How I Learned from How I Learned to Drive

Issue Six: How I Learned to Drive
Sarah Ruhl
April 26, 2022
Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl is a Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright, essayist, and poet living in Brooklyn. Her new book Smile, a memoir, comes out in paperback this fall, and her latest book of poetry, Love Poems in Quarantine, comes out in May with Copper Canyon Press. Originally from Chicago, Ms. Ruhl received her M.F.A. from Brown University, where she studied with Paula Vogel. She teaches at Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

3Views was conceived after an illustrious group of female theater friends, organized by Sarah Ruhl and The Lillys, came together to address the white male critical response to the Broadway runs of Paula Vogel’s Indecent and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. These master writers had long been denied a Broadway stage and a homogenous group of critics, who were not members of the core audience for which the plays were intended, were able to influence early closures. The consensus at the meeting was that diversity and multiplicity in criticism were necessary, or the recent gains in diversifying American theater would be damaged. The goal was not only to create a new publication, but a new model of criticism.

Issue 6 features three female writers (two of whom are queer) responding to Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive. These are not objective reviews, some of the contributors are personally connected to Paula, but honest, critically engaging, personal reflections. They place you in the audience and by Paula's side. Happy reading!

“It surprised me how deeply my father lived in me. One of the things I discovered writing this book is that sometimes we know our perpetrators better than we know ourselves, particularly if they were part of our family. Because we had to always guard against them and prepare against them and know their moves and their rhythms and their body language. I realized that I’ve been in dialogue with my father, consciously or unconsciously, my whole life. And to some degree, that dialogue has controlled my life.”
—V (formerly Eve Ensler), The Apology 

“It felt as if the play was rewriting me. And I will always remember the sensation of lightness I had in the middle of the night as I wrote it. This is the gift of theater and of writing. The transubstantiation of pain and secrecy into light, into community, into understanding if not acceptance.”
—Paula Vogel, new introduction to How I Learned to Drive


I am twenty-one. Paula Vogel has invited me to see the first reading of How I Learned to Drive at the Vineyard Theatre. Paula is my playwriting teacher. I don’t know my way around New York City. I am turned around, confused, almost late, and pass by a flower stand at Union Square market. I am unsure if one brings flowers to readings. I don’t know the protocol. I’ve never been to a reading of a new play before. I can’t remember if I bought the flowers, I only remember staring at them, and running in the direction I hoped was east until I found the Vineyard Theatre. 

I took my seat behind Paula and her wife Anne Sterling. There were some preliminary remarks introducing the actors. Cherry Jones was playing Li’l Bit. David Morse played Peck. Celia Weston was in the Greek chorus. And the play began, in the present tense, casting a spell with its first lines:

“Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson. We’re going to start our lesson tonight on an early, warm summer evening. In a parking lot overlooking the Beltsville Agricultural Farms in suburban Maryland….Oh yes. There’s a moon over Maryland tonight that spills into the car where I sit beside a man old enough to be—did I mention how still the night is? Damp soil and tranquil air.” 

The language has the lyricism of Tennessee Williams, but with a contemporary, dark, funny edge, and a woman at the center. The play unfolds. In a circular catharsis, the play unwinds through time. Lyricism, choral beauty, Brechtian scene headings; we are all seduced into this play’s world. 

We reach the penultimate scene, in which we realize that Uncle Peck has been sexually abusing Li’l Bit ever since she was eleven, under the pretenses of teaching her how to drive. We all breathe together. I see Anne put her arm around Paula, checking to make sure that she is all right. 


I am a year older. I go to see the first production of How I Learned to Drive which has now transferred after an acclaimed run to the Daryl Roth Theater across the street, starring Mary-Louise Parker as Li’l Bit. I still don’t know my way around New York City. Again, I run east. Paula is standing outside, with my ticket, like a fairy godmother.

The lights inside the theater go down. Mary-Louise Parker transforms from age to age seamlessly, willing the audience to breathe with her, to feel the story with her. She opens a wound in front of us even while the language itself and the ritual of performance seems to heal the wound. The last line of the play is triumphant, resilient: “And I floor it.” The audience rises to its feet. “Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson.” The lesson has been received, the secret has been told, the ritual is profound, completed by the audience.


Years later, I am at an intensive playwriting workshop with Paula, now as a fellow teacher at Yale University. She is teaching us about negative empathy. Paula explains an aesthetic phenomenon that originated from German phenomenologist Theodor Lipps, in which the audience’s empathy is repelled but also attaches to a negative object. This notion runs counter to the Hollywood affection for the term “relatable.” As in: That character is so relatable. Or, your character is not relatable. 

