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.
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.