Wolff, Ruth (Rehrer) 1932-
WOLFF, Ruth (Rehrer) 1932-
PERSONAL: Born December 17, 1932, in Malden, MA; daughter of Louis K. (in business) and Etta B. (in business) Wolff; married Martin Bloom (an architect), August 7, 1955; children: Evan Todd. Education: Smith College, B.A., 1953; attended Yale University, 1954-55. Politics: Democrat.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Robert Lantz, Lantz Office, 200 West 57th St., Suite 503, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Playwright and screenwriter.
MEMBER: Dramatists Guild, League of Professional Theater Women, Writers Guild of America West.
AWARDS, HONORS: Rockefeller Foundation playwrighting fellowship from Wesleyan University; award from Kennedy Center Bicentennial Commission; MacDowell Colony fellowship.
The Golem, first produced Off-Broadway, 1959.
Eleanor of Aquitane, 1965.
The Fall of Athens, 1966.
Folly Cove, first produced in Waterford, CT, at O'Neill Theater Center, 1967.
Still Life with Apples, first produced in Waterford, CT, at O'Neill Theater Center, 1968.
Arabic Two, first produced in New York, NY, at New Theater Workshop, 1969.
The Abdication (first produced in England, at Bristol Old Vic Theater, 1971, then in productions throughout the world), published in The New Women's Theater, Random House (New York, NY), 1976, published as The Abdication: Definitive Acting Edition, Dramatic Publishing (New York, NY), 2002.
Eden Again, produced by Kennedy Center Bicentennial Commission (Washington, DC), 1975.
Sarah in America, first produced in Washington, DC, at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1981, then in repertory; later broadcast as a television special in the series Kennedy Center Tonight, Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
Empress of China (first produced in New York, NY, at Pan Asian Repertory Theater, 1984, revived there, 2003), Broadway Play Publishing (New York, NY), 1985.
The Perfect Marriage, performed in workshop, Santa Barbara, CA, 1987, later performed in staged readings in East Hampton, NY, at East Hampton Playwrights Theater, and by Roundabout Theater Company, New York, NY, both 1996.
Joshua Slocum: Sailing Alone around the World, first produced in Newport, RI, at Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater, 1992.
The Second Mrs. Wilson, performed in staged readings in Williamstown, MA, at Williamstown Theater Festival, in East Hampton, NY, at East Hampton Playwrights Theater, in New York, NY, at Intar Hispanic American Theater and at Lincoln Center Theater, between 1988 and 1996, produced in Abington, VA, at Barter Theater, 2001.
Hallie, performed in staged readings in Northampton, MA, at Smith College, in Poughkeepsie, NY, at Vassar College, and in New York, NY, at Writers Theater, 1989.
Buffaloes, performed in staged readings in Newport, RI, Los Angeles, CA, and New York, NY, 1992-93.
Back to Bald Pate, 1997.
The Waltz, performed in staged reading in New York, NY, at Juilliard School Theater, 1998.
Aviators, performed in staged reading in Sag Harbor, NY, at Bay Street Theater, 2003.
The Abdication (screenplay), Warner Bros., 1974.
The Incredible Sarah (screenplay), Reader's Digest Films, 1976.
Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Ms., New York Times Magazine, and Dramatist.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Screenplays titled Wild Nights, Home Games, and Island Fling.
SIDELIGHTS: Ruth Wolff has been a successful playwright since the late 1950s. Her first produced play, The Golem, was an adaptation from Jewish mythology, but she eventually became known for her historical and biographical plays about famous women. Eleanor of Aquitane, Wolff's second effort for the stage, featured the famous medieval queen of France and England. The Abdication, first produced in 1971, told the story of Sweden's Queen Christina, who left her throne and converted to Catholicism for the love of Cardinal Azzolino. Sarah in America depicted the famed nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century actress Sarah Bernhardt, during her various performance tours in the United States. Wolff has also penned plays featuring women writers Mary Shelley and George Sand and the Victorian-era Chinese Empress Tzu-hsi. Renowned actresses such as Lilli Palmer, Glenda Jackson, Anne Wil Blankers, Liv Ullmann, and Katherine Helmond have starred in Wolff's plays and in movies produced from her screenplays. As the book jacket for the published version of Wolff's Empress of China proclaimed, "To the question, 'Where are the roles for women?,' Ruth Wolff provides the answer." The play's published introduction added that, although the playwright's characters lived in the past, "Wolff's theatricality is blazingly modern and her themes are sharply contemporary—from the nature of woman, to the consequences of sexual and intellectual freedom, to the use and misuse of power in all its forms."
The Abdication has had a long and distinguished performance record. Premiering at the Bristol Old Vic Theater, it has been presented throughout the United States and in many foreign countries, including acclaimed productions in the Hague in Dutch at De Haagse Comedie, in Montreal in French at the Théâtre de Quat'Sous, and in Italian, in a production which toured all of Italy, presented by Il Gruppo Arte Drammatica. Wolff wrote an article about this Italian tour of her play for the New York Times Magazine. She also wrote the script for the film version of The Abdication, which starred Liv Ullmann and Peter Finch.
