The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies

The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies

by Sarah Ruhl


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374535872
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 525,245
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Sarah Ruhl's plays include In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony Award nominee); The Clean House (Pulitzer Prize finalist, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize); Passion Play, a cycle (PEN American Award); Dead Man's Cell Phone (Helen Hayes Award); and, most recently, Stage Kiss and Dear Elizabeth. She has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights Award, the Whiting Writers' Award, the PEN Center Award for a midcareer playwright, the Feminist Press's Forty Under Forty Award, and the 2010 Lilly Award. She is currently on the faculty at Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.

Read an Excerpt

The Oldest Boy

A Play in Three Ceremonies

By Sarah Ruhl

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Sarah Ruhl
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71459-8


Act One


A tasteful house decorated with rich Tibetan colors. Half Western furniture, half Eastern furniture and rugs. A few large statues of the Buddha.

A woman, the mother, sits on the stage. She places a candle on the floor, faces the audience, and tries to meditate. She closes her eyes. She opens her eyes. She sees the audience.

She stops meditating. She takes her cushion and candle and turns around and faces the back wall. She meditates. On a baby monitor, a baby cries.

The mother stops meditating. She goes to the monitor. She listens. The baby stops crying. She goes and gets a bag of potato chips and starts eating from it. She pages through a book about child-rearing: something like Dr. Sears's Attachment Parenting Book.

The doorbell rings. She jumps. It is unexpected. She puts down the potato chips. She goes to the door. Two Tibetan monks are at the door. One is a Rinpoche (a high lama or teacher), the other is a simple monk.


LAMA Hello.

MONK Hello.

An awkward pause.


MONK Excuse me — sorry to disturb you — you are the babysitter?

MOTHER The babysitter? No.

LAMA You are a friend of the house?

MOTHER Um — this is my house.

MONK But — you are the mother of the house?

MOTHER Yes — I am the mother of the house.

MONK Oh, I see.

LAMA Perhaps we have the wrong house?

MOTHER I don't know — sorry — I wasn't expecting you.

LAMA Nor we you!

They laugh.

MOTHER Perhaps you are looking for my husband?

LAMA Your husband owns a restaurant in town?

MOTHER Oh, yes.

LAMA Then it is he we have come to visit.


MONK Rinpoche is visiting from India.

MOTHER Oh, I see! Welcome! Rinpoche.

He bows his head. She bows awkwardly.

MOTHER Would you like to come in?

MONK And LAMA Yes, yes, thank you.

LAMA I have been to your husband's restaurant once, long time ago. Very delicious.

MOTHER Of course I think so, but I'm biased. Would you like some tea?

MONKLAMA Oh yes yes, we would love some tea, thank you. Thank you, yes.

MOTHER I'm so sorry — if I'd known you were coming, I would have — cleaned and — cooked — and —

MONK And LAMA No, no.

MOTHER I can at least make you tea.

She exits to put the teakettle on to boil. The boy cries a little on the baby monitor. The monks listen attentively, with joy.

LAMA A baby!

The mother pokes her head back in.

MOTHER I'm just going to get my son. Are you all right for a moment?

MONK And LAMA Oh, yes yes.

MOTHER You must excuse me — my husband won't be back from work for another hour. Would you like to come back then?

LAMA Oh, that is fine, we can wait. You can bring the baby here, if you like. How old is the baby?

MOTHER Almost three!

MONK That's good!

MOTHER Good? Yes —

LAMA A nice age, yes?


A pause in which the baby is quiet.

MOTHER It sounds as if he's gone back to sleep.

MONK Yes, he's sleeping now. We can wait.

MOTHER For my husband?

LAMA Yes, thank you for your hospitality.

MOTHER Please — make yourself at home.

MONK And LAMA Thank you, thank you.

MOTHER You are from India?

LAMA Yes Dharamsala.

MOTHER Oh! How wonderful.

MONK Yes, it is good to be so close to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

MOTHER Yes, of course.

Were you born in Tibet?


MOTHER Oh! And you too?

MONK Not me. I have never seen my country.

MOTHER Oh, I'm sorry — I mean —

MONK (making a gesture of "don't be sorry") I was born in Nepal.

MOTHER My husband lived in Nepal. After leaving Tibet.

MONK Oh, yes yes.

MOTHER You know my husband?

LAMA We know of your husband.

MOTHER But you haven't met?


A pause.

MOTHER My husband isn't famous. He's a good cook, but he's not famous.

Is he?

MONK We have heard of his restaurant! I have dreamed of it, in fact.

MOTHER You have?

They nod.

LAMA I will tell you a little story.

There was once a man who had four wives.

MOTHER Are you trying to tell me something?

LAMA Yes. So. This man has four wives. His first wife loved him very much, but he paid no attention to her. The second wife was younger and prettier, and he was always chasing after her, fearful that she would find another man. He tried to keep her. The third wife was a very practical woman, always gave the husband good advice, he relied on her. The fourth wife was the youngest, and oh how he loved to pamper her (laughs) oh like this with the youngest wife (gestures of pampering), and he gives her everything she wants, but she is a silly woman. When the man is on his deathbed, he says, "Okay wives, which of you will come with me to death?"


