A Polyamorous Dive into Sarah Ruhl’s New Play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage”

While sitting in the Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, watching Sarah Ruhl’s latest play “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” I couldn’t help but wonder how many people around me also practiced ethical non-monogamy. Certainly not the man next to me who shifted uncomfortably during the orgy which closed out the first act, likely not the couple behind me who loudly debated leaving during intermission, and probably not actor Wallace Shawn who I saw across the theatre smiling jovially during some of the more lewd scenes (though I suppose that isn’t... inconceivable).

Then again, maybe there were more “ethical sluts” in that theatre than I’d guessed. After all, as many of the listeners of the Multiamory Podcast have noted, polyamory is often a lifestyle where many feel most comfortable staying ‘in the closet.’

Despite that fact, this podcast host truly hopes that the addition of works like this, penned by a respected playwright and featured prominently in a prestigious theatre, means that polyamory is on track to be a less and less taboo subject, more often in the public eye, and less misunderstood.

While I could, and in the process of drafting this piece, did write a review of the play, ultimately I’ve scaled the purpose of this post to explore the portrayal of poly in this high-profile work, how it succeeds or fails in its portrayal of non-monogamy, whether it serves to normalize and/or encourage a conscientious approach to relationship structures, and whether it successfully prompts the viewer to examine their expectations and culturally enforced ideas of what a relationship ‘should’ look like.

That said, I in no way think that those were Ruhl’s goals when penning the play. This artistic effort did not market or even imply that it was an advocacy initiative. Yet, in an interview in Theatermania, Ruhl describes her interactions with the polyamorous people who saw the show as overwhelmingly positive, “I’ve gotten glowing, moving letters from people in polyamorous relationships. I don’t mean to sound self-validating but I have heard people say, ‘I saw my experience on stage for the first time.’”

So what about this experience rang so true?

Perhaps not the opening of the show. Before the first word is even spoken, Ms. Ruhl’s show begins with a carcass of a dead deer hanging from the ceiling of a tasteful living room set, the locale where most of the play’s action takes place. The action begins when a woman (whose name we later learn is ‘Pip’) enters the space and lovingly caresses the carcass before cutting it down and carrying it over her shoulder off stage.

That certainly sets a tone.

Transition promptly to two couples enjoying an evening together. Clearly upper middle class, caucasian, and good natured, they chat conspiratorially about the sexy new temp in one of the woman’s legal office, Pip (Lena Hall). Pip, she tells them, is polyamorous,  and her non-traditional relationship immediately seizes the interest of the two couples who are the play’s four central characters: George (Marisa Tomei) and Paul (Omar Metwally), Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison).

They speculate wildly about the lifestyle, appearance, and dietary habits of the mythical intern. After some predictably sexually-focused conversations (and a comical compare-the-google-calendars exercise that many of us know too well), the couples ultimately decide to invite the triad over for dinner the evening of New Year’s Eve. What follows is a provocative, muddled, and amusing series of events that disrupts the everyday married monotony of the two couples forever.

And so the triad hits the scene. The poly threesome were easily the most “odd” of any of the people in the play. Pip sets the record straight for herself and explains that she was a vegetarian, but after discovering she has an iron deficiency made the decision to personally slaughter the wild meat she consumes.  Pip’s two boyfriends, meanwhile, fall on either end of the “Hippy” spectrum. David is an egotistical mathematician who studies Pythagoras (and lengthily mused that the triangle is the “strongest” shape) and who also hates labels and distinctions of any kind. Pip’s other partner Freddie is a Harvard graduate who creates garments out of trash, doesn’t have a job and literally does nothing else other than “exist.”

Regrettably, throughout the work, Pip and her partners are portrayed as hypersexualized, instigating the eventual orgy through sensual touching and embracing of the monogamous characters. I’m not sure how many polyamorous meetups the playwright has been to, but unless there is clear consent given at the beginning of an interaction, generally non-consensual touching will not and should not occur.

Ultimately, I appreciated that the action of the play prompted the four protagonists to question the nature of their traditional relationships. Conversations between the couples often erupted into lengthy dissertations on man’s animal urges, how instincts tend to fade over time and responsibility takes over, and how society seems to ask a woman to turn her animal nature off when she becomes a mother.

The introduction of polyamory into these characters’ lives allows them to finally break free from the sexual repression they’ve imposed upon themselves for years. The blossoming of emotional love and more physical exploration is alluded to by the end of the show. The desire to open themselves up and let more love into their lives is fulfilled. A true transcendence is reached and these characters grow in ways they couldn’t have previously thought possible.  

After seeing the show, I researched the motivations of the playwright, Ms. Ruhl. I was pleased to find that she interviewed many poly couples in order to gain a greater understanding of an experience with which she was not familiar. In addition to the personal accounts she gathered, she also read what many deem to be the Poly Bible, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s “The Ethical Slut.” Ruhl talks about the origins for the script in an interview for The Lincoln Center Theatre blog, ““A friend gave that book to me,” Ruhl said. “He thought I might be interested in it, and I was.” She went on: “I was fascinated by all the rules you need to construct a polyamorous life. There’s constant negotiation.”

As many of our listeners and readers know, Multiamory holds a pretty firm stance that rules cause more harm than good in a polyamorous relationship. We were worried when we learned, according to a Tonight Show interview with the lead actress, that the triad in this play had many rules and parameters surrounding their situation: could this be representative of the healthy, complex polyamorous relationships that we have found so fulfilling?

Upon viewing the show, I was pleased to learn that the triad’s rules, like Pip’s decisions to ethically slaughter and consume her own meat, were consciously made after careful thought and consideration. However, these rules still could cause some lasting issues if adopted by a triad in real life. The only two rules in the play were (paraphrased) as follows:

1) Everyone in the triad needs to meet anyone new that a member of the triad wants to sleeps with or engage in a romantic relationship.

2) No close friends as sexual or romantic partners.

Both of these rules are potentially problematic for a number or reasons even though the writer, Ms. Ruhl, may have put them in place to create a sense of security for the primary relationship structure. Meeting your metamours (your partner’s partner) is something we highly encourage in all relationships. However there is an inherent implication in this first rule that if a primary partner does not like their metamour, they could potentially veto that person and bar them from entering into a relationship with the interested member of the group. As for the second rule, it is absurd to think that close friends could not blossom into something more romantic and sexual, and the idea of closing off that possibility seems presumptuous and premature. If the writer was hoping to portray polyamory in a true to life way however, the use of rules in a poly relationship, though troublesome, is still very prevalent throughout the community.

My final grievance with the show was that the polyamorous triad seems to only serve to enlighten and inspire change within the four main characters. I understand the reasoning behind using these characters as a plot device, however I look forward to the day when a polyamorous story can be told without sensationalism and the movement be thought of as more “normal.” To some degree, they come off as caricatures.

While I have many gripes with Sarah Ruhl’s newest work, I am glad that stories like this are being told. The New York Theatre scene amasses a myriad of ages and demographics into a space to tell a unique story, and I am sure that for many, this was the first time polyamory or non-traditional relationships came onto their radar. While I look forward to the day when a person in a non-monogamous relationship can be a protagonist rather than a plot device, I am thrilled that Ms. Ruhl choose to paint polyamory in a mostly positive light, moving her monogamous characters towards an openness and abundance of love they’d never considered.

Emily is a vegan, feminist, non traditional relationship advocate. She is the self-described 'funny bone' of the Multiamory podcast trio. She loves singing, cats, and Nintendo and will beat your ass to the ground at Mario Kart. Bring it.