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Playwright Eve Ensler shot into the international spot light because of her role as a feminist activist and creator of The Vagina Monologues. Honored with the prestigious Obie Award, the play came from Ensler’s interviews with 200 women and was viewed as a proclamation about what it means to be a woman at the turn of the twenty-first century. The play has been performed and adapted worldwide. Since The Vagina Monologues, Ensler has written and produced other plays using the same personal interview process.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Facts Outside of Monologues Eve Ensler was born in New York City on May 25, 1953. She received her bachelor’s degree from Vermont’s Middlebury College in 1975, where she joined the feminist movement. After graduation, she lacked real purpose and slipped into abusive relationships with men, drugs, and alcohol. When she hit bottom, she met Richard McDermott, who took her in. They married in 1978 and divorced ten years later. Ensler adopted McDermott’s son, actor Dylan McDermott, when he was eighteen and she was twenty-six. Her career was jumpstarted in 1996 with The Vagina Monologues, though she was an active writer and theatrical performer prior to the success of that play. For instance, in 1983, Ensler wrote a series of pamphlets called ”Acting You,” which offers pedagogical strategy for teachers and students to access emotions and resolve conflict using theatre techniques.
Advocating for Women Through Monologues
The idea for The Vagina Monologues came from Ensler’s abusive childhood. Her father, a food industry executive, abused her physically, often assaulting her with a belt or mistreating her sexually from the time she was five years old until she was about ten. Ensler began writing at a young age to deal with her pain, confusion, anger, and emotional shock.
Ensler interviewed 200 women for The Vagina Monologues. The monologues call attention to the variety of experiences in women’s lives—from menstruation to masturbation, from rape to giving birth—that are intimately connected to the most intimate part of the female body. The play gave Ensler the nickname ”The Vagina Lady,” as well as plenty of worldwide attention. Ensler used the play’s popularity to showcase women’s causes internationally by producing benefit performances of the play featuring celebrities like Glenn Close and Whoopi Goldberg. These benefits, under the name V-Day, have raised millions for women’s organizations. V-Day was incorporated in 1998 as a non-profit international organization advocating for an end to violence against women.
Giving the Public More Necessary Targets
After the successful Vagina Monologues, Ensler told another empowering story that targeted women’s issues: Necessary Targets (1996). This play follows two American women, a Park Avenue psychiatrist and a human rights worker, who go to Bosnia to help women confront their memories of a war that raged there from 1992 to 1995. Directed by Ensler, the play debuted at the famous Helen Hayes Theatre in New York City as a benefit performance and starred Meryl Streep and Anjelica Huston.
Like The Vagina Monologues, The Good Body (2004) confronted women’s body image. The play discusses how women feel bound to society’s standard of beauty. Ensler traveled the globe for four months to conduct personal interviews, yet also connected inspiration for the play to the larger issues surrounding the war in Iraq, which started in 2003 when the administration of President George W. Bush claimed that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction. In the preface to the play, Ensler acknowledges the oddity in writing a play about body image while the world is in turmoil, but then counters: ”Maybe because I see how my stomach has come to occupy my attention, I see how other women’s stomachs or butts or thighs or hair or skin have come to occupy their attention, so that we have very little left for the war in Iraq—or much else, for that matter.”
In 2006, Ensler addressed the Iraq War in another play, The Treatment. This play is told through a man’s voice; the protagonist, Man, who served in Iraq, struggles with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) after he spent time as a soldier torturing detainees. Woman, dressed as a uniformed medic, appears to be his psychiatrist, but symbolizes the American system. The play becomes a treatise on how society defines brutality, torture, humanity, and war.
2006: Year of the Inspirational Summit and Memoir
Along with her on-stage activism, Ensler has also participated in a variety of public events to raise awareness about important women’s issues. In 2006, with Madame Jeanette Kagame, First Lady of Rwanda, global humanitarian Zainab Salbi, and noted Christian AIDS advocate Mrs. Kay Warren, Ensler contributed to the CNN Inspire Summit. The Summit honored women who inspired others to get involved in political and humanitarian activism. Ensler was part of a program that addressed religious- and government-sanctioned violence against women and the AIDS epidemic, among other key areas of international concern.
In the same year, Ensler wrote Insecure at Last: Losing It in Our Security-Obsessed World. The book used America’s quest for national security in the wake of 9/11 to frame experiences from Ensler’s own life, her own quest for security. At the same time, Ensler juxtaposed her story with interviews with women in Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Mexico, as well as with American antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan.