LAMA He asks his fourth wife, "Will you follow me to death?" She says, "No, I will not, I will go find another man after you die."

The monk laughs.

Then the mother laughs.

LAMA So he asks the third wife, the practical one, "Will you go with me?" She says, "No. No one can go with you to death."

MOTHER She has a point.

LAMA Mmm. So he asks his second wife, the pretty one, "Will you go to death with me?" And she laughs at him and says she is too busy, find someone else. So finally he asks his first wife, who was always loyal to him, and she says, "I will go with you."

MOTHER Wow, so she killed herself?

LAMA Not really it is just a story.


LAMA You see, the man is just a man.

MOTHER Uh-huh.

LAMA His wives are — fourth wife, his body — third wife, his family — second wife, his possessions — but his first wife — his first wife is what you might call his soul. Only his soul can come with him after death.

MOTHER Oh I like that! I was worried you were going to tell me my husband has another wife in India!

They laugh.

LAMA Oh no nothing like that!

It is a story about how your consciousness comes with you when you die, it is the only thing of value, the rest is left behind.

MOTHER I like that. Thank you.

Oh, your tea, excuse me!

MONK And LAMA Thank you.

They incline their heads politely. She exits.

LAMA(to the monk, in Tibetan) Khong bhot pa-shig dang changsa gyab yo-rey sam jung?

(But I thought he married a Tibetan woman?)

MONK (in Tibetan) Derang sam jung.

(Yes, I thought so.)

LAMA I did not expect an American woman.

MONK (in Tibetan) Khang pa norpa ma re pey?

(Could this be the wrong house?)

LAMA (shrugging, in Tibetan) Yin gi ma rey. Yin na-yang ha gogi ma rey.

(I don't think so. Then again, one never knows.)

She returns with the tea, overhearing a little bit of their Tibetan.

She responds in Tibetan.

MOTHER(in Tibetan) Ga re sung pa?

(What did you say?)

LAMA You speak Tibetan?

MOTHER A little. I'm trying.

Here's your tea.

(Then in Tibetan: the tea) Sol-ja.

She fumbles with the tea a little.

She tries to be formal with them.

She kneels at their feet and serves them.

LAMA and MONK (in Tibetan) Lags-so.

(Thank you.)

The lama takes a sip.

LAMA Very good!

MOTHER I hope it's all right. I'm honored to have you here. Did my husband ask you to come? A blessing? For the house? Or the baby?

LAMA Very good tea! Just like in Tibet. How did you learn to make real butter tea?

MOTHER My mother-in-law taught me. She went back to Nepal because she said she wanted to die in a place where the tea tasted familiar. With salt. And butter.

LAMA Yes, yes.

MONK Of course.

LAMA You are Buddhist?

MOTHER Kind of.

They laugh.

LAMA Kind of?

MOTHER I was raised Catholic.

LAMA So you are Catholic?

MOTHER I think when you are born Catholic, you are always sort of Catholic — but when I grew up, I didn't believe in some of the — things — and then there were those — sort of — problems? — in the church — you know — and somehow I never believed that only the pope could talk to God — it seemed sort of silly — and the Catholic children I knew weren't very nice and I wasn't sure how Catholicism was contributing to their ethical natures — and then I became an atheist and waved Bertrand Russell's "Why I'm Not a Christian" around for a while — and then my father died and I had a dream, and in the dream these huge letters in silver spelled out "There is no God," written across the heavens, and I turned to my father in the dream, and I said, "But who could have written that in the heavens?" and he said, "Exactly." And since then I have been looking for God —

LAMA Very interesting. Please go on.

MOTHER And then I met my husband, and I thought he was a very good person, and he was Buddhist, and I liked that Buddhism was scientific — and rational —

LAMA You are a scientist?


LAMA But you are rational —

MOTHER Am I rational? — I am, I was — a literature professor —

LAMA(impressed) Oh!

MOTHER Well, I was ABD —

All but dissertation ... funny term, long story — I was an adjunct —

MONK Adjunct?

MOTHER A very badly paid teacher.

What was I saying?

LAMA You liked rationality —

MOTHER Yes, I liked rationality, but I wanted something spiritual — sorry is that a stupid word?

MONK No no —

MOTHER — that was also rational, and Buddhism seemed rational — and it made me happy — well happier.

LAMA You have taken refuge?

MOTHER Not yet. I'm studying now. I don't know enough.

LAMA It is good you are studying. Buddhists do not like to convert people — never — and His Holiness the Dalai Lama feels it is better for people to worship the way they were taught as children because it is better if you talk to God in your first language, but if you find peace with Buddhism then that is good.

MOTHER I hope so.

I try to meditate.

I was — trying to meditate when you arrived.


MOTHER But I'm not very good. I get distracted.

LAMA Yes yes, we all get distracted. Even monks.

The effort is the important thing.