Sarah in America was described in the introduction to Empress of China as "a tour de force for one actress." The play, about Sarah Bernhardt's tours of the United States, takes the actress from age thirty-six to age seventy-two, portraying the impetuous actress from her naive first encounters with North America, through the immense success of her middle years, through failure, loss of love, and illness, to great triumph in her old age. The play's premiere at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, in 1981, starred Lilli Palmer and was directed by Sir Robert Helpmann. The play was produced at the Pasadena Playhouse starring Katherine Helmond and at Hofstra University starring Tovah Feldshuh. Wolff also wrote a screenplay about Bernhardt, The Incredible Sarah, which starred British actress Glenda Jackson. The film covers Bernhardt's early career in France through her tenure at the Comédie Française, the beginnings of her career as an independent actress-manager, and her tumultuous marriage.
Empress of China had its premiere production with the Pan Asian Repertory Theater in 1984 and in the same year was produced at the Cincinnati Playhouse. It was also produced by several west coast theater companies and had a notable production, in Italian, at the Todi Fetsival in Italy. As the introduction to the published version notes, the play tells the story of a dowager empress who held power in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, the Chinese people's uprising against imperial rule and foreign influence at the beginning of the twentieth century. The book jacket describes the play as "a searing yet sympathetic portrait" of its subject and quotes a New York Times review which called Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi "a villainess of epic proportions." In 2003, the Pan Asian Repertory Theater presented an entirely new production of the play.
The play The Second Mrs. Wilson is about the events which took place upstairs in the White House in the last year of the Woodrow Wilson administration, when the seriousness of his illness was kept from the people as the president, with the help of his wife, was working to the limits of his energies to insure a future without wars. The play premiered shortly after the World Trade Center bombings of September 11, 2001.
Wolff once told CA: "I write Broadway-type plays in a time when, for straight plays, Broadway almost doesn't exist, historical plays in a time when, for many, history doesn't exist, and am an American playwright often writing about Europe and Asia when for Americans these places don't exist. On top of this, I'm a woman.
"Aside from this, I'm sanguine about the work. This is what I want to write this time 'round. From my point of view, I'm not writing about other times and places, but about themes which are timeless. For a long time I found myself writing about subjects which could be classified generally around the theme of 'Love.' Later I wrote about 'Cruelty'—only to discover that in my hands it automatically seemed the other side of the love theme.
"I've written about woman's need to understand her own sexual nature (The Abdication), about power and powerlessness (Empress of China), about familial complexity when a love triangle involves a woman after the revolution (Chopin, Sand, and Sand's daughter Solange in George and Frederic), and the ironies and complexities in male-female relationships (Mary and Percy Shelley in The Perfect Marriage). But throughout, my overriding theme has always been the urge and necessity for the individual to strive, in spite of any circumstance, to live out his or her best existence. I don't care whether they won or lost as long as they had some vision of a better life and tried to live it. (In the plays, Sarah Bernhardt in Sarah in America most singularly embodies this, as do Edith and Woodrow Wilson in The Second Mrs. Wilson.) It's a tougher and more complex concept than I can summarize here, but it's the way I've tried to live, too.
"Since I decided on this career, the profession has changed mightily. For most of us, our writing careers have been divided. Film is an exuberant, spacious and sensual medium, and dramatists are lucky to live in a time when they can write for it. Shakespeare would have. He knew that an idea can be conveyed as succinctly by an image as by words.
"On the other hand, some ideas can only be conveyed by precisely expressed language—and this is when it is a glory to be able to write for the stage. In spite of my anger and sorrow that so many of my colleagues must spend so much of their time not writing plays, in spite of the fact that in these last two decades so many of their and my plays are not being written (or not being produced), I still have faith in the theater as a great and special communicator.
"The theater may be, in the future, one of the last places where people may come together to experience ideas and emotions. In times of increasing isolation, this shared experience will continue to be a precious one—no matter how threatened and how rare."
Wolff also told CA that she wanted to offer special thanks "to Audrey Wood, my literary representative from the beginning of my career until the end of hers, and … to Roger Stevens, who was the original producer of my plays (including The Abdication and Sarah in America) for many years. Their faith and encouragement—and that of my husband and son— have been central to my creative existence."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
The New Women's Theatre, Random House (New York, NY), 1976.
Wolff, Ruth, Empress of China, Broadway Play Publishing (New York, NY), 1985.
Dramatist, May-June, 2000.
Equity News, March, 2003, "Is Anyone Writing Plays for Women? Ruth Wolff Is!"
New York Times Magazine, December, 1977, article by Ruth Wolff.