The first email Sarah Ruhl ever received from Max Ritvo was not about reincarnation, relationships or other existential musings that fill the white space of the exchanges published in Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship. It was about seeing Einstein on the Beach.
Ritvo, then a senior English major in the creative writing concentration at Yale University, had purchased tickets to see Philip Glass’ epic opera before he had enrolled in Ruhl’s playwriting workshop, and was emailing to ask permission to miss one class. Ruhl insisted he go; the production was already sold out when she had attempted to snag seats. After a few more emails, Ritvo and Ruhl met in person and one-on-one in a bookstore cafe. There, over two bowls of black bean soup, a friendship — one that would transcend genre, “resist opacity” and endure Ritvo’s terminal cancer — bloomed.
Edited down from the more than 500 pages of correspondence that shuttled between Ritvo and Ruhl in the years of his burgeoning acclaim in the poetry world and before his death in 2016 at age 25, Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship is the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle pick for Week Seven, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts.” Ruhl — a Tony nominee, 2006 MacArthur “Genius” and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for In the Next Room, or the vibrator play and The Clean House — will offer her CLSC Author Presentation at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, August 8 in the Hall of Philosophy.
In an email interview with Elizabeth Metzger for Bomb Magazine, Ruhl explained how “the tincture of time,” the swapping of letters, instead of tweets or texts, “affects the nature of the reflection” inside the writing. Of course, her letters to and from Ritvo were digital in form, but it was the late poet himself who, according to Ruhl, brought “a reflective searching spirit and sustained attention” to their written friendship.
“I love the letter form, and it’s such a particular way for one writer to know another writer,” Ruhl wrote to Metzger. “In a way, it’s the very first form of written dialogue that we have. The epistolary form gave rise to the invention of the novel, after all. One mind speaks to another mind — and a story gets born. Because you have two sides of an equation.”
Later in the interview, Ruhl describes Ritvo as “unbounded” and “boundless” — a gifted, extroverted poet who overflowed with compassion for the world. The author of two posthumously published poetry collections, Four Reincarnations and The Final Voicemails, Ritvo also wrote the chapbook Aeons, which won the 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship.
“The boundary between art and life often was elided in Max’s orbit, I think,” Ruhl wrote to Metzgar. “He made his life into art; he also lived in an artful way.”
For Atom Atkinson, director of literary arts, Ritvo and Ruhl’s collaboration unites a pantheon of ideas that defines Chautauqua Institution as a space for lifelong learners.
“(Letters from Max) is bringing a highly intellectual approach to philosophy alongside a highly spiritual approach to life and death, next to an artist’s approach to craft, next to an argument for the value of friendship and connection,” Atkinson said, “which speaks so much to the experience people have here, not just as participants in the CLSC, but as members of the community.”
This week also marks the first time the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall has hosted a CLSC capstone course for Chautauquans. Elaine Miller, author and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Miami University in Ohio, taught “Friendship, Imagination, Mortality: Philosophy in Sarah Ruhl’s Letters from Max,” a conversation-based seminar loosely organized around the class’ titular themes. At 3:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, seminar participants discussed humanity’s connection to beauty, art and, in Miller’s words, the “knowledge of our own finitude.” For the professor, the style of Letters from Max “exemplifies” its philosophical tenants.
“In particular, I was struck by the ideas of the emergence of human consciousness, thought and our sense of self, from love, and the role of the imagination in creating the highest human values,” Miller said.
Atkinson described the three-day experience, scheduled to correspond with Recognition Week, the CLSC’s annual celebration of its graduating class, as perfect for those “who want to do a deeper dive intellectually with a CLSC book.”
“(The capstone seminar) could be a mode of sustained and rigorous engagement they used to enjoy and now miss, or one that they haven’t had the opportunity to have before, or one they normally associate with drudgery and now can do very selectively and with a lot of excitement around it,” they said. “That’s an opportunity we really want to supply. (Week Seven) would be a really rich week regardless, but it is especially so because of (the seminar).”