“I was really sucked down this vagina trail, and I couldn’t get back. I’ve been on the trail for a long time and I don’t think I’m getting off it any time soon,” – Eve Ensler
I first heard of the Vagina Monologues about a year ago, when it was staged at the Theatre Institute of Tbilisi. A newspaper article described how a young man sitting somewhere at the back of the hall interrupted the performance as the play progressed to its climax and the actress, standing on the front of the stage was uttering sharply, clearly and strongly Georgian slang for “Vagina”, which is mostly used as a derogatory insult towards women. This fellow apparently sprang to his feet and shouted fiercely: “What is this? Is this a performance? What perversity is this! And on this stage where actors would play saints before!”
The performance in Georgia had not been promoted but rather the news was spread through word of mouth, as ‘there were reasonable doubts that it would be labelled as propaganda” of lewdness. The considerably more tolerant audience engaged the young man, causing his premature departure from the hall. The stage lighting crew apparently also defected after the incident. Apparently it was too much Vagina intake for them and far too much politically incorrect speech. The monologues continued fully lit as a young girl from the audience took over the job impromptu.
Sadly, I didn’t expect any such drama within a drama of the Vagina Monologues at Sussex University. After all, I’m in the middle of Europe, oh, ok, on its western shores. Furthermore, I’m in Brighton- ‘the liberal enclave’ and I study in IDS, where we discuss menstruation with Robert Chambers more often than I did with Mom in my teen years.
The Vagina Monologues are based on a collection of 200 interviews which Eve Ensler collected from women of diverse age, profession, marital status, sexual orientation and nationality. Ensler was worried that we think about vaginas and “even more worried that we don’t think about them.” Anxious, nervous, uncomfortable, shy as they may feel, women share their stories about sex and rape, orgasm and violence, taboos and freedom, relationships and abuse.
The Sussex version of the Vagina Monologues was an attempt to engage the audience into the play from the very beginning. “So, what do you think of our vaginas?” a poster asked while ushering students into the performance hall. Further down the corridor en route to the entrance, an aquarium placed on a pink, cloth-covered small table, adorned with colourful beads and a carnival mask, invited us to speculate: “If your vagina could talk, what would it say in two words?” The responses were quite amusing: I’ve unfolded the pieces of paper with a few other curious mates. They said, “think twice, “protect me”, “Try again.”
There was a small riser at centre stage, yet the entire hall was used as performance space as actresses spread out across the cavernous room. The monologues were recited simultaneously, while crowds of viewers encircled them. The cast itself was diverse, reflecting the diversity of the women interviewed for the original script.
The performance featured amateur actresses, students from different parts of the world, all reciting monologues in English while adding a peculiar flavour of their accents. “My vagina was once my hometown. Not since they took turns. They took turns for seven days. Smelling like feces and smoked meat,” a black-haired actress clad in black gown was reciting the harrowing recount of a gang rape in former Yogoslavia. Across the rape monologue, two students, one wearing short-green dress with flowers and two tails, are narrating the children’s first encounter with vagina and related fears: “I’m afraid of the water getting in and filling me up so I explode.”
Close to the stage, a bathtub with a red canvas flowing across the bottom, apparently to denote blood, features a childbirth story: “I was there when her vagina changed… from a shy, sexual hole to an archaeological tunnel, a sacred vessel, a venetian canal, a deep well with a tiny stuck child inside waiting to be rescued.” I was listening and thinking of the richness of the imagination of the narrator, creating these epithets of just one biological organ.
Other scenes included Because he liked to look at it, a women describing how Bob turned her embarrassment of her own vagina into a pleasant sexual experience, the Subject Being. Hair, a monologue stressing how women’s bodies are still subject to men’s sexual desires and taste.
My head was in a frenzied spin cycle, as I tried to listen to all the monologues, hurrying from one scene to another, to enjoy all the scenes and fearing that the actresses would lose energy and enthusiasm to narrate the monologues, as they would start over again after finishing for one circle of viewers. The crowds of viewers were mingling with one another, so were the different voices reciting the monologues, creating buzz, noise, hype, a feeling that different ingredients were boiling in a huge pot, disrupted from time to time by deep, penetrating orgasm moans, “the elegant moans”, “the doggy moans,” the “baby moan”, even the Sussex moan and so on and so forth.
I was listening and reflecting, reading the stories of sexual abuse from a 10 year old child on a poster, looking at the photos hanging on the rope featuring the Vagina as a rose and similar. For me, deep sadness, anger and admiration of women’s courage were coming in turns.
I don’t know how many rounds it took for the actresses to narrate their pieces. But different voices heard from various corners of the hall emerged in the centre stage in the finale of the show. There, around 50 women, came together, culminating their stories with final concluding statements which had a celebratory tone: “My Vagina is an adventure and doesn’t like visa regimes! My vagina believes another world is possible! My vagina has no religion! My vagina is my vagina! My vagina is f..ing gorgeous!”
Eve Ensler’s play is viewed as a statement against sexual abuse, the objectification of women, social constructs that mystify human bodies and engender internalized self-hatred in women, against dogmas of patriarchal society. It is a play that tells the story of women’s struggles and victories; a play that liberates women from the guilt of sexuality.
But Eve Ensler’s play is more than that. She’s seeking an element of truth in the masquerade of the patriarchal structure, where women prefer to believe they have “furniture, cosy futons with light cotton comforters” or similar between their legs.
With the Vagina Monologues, there is a sense of confronting the reality of sex, abuse, violence and relationships face-to-face. It removes the aesthetic lens through which we view our relationship, objects and shape our relations with the world. The Vagina Monologues erects a huge mirror to see ourselves and others, to look at our vaginas that we forgot, all of us, abused, shaved, rose-like, and to smash the same mirror to feel the bare flesh ourselves. Eve Ensler’s play is part of the key feature of the 20th century: the Passion for the Real, exposing us to direct experience of the Real.
When discussing Alain Badiou’s concept, Zizek relates it to the domain of sexuality: “is not the ultimate figure of the passion for the Real the option we get on hardcore websites to observe the inside of a vagina from the vantage point of a tiny camera at the top of the penetrating dildo?” But he also talks how “when we get too close to the desired object, erotic fascination turns into disgust at the Real of the bare flesh.” The bodily reality of the Vagina Monologues does not produce this shift in me. But what if the threshold when the shift happens is subjective? Maybe that Georgian guy who disrupted the performance, reached a critical point of disgust when hearing Vagina in Georgian from the stage? And he decided to withdraw into his comfort zone where, as one Georgian journalism noted, “all the words related to women sexuality drifted into the realm of cursing and became monopolized by men”?
Thousands of kilometres from Georgia, we are standing in the middle of the stage, in the middle of Europe, and still asserting our rights as women. The struggle is not over. It is going on.
“It isn’t real. Pussies unite. I know all of it.”