On Tina Howe
Tina Howe by A.E. Kieren
Tina Howe by A.E. Kieren

When, after a week, I dropped out of graduate school, one of the first people I called for advice was Tina. I was suddenly a wayward playwright in New York City with no job and no guidance. I had grown up reading Tina’s ground- breaking plays. Some plays were absurdist, surreal comedies about motherhood, others formally inventive plays about her blue blood family, still others captured the cadence of children better than any others I have read before or since. She changed the landscape for women playwrights forever. She also changed the landscape for any American playwright working in an absurdist idiom, and for mothers. My dear friend, the playwright Andy Bragen, had studied with Tina in college, and after my graduate school drop-out episode, he encouraged me to reach out to her. My uncle, Tina’s doctor, gave me her number. I was nervous to speak to a literary hero, thanked Tina profusely for speaking with me over the phone, and told her that I was a recent graduate school drop-out.

She said (and I am paraphrasing), “Oh that’s wonderful! When I was your age no one went to playwriting school! We just lived. Sam Shepard, Ntozake Shange, we all lived and wrote and went to Paris and smoked pot and no one went to school.” She said, “Everything I learned, I learned from reading and seeing the plays of Ionesco. Don’t worry, just live in New York City, see as much theatre as possible and keep writing.” I followed her advice.

When I had my first play produced in New York City, downtown for three nights at the wonderful Ohio Theater, there was Tina, with a pink crystal Ganesh elephant in her hands that she gave me as a present. (I now take that Ganesh with me to every opening.) Tall and slim, her hair always combed neatly around her ears, she was usually swathed in some kind of extraordinary tunic or robe with flamboyant patterns--something that gives the impression of wings. She once gave me earrings with little feathers inside a glass dome, and she probably had a pair herself. A fabulist, she always looked fabulous.

One time we did a panel together and I complimented her on her seashell necklace and she said, you want it? You can have it!, undoing the clasp. I learned to be careful of complimenting Tina on any jewelry or clothes as she would rip it off and promptly give it to me. One time, at a Dramatists Guild event, I complimented Tina’s bracelet, and she whipped it off to give to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that her husband Norman looked pained; it turned out he’d given it to her. I tried to refuse the gift, but she sent it anyway, beautifully wrapped.

She was at every single play I’ve ever had in New York City, calming my nerves, giving me buoyancy during the stressful time of previews. After I had baby twins, she stopped by my apartment and comforted me about my anxiety that I would never write again. She’d say, “I used to write at the dining room table after dropping the kids at school. At 2pm an internal alarm would go off and I would know it was time to stop writing and pick them up. No one wants to write more than five hours a day anyway so it’s just a perfect schedule.” And she added, “When they’re babies, just roll around with them on the floor, don’t even try to write, it goes so fast.” I tried to follow her advice.

  Over the past decade, she cared tirelessly for her Norman during his arduous siege of Alzheimer’s. Norman’s adoration of Tina was beyond. When I visited them, they would sometimes fall into a litany:

“Where did we meet, Norman?” She asked. “Arthur Loeb’s house.” He answered. “And what was I wearing?”

“A red dress.”

“Yes, but I had no breasts and so I covered up the decolletage with my hands and Norman said: either wear it or take it off! Norman, who is the cutest?” 

“You are.”

“No, you are.”

Then Norman fell asleep in his chair and Tina told me, “I’m still ambitious, I still want to write, I want to write about unexplored terrain, women are still an undiscovered country.”

Tina delighted in talking about how handsome Norman was when she met him, and whenever she had the chance, would counsel her students to fall in love with someone outside of their religious or ethnic background. “Love the other! That’s the best way!” She would say, with ebullience. Before they moved into assisted living for Norman, Tina started the task of downsizing her apartment. She showed me a large photo of her with Ionesco, his arm around her. She was delighted that there was an extra unexplained hand in the photo. She insisted that I take home the dollhouse she’d had built with a replica of Paris inside. She showed me the extraordinary object. “The lights go on inside!” She said, turning on a switch. “There is the Pont Neuf. There’s the Seine!” Indeed, she’d asked a set designer to build a miniature Paris for her in the dollhouse. “Take it home,” said Tina, “you’ll see, your children will disappear inside of it and go to Paris for the whole afternoon.”

I left with the dollhouse. Three weeks later, they moved, and Norman died.

Last spring, Tina came to see my play at Signature Theatre, and we had lunch with a large group of playwrights beforehand. When I asked what’s new, she said, “What’s new in my world is that everything is very much the same,” adding that, “Things collapse over time into strange new configurations.” She said that she saw it as her duty to cheer up all the widows at her new home. She said, “I’ve decided my new job is to be kind and helpful to the people at the home instead of being upset that I am there. I meet a newcomer, almost always a widow, and I say, you might be homesick but buck up, we have good entertainment here.” I asked her how she was able to be such a generous teacher and she said, “I think teaching is about generosity, about wanting to give and to be kind. I never had any training to be a teacher. I knew how to write plays and I didn’t know how to teach but suddenly, when my plays were being done, I was in a position to help other people get their plays done. And now I’m an elder stateman. I have a perch. The only way out, the only key—is to be generous. Be generous if you can.”

I thought about that phrase for a long time: be generous if you can. Not just be generous, but if you can. Tina seemed to be pointing to the fact that generosity was a privilege, a practice and an ability. Every time I saw her, she had a beautifully wrapped gift for me, and for everyone else at the table. At that lunch before Signature, she gave the other playwrights at the table—Beth Henley, Andy Bragen, Chuck Mee—beautifully wrapped Pez dispensers. She’s always understood the power and magic of opening a gift, of a gift passing from one hand to another. The last gift she gave me was a little wooden box she’d made at the nursing home. She’d painted it red and blue, and glued on a photo of a red and blue hot air balloon on the top, framing the balloon with golden pipe cleaners. Perfect Tina—a place for treasure, conjuring flight, framed with glitter.

Now that she is gone from this particular world, I like to think of her in another world, with Norman. A world in which Ionesco has three hands, a world in which women swim across large bodies of water through the centuries, a world in which every kind of gravity is defied—physical gravity, as well as emotional gravity. Tina was never one for solemnity without a dose of her own magic. In this world, impoverished by her absence, I take comfort that her work lives on forever, as well as her generosity. Tina, you once gave me those little earrings with tiny wings inside. You helped give me, and so many others, the confidence to fly on the page. I hate not flying with you in this hard and scary world. May you be taking flight with the angels overhead, listening to the music of the spheres, grand symphonies accompanying your travels, wherever they are taking you.

Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl

is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Tony Award nominee, and a recipient of the MacArthur Award. Her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write was a Times Notable Book of the Year. She teaches at the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her family. www.sarahruhlplaywright.com