The Vagina Monologues

Catherine Redfern watches the famous play

, 16 May 2001

As I sat in the theatre about 10 minutes before the play was due to start, two young, male tourists sat beside me. “I’m really intrigued to find out what this is all about,” one of them said to the other. “Do you think she’ll actually talk about… you know…?” His friend