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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


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.

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  • 20 Sarahl Bakhtin, « Fo>op. cit., p. 8.
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