Political Essayist and Blogger
In the last few years, Ensler has blogged political commentaries for The Huffington Post, a liberal news website founded in 2005 by Greek-born syndicated columnist Arianna Huffngton. Ensler’s blog subjects include the vice presidential nomination of Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Condoleeza Rice’s ”bad theatre,” and Ensler’s own V-Day monologues.
Works in Literary Context
The Personal is Political
In an interview with Eve Ensler, Wendy Weiner declares that ”[t]he inseparability of Ensler’s art and activism are evident.” Though she refers specifically to Ensler’s play, Necessary Targets, the statement describes most, if not all, of Ensler’s work. From The Vagina Monologues to The Treatment, Ensler confronts important women’s issues, like sexual abuse, body image, and the violence of war within a framework of personal experiences. Ensler herself has made a purposeful decision to express her politics through her art: ”For a long time,” she said in an article written with Andrea Lewis, ”I really struggled with those two forces in my life. Fortunately, I bless the great goddesses that it’s come together and I’ve found a way to manifest both those things at the same time.” Critic F. Kathleen Foley remarked that The Vagina Monologues, ”is not just a play anymore. It’s a social movement.”
Body and Theatre
Much of Ensler’s work deals with the relationship between a woman’s body and the larger world, as well as how that relationship can be portrayed on stage. In an interview with Jim Mirrione, Eve Ensler pronounced:
I am really interested in the theatre of the body and discovering just what the relationship is of the body to theatre—and of the body to everything. I think one of the reasons that feminism has not been successful yet is that it hasn’t translated into the body—it’s just in the head. I believe when the translation actually happens, so that women actually love their bodies, feel safe in their bodies, feel empowered in their bodies, then the world will change. And theatre has the capacity to do that— to really let things enter the body, and I continue to be interested in that.
Works in Critical Context
Ensler’s drama exposed international and personal issues through the specific experience of the individual. Critics praised Ensler for her directness, especially in the way she uses and reclaims language usually whispered, denounced, or hidden. For many women, The Vagina Monologues brought a newfound awareness of and pride in the female body.
Mixed Reviews about Female Sexuality
In her review of The Vagina Monologues in the feminist publication Off Our Backs, Roxanne Friedenfels suggests the play ”serves as a vehicle for continuing discussions about female sexual experience. It also, however, shows how in a sex-saturated society we are only slouching slowly toward honest recognition of how women attain sexual pleasure.” Some feminists also critiqued Ensler for aligning a woman’s empowerment with sexuality rather than intellect by making the vagina a symbol of power, and thereby perpetuating the very gender inequity that Ensler was trying to protest. But most critics fully embraced the frank conversation started by The Vagina Monologues. For many, Ensler cut through the shame associated with the word ”vagina” and encouraged a sense of ownership in women’s sexuality. In the Los Angeles Times, F. Kathleen Foley wrote, ”As dramatic literature, The Vagina Monologues is rough-hewn, ranging from the soaringly poetic to the uncomfortably pornographic. As a neo-feminist celebration, however, it is an occasion for rejoicing.”
In reviewing Ensler’s The Good Body, Nirmala Nataraj writes: ”Navel-gazing is an allegation that Ensler has often been hit with, and her brand of ‘radical activism’ has been attacked as retrograde theater, naive and sentimental ruminations that trivialize women’s issues.” Others find Ensler’s ”navel-gazing” as, in fact, an inward exploration fanning outward. For them, Ensler’s technique of using interviews as a basis for her dramatic topics and language takes the intimacy and privacy of the personal and makes it public and universal, essentially sharing the experience of Everywoman.
- Ensler, Eve and Andrea Lewis. ”All about Eve.” The Progressive 65 (March 2001).
- Ensler, Eve and Jim Mirrione. ”Eve Ensler: Body Trouble.” American Theatre 20 (December 2003).
- Foley, F. Kathleen. “Monologues: Harrowing, Candid and Often Hilarious.” Los Angeles Times (Oct. 16,2000).
- Friedenfels, Roxanne. The Vagina Monologues: Not So Radical After All?” off our backs (May-June 2002).
- Nataraj, Nirmala. ”More Body, Less Vagina.” SFSTATION(Aug. 18, 2004).
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