In the Vogelian version of Lipps, characters like Hedda Gabler or Iago or even Uncle Peck continue to fascinate precisely because they are not “relatable” in the soft haze of a camera filter. They can be savage, wrong, they are also human, they are sometimes opaque. We project onto them our own fantasies and fears. Paula explained negative empathy this way: “When we respond [to a play] with fear and loathing and repulsion, and we are still dragged into empathy--for me, that is the definition of drama. In negative empathy, we overcome resistance. We're sitting there going, ‘that guys not me, that guy's not me, that guy's not me, OH MY GOD I AM THAT GUY’.” 

Paula went on to say that the failure to understand negative empathy is how we get into dramaturgical conversations that go something like this, “Gee, does he have to be her uncle?”

A professionally-dressed man passes a set of keys to a woman in a tank top.
David Morse (Peck) and Mary-Louise Parker (Li’l Bit). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

A recent poll in France indicated that one in ten people have been the victim of incest. Another study, conducted in America, revealed that sixteen percent of the total sample had been sexually abused before age eighteen, and five percent of the sample had been sexually abused by their fathers before this age.


Years after seeing How I Learned to Drive, I am at the play Blackbird on Broadway. I am angry. There are some very good performances, but the play feels sensationalized, told from a man’s point of view, and hysterical, rather than resilient. I am irritated that How I Learned to Drive is not on Broadway, and this play is.


I am a senior at Brown University. Paula is driving back and forth to rehearsals for How I Learned to Drive. She is exhausted, burning the candle at both ends. But she loves driving, she is a good driver, and sometimes she can make the drive from Providence to New York City in under three hours. 

When she’s not at rehearsals, she teaches us Russian Formalism in class. She talks about how to make the familiar strange. She uses the example of driving. When you’re driving a familiar route, she explains, sometimes you forget you’re driving, it becomes automatic to you, as though you blink, and it’s over, you’ve arrived at your destination and you don’t even know how you got there. The function of art, she says, is to make the audience aware of a journey to which they’d become automatic.

The irony of Paula teaching us Russian formalism through the automatic journey of driving is not lost on me once I see the play. Uncle Peck spends the span of years in a car with Li’l Bit, and in the penultimate scene, we see that the first time he touched her inappropriately, she was sitting on his lap, aged eleven, under the pretext of letting her drive. Uncle Peck used the excuse of her hands on the wheel to slide his hands under her shirt. 

This devastating moment is played by the younger Greek chorus member, as well as the older Li’l Bit, and we realize that the moment has led to a splitting off of self, the moment when Li’l Bit stopped living in her body, and started to live in “the fire in her head.” We see the dissociation theatrically, as the older self sits on the man’s lap, seemingly aware of what’s happening to her, and the younger self looks at first hopeful about the driving lesson, then, heartbroken about what’s happening to her. 

This theatrical way of telling abuse feels more real than real, more real than a single actor playing the moment, and it also feels like a compassionate way to protect the actors from harm. The two women playing Li’l Bit at least have each other in that moment, a gift of fellow feeling denied to the protagonist.

Three woman stand on a stage, all holding towels up over their clothes.
Mary-Louise Parker (Li’l Bit), Johanna Day (Female Greek Chorus), and Alyssa May Gold (Teenage Greek Chorus). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Twenty-five years after the original Vineyard premiere, I’m on my way to How I Learned to Drive’s Broadway opening. My husband Tony and I have dressed up for the occasion, as has my daughter Anna, now sixteen. Anna is the god-daughter of Paula and Anne, who was also my husband’s teacher. Tony studied biology with Anne, and went on to be a child psychiatrist, with a specialty in PTSD and the aftermath of childhood abuse. 

Before the play starts, the audience is giddy, theater folk greeting one another after two years of solitude. And then we settle in our seats, the play casts its familiar spell over the audience. And something feels even deeper, even more profound and complicated now that the play has lived in the bodies of these central actors for twenty-five years. Mary-Louise Parker is no longer an ingenue, and her lived experience imbues the play with even more heartbreak. There is more specificity in her performance of L’il Bit throughout the ages, now that her own children have grown up. Mary-Louise is an actress who is known for her ability to pass two or three thoughts over her face at once. In this performance, we see her inhabit several ages at once. How on earth that is possible, I do not know, but I saw it with my own eyes. Li’l Bit’s costume, designed by Dede Ayite, gives the character a chance to hide her body even as it is revealed—a loose flannel shirt, jeans, boots—a costume ripe for transformation.

Not only have the actors, reprising their roles from the original production, lived with these characters for twenty-five years, this company has had a rehearsal period swimming around in their bodies for an additional two years because of the pandemic. It’s clear from the spiritual depth of their performances that during those two years of relative solitude, the play was not on ice. It was alive in these actors.

You can hear this audience leaning forward to catch the spell the poetry of this play weaves. The spell is only broken by laughter, when Johanna Day perfectly delivers her “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking” monologues, getting drunker and drunker, and looking for her spotlight at points, as the spotlight bedevils her, moving just out of reach.