Do you have a meditation teacher?

MOTHER No — just books.

LAMA You need a teacher. Books are — books.


A baby cry starts then stops on the baby monitor.

MOTHER Oh, I thought I heard Tenzin.

He usually wakes around now from his nap. I might have to feed him.

MONK(surprised) You are still breast-feeding?

MOTHER (embarrassed) Just a little bit.

MONK That's good! That's how we Tibetans do. We breast-feed until at least two years, often longer.

MOTHER In this country we call it attachment parenting.

MONK What is that —?

MOTHER Oh it's — you wear your child around, you breast-feed for a long time, you sleep in the same bed as the child ...

LAMA Ah the same in Tibet!

MOTHER Oh really? Then I must ask you: How do you get the child out of the bed after three years?

LAMA You send them to boarding school!

He laughs. She laughs.

MOTHER But really.

LAMA Really! But why, if you'll excuse me, is all this — the wearing the child, the sleeping with the child — called attachment parenting?

MOTHER It's just this theory — or fashion — that your baby will be more happy, more secure, if they are more — attached.

LAMA Ha ha! And yet you practice nonattachment!

MOTHER Well, yes — but I guess not as a mother.

She laughs.

He looks at her keenly.

LAMA Do you think attachment is the same as love?

MOTHER No Yes No. Do you?

LAMA I can tell you it is not the same. Maybe there is a problem in the translation. Affection between a mother and a child, that is natural, that is good, you don't have to do "attachment parenting" to have love. Attachment is grasping, clinging, it is not comfortable. It seems that American mothers are worried their children will not attach to them?

MOTHER I guess so.

LAMA But of course a child will attach to a mother, no? This is natural, am I right?

The baby cries "Mama" on the baby monitor.

MOTHER Oh! It was him. Excuse me.

MONK Of course.

LAMA Of course.

They sit silently, praying, holding their prayer beads. She returns with the boy, who is a puppet. An old man controls the puppet and speaks for him.

MOTHER This is Tenzin.


MONK Hello, Tenzin.


The monk touches the boy's finger. The boy reaches out and touches the lama's face with great love.


MONK He knows you!

MOTHER(not understanding, with humor) He appears to, yes.

MONK He was a good baby, a calm baby?

MOTHER Preternaturally calm.

LAMA Ah yes. Good boy.

She gives the boy to the lama, who sits down with him happily. The monk takes a cell phone out and takes a picture of the lama and the baby.

MONK Is it okay?

MOTHER Oh, yes, of course.

LAMA May I ask you, did you have any special dreams when you were carrying him?

MOTHER Yes. I dreamed twice that the baby was a dog.

OLDEST BOY A dog, Mama?

LAMA A dog? And?

MOTHER A blue dog. Like Egyptian stone. So in the dream I called him Mister Cobalt Blue.

LAMA Mister Cobalt Blue.


And I dreamed that the baby came out and talked immediately, and had the face of an old man. It was disconcerting.

LAMA Ah yes, yes! (He laughs.)

MONK If you will excuse me, what was his birth like? What was the weather like outside?

MOTHER The weather?


MOTHER Let's see ... it was April, but there was a snowstorm. I remember we were worried leaving the hospital because of the roads.

LAMA Are there frequently snowstorms here in April?

MOTHER Not really.


The baby grabs the monk's bell and plays with it.

MOTHER No no, honey, don't play with his bell.


The baby plays with the bell.

MOTHER I said no.

She takes the bell.

LAMA Please, you mustn't scold him. It is his bell.


The lama bows to the baby.

The baby pats the lama's head, a kingly gesture.

The mother stares.

The door opens. It is the father.

MOTHER Uh — my husband —

She goes to him.

MOTHER Honey, there are some ... monks here ...

The father bows formally to the monks.


FATHER(in Tibetan to the monks) Tashi delek. Nye-nang la pheb pa di ngatso sode chenpo rey samgi dug.

(What an honor, hello, welcome. I am lucky to have your blessings.)

LAMA and MONK Tashi delek.


FATHER (to Tenzin) Hello.

(in Tibetan, to the monks)

Sol-ja phulga?

(Can I get you tea?)

LAMA(in Tibetan) Lag min kherang gi achala ki kyak song.

(No. No, your wife already served.)

Nge norshag. Kherang gi bopa shik dhang trungsa gyabpa ma rey pai?

(Maybe I made a mistake. Haven't you married a Tibetan woman?)

FATHER Amala gi bodpa thabshe nang pa rey. Leyla khong rang koe shag.

(My mother tried, but it didn't happen. Karma decided.)

LAMA La rey! Le la koepa ma tok nang wey gongshog min dug.

(Yes, yes. Whatever karma decides, will be.)

MOTHER What were you saying?

FATHER I said my mother tried an arranged marriage, but it didn't work. This is my wife, my — uh — my destiny? And he said something like, what you wish doesn't always come, your destiny comes instead.


Excerpted from The Oldest Boy by Sarah Ruhl. Copyright © 2016 Sarah Ruhl. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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