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Why ask why? Try some lies

Special to The Times

If SOMEONE were to ask me why I wrote this strange play “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” I might be silent, I might be evasive, or I might outright lie. But imagine that I said that I was interested in the culture of cellphones, in how they have completely altered our emotional, psychic and body states to the point where culture (and perhaps not even evolution) has caught up.

Imagine that I said I was interested in how there is no longer any privacy, nor is there any reason anymore to talk to strangers on elevators. I might say that I don’t feel comfortable with modernity. That the last novel to feel contemporary to me was the modernist novel. That I am trying to make sense of the times we live in, the Digital Age. An age that feels bodiless, as though there is no longer any imprint. That I feel, at times, lost.

And what of the morbid quality of the title, this “Dead Man’s Cell Phone”? Why connect cellphones with death? If I took a journalistic approach, I would tell you that my morbid approach to cellphones is based on recent studies in Israel that have linked long-term cellphone use with salivary gland cancer and brain tumors, and that a new study in Denmark has linked talking on the cellphone during pregnancy to a wide array of emotional and behavioral problems in the grown children, and that these two studies have tempted me to chuck my cellphone at last. But I haven’t chucked it yet. In any case, the following essay is full of lies and this is based on actual scientific evidence, and so while I do exhort you to chuck your cellphone, especially if your family has a history of salivary gland cancer, as mine does, or if you are pregnant, as I had been, I am not qualified to take a scientific stance on the matter.

And truly, am I the best person to tell you why I wrote this play? In fact, I might be the very last person to have any insight into why I wrote it or what you should think about it. So let me introduce to you an expert on my work, Jacques Joli-Coeur. He is a very eminent theatrical scholar, at this very moment now working on a book about ladders and their usages backstage, historical and modern, and the eventual extinction of the ladder as a means of hanging lights. According to Mr. Joli-Coeur, “Ms. Ruhl began writing ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ when a man’s phone kept ringing and ringing at a cafe and she wished that he was dead. Ms. Ruhl was reportedly raised Catholic, so presumably she felt guilty about this death-wish, and wrote a play to expiate her bad thoughts about her fellow man. This was in the year 1998.”

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And here I pause. Because I recall that I did not own a cellphone in the year 1998; in fact, I bought one three years later, standing on the base of a mountain in Utah from a cowboy because my mother was having a medical test and I wanted to speak with her. So Jacques Joli-Coeur cannot have been right; no, he was not right at all -- about my work, or about chronology. And so I ask you: What is the truth?

The truth is that Jacques Joli-Coeur was a cabdriver I met on the way to see the Dalai Lama at Radio City Music Hall in 2007. I wrote down the name Jacques Joli-Coeur in a little red book for future use. I am sorry, because I do not know if the truth about Jacques Joli-Coeur is more illuminating than the fictional one, and now his name, his beautiful name, is lost to me forever. I can never name a character after him because now you know his real identity. And so Jacques Joli-Coeur is not to be believed as an expert on what “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” is about.

And we find ourselves in the dark again.

So many untruths! So many red herrings! In the play in question, the main character is called Jean, and some might say she tell lies, but others might call them confabulations or fictions. Some might call them base untruths, others might call them acts of compassion. I might call them stories. And is this not our profession, the art of telling a story? Perhaps it is no longer our province. Leave storytelling to the politicians and leave artists the job of stating the facts. Oh, dear, again I digress, I keep digressing, tie my hands, tie me down!

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Joys of multiplicity

The POINT is: Is this not one of the great joys in life, and in art, for a thing to be simultaneously three or four or five things at once? There is a word in another language, untranslatable, I am sure there is -- I think it is in French, or Polish, or perhaps Romanian -- that means “the ability of an individual or an audience member to take the absurd seriously, yes, to take the absurd quite seriously, and to touch at, to trace, the most grave matters, death itself, with a certain lightness.”

As Mr. Jacques Joli-Coeur writes: “At the end of a long day, full of broken ladders, full of missed opportunity, it is my great joy to sit in a dark theater, and to see a play that is many things at once -- knowable and unknowable, familiar and strange, sad and happy both. Sometimes I cry a little bit and I don’t know why. But this doesn’t bother me. And the next day, I drive, I drive, I pick up a crazy passenger, and sometimes it is a good day for driving in this God-forsaken city, and sometimes it isn’t, but I do thank the good Lord for being alive.”

I want to thank Mr. Joli-Coeur for offering his insights, because we as writers or artists or even as private citizens one day reach a personal chasm, a gulf that separates our own conviction that it is in fact our very uselessness that qualifies us to speak and a peculiarly American injunction to be useful and to know. Please, dear God, dear reader, allow me to know things that I do not know. Knowing things that I do not know is the only real qualification for this strangest of jobs, the scribbler for the stage. It is when we start to believe what we pretend to know about ourselves, when we, in short, begin to act as though we are experts on ourselves . . . (and this is, after all, the modern age, we are all experts of ourselves . . .) that we begin to lie. And because I love you, dear reader, most of all. You are the very last person I would ever lie to.

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Ruhl’s plays include “The Clean House,” “Eurydice” and “The Melancholy Play.” She is a 2006 recipient of the MacArthur fellowship.

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“Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Ends Oct. 12. $35-$70. (714) 708-5555.

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