David Morse’s bravery—inhabiting an essentially broken man who has a lot of fine qualities and who also happens to be a pedophile—is remarkable. In the casting notes, Paula writes that an actor who might also be cast as Atticus Finch should be cast as Peck. And this is true of David Morse, whose intelligence is seductive, and whose physical smoothness—whether it’s washing dishes, miming catching a fish, pouring a drink, or using a light meter—is mesmerizing. We see the dishness of the dish in his hands, which is also a testament to the simplicity of the design and the emphasis on the actors’ bodies over and above stuff. The lighting design is revelatory and reminiscent of the spiritual weight of James Turell lightboxes. The set by Rachel Hauck gives us just enough of a sense of architecture to ground interior scenes while letting us float through memory. 

Much has been written about How I Learned to Drive and abuse, and I think less has been written about the play’s subtle yet persuasive grenade thrown at realism. We swim through Li’l Bit’s memories, guided by her voice rather than by the fiction of objectivity that comes with the fourth wall. In being guided by her voice, we realize the possibility of resilience, redemption, and transformation when she leads us to the last line, “And then-- I floor it.” Li’l Bit ultimately controls the narrative, even though she can’t control what happened to her. In this way How I Learned to Drive is much more in conversation with plays like The Glass Menagerie and Our Town than it is with plays where a hidden secret about childhood sexuality is revealed in the second act. No, this play suggests, the secret is present and embedded in the play’s entirety--suggested by the first line, “sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson.” The secret suffuses memory rather than being revealed to the audience as an object or plot device. How I Learned to Drive, structured as a circle, circles around traumatic memory, and rehabilitates the past through the control of story. This structure of healing that the play enacts is what makes the play feel like a gift and, forgive my latent Catholicism, a sacrament. Has forgiveness ever been staged quite so viscerally as it is in How I Learned to Drive?

The title refers to the lesson—learning to drive is learning to take control, and yet, in the car, all control was taken away from our heroine. One terrible irony is that Uncle Peck gives impeccable driving lessons to his niece, meanwhile stripping her of the control of her body. The car as body becomes something to master in grown up life, a metaphor for control, and for disembodied movement. 


Five people sit around an imaginary table, pretending to eat.
Alyssa May Gold (Teenage Greek Chorus), David Morse (Peck), Mary-Louise Parker (Li’l Bit), Johanna Day (Female Greek Chorus), and Chris Myers (Male Greek Chorus). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

That it took How I Learned to Drive twenty-five years to get to Broadway despite winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998, being produced internationally, and winning slews of prizes, is irritating. I’m not sure how much ink I need to spill on this subject now that the error has been redressed. I can’t help noting that almost every Pulitzer Prize winning play written by a man ends up on Broadway almost immediately, crowning the play with all that 42nd Street has to offer, while plays by women awarded the same honors like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview and Lynn Nottage’s Ruined have yet to make it there. I hope this production of How I Learned to Drive will serve as an object lesson for those other plays before another twenty years pass by. 

Sometimes Broadway houses do not serve intimate plays well, but I’m elated to report that this production of How I Learned to Drive is one for the ages. Director Mark Brokaw’s tenderness, spiritual depth, and almost zen simplicity make you feel as though you are crossing the proscenium to commune with these extraordinary actors. The production is both intimate and full of magnitude, cementing the play as a classic. 


When I talked to my husband later that evening, he said that, in his experience, what was most subversive about the play was also what might make it feel most familiar to survivors of abuse. After treating many survivors, Tony said one thing that haunted almost all of his patients was a terrible closeness to their abuser. 

At the end of the Broadway opening, the audience leapt to its feet, and the ensemble bowed, humbly, more interested in getting Paula Vogel on stage for her due. Mary-Louise Parker dragged Paula center stage so the playwright could have her own bow, and after a loud ovation, Paula quieted the audience and gave a speech. Paula has told me that she occasionally goes into an altered state when she speaks in public, and as a result can barely remember what she says in a rush of emotion, and so I was determined to write it down. 

Paula said that she wanted to thank the ensemble and the producers, she generously highlighted the Broadway debuts of the two youngest actors in the company, and then she said something truly remarkable. She said that when she went into rehearsals twenty-five years ago for How I Learned to Drive, she entrusted the cast with a secret, and she felt that in the telling of this secret, these actors cared for and protected her far better than her own family had. Paula went on to say that this feeling of protection by these actors had allowed her to move out of the position of victim and into the role of survivor. 

Paula says there are plays that we write and plays that write us. Plays that reflect life as it was lived by us, and plays that we must write in order to live into our own lives, or into the next chapter. How I Learned to Drive is more than a play—it is a writing into the possibility of forgiveness and transformation—not just for the protagonist, but for all of us who witness it.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel

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