel free to explore the thin line separating all the emotions on the side of “alive.” By saying Crick is feminine, you have taken certain elements of being alive and said “these are for women” “this is how women should act” and then the others therefore “this is how men should act.” Where the play wants us to escape these conveniences. Look beyond what we see in media, and erase all labels, and see people for their actions rather than how their actions fit into a labeled box that can be neatly stacked away.

    Rivoire Holden.

    Also, I do not suggest taking “educated guesses” from books. either you have read the book and know what it is about, or you have not and should find another point of reference.

    • nstodard says:

      Dear Rivoire,

      Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful response. Unfortunately, it’s been a year since I read “Late,” so I won’t even attempt to respond at this moment to your different points because I couldn’t do so properly without first revisiting the play. I will say this: I did not miss the genius of the play. The play is precisely the kind of play I’m drawn to as someone who has spent more than a decade researching, writing about, staging plays that engage the subject of human identity with particular regard to gender and sexual orientation. To say that Red is a queer androgynous figure is not to pigeonhole Red to a restrictive label. Would I love to live in a world without labels? gendered labels? yes! absolutely! Unfortunately, for the all the improvements we have seen, we do not. Language is an inadequate tool for describing and expressing many things, and the topics of gender and sexual orientation perpetually remind us of this; nonetheless, it’s one of the only tools we have, and I do my best with it. How would you describe Red if you were writing a quick reaction post to document initial thoughts on a new play you’d read? And I don’t think you read clearly what I wrote regarding Crick: I did not say he is feminine; I suggested Ruhl ‘imbues him stereotypically feminine traits.’ You take major liberties and leaps to suggest that my assessment of what Ruhl was doing with his character was a sign of me somehow reinforcing rigid gender binaries. Couldn’t be further from the case. I also noted I had difficulty after a single read through grasping his character. Forgive me.
      In a scholarly article, I’d never put forth an educated guess, but this is a blog post; on my blog, I’m perfectly comfortable with taking ‘educated guesses’ (particularly when I note just that); I’ve read Fausto-Sterling’s work excerpted, and I am well versed in the gender discourses that have been circulating for the past decade and well beyond.
      Finally, I’m the director of a theatre company whose mission statement hinges on ‘queering’ the canon, depicting the marginalized and silenced, which includes the lgbtQ population, of which I am very much a member. Do you take issue with our company’s use of the label queer? treatment of queer issues? I think at some point we have to accept that words, labels are not entirely avoidable, but this does not make them always wrong; they can be used in non-discriminatory and awareness raising ways.

      • Lipstick Lesbian says:

        I agree: labels suck; language doesn’t cut it; humanity is complex, nuanced, beyond control, bound by expression that is beyond, above and below the limitations of language and a shared imagination in a limited world dedicated to expansion despite its destructive life force. All true. However, I say this and go by the e-name “Lipstick Lesbian”. Why? ‘Cause…it’s cute! And gets me in bed with my kind, my tribe. See? Complexity in a shell.

  2. Rivoire holden says:

    Yes, I understand. I suppose it is a matter of opinion, as many things. I try not to use labels, I admit it is easier, it does help find similarities between people, and they can even be cute, but in my life I feel they distract me from the heart of a persons character.

    • Lipstick Lesbian says:

      Nothing can destract from the heart of the person like the heat of the person! In all seriousness, I don’t think labels always serve to hide; they can shine a light on what’s obvious or fend off what’s unwanted. I think they are limited, true, but so is language. When we’re most emotional, don’t we abandon language for something that sounds less human or has no sound at all? When we weep…when we orgasm…instrumental music is the universal language yet it has no words at all. The world over, people cut Shakespeare’s “lengthy” plays but never a note of Mozart’s instrumentals, why? Because his joy is universal and therefore essential and essences have no words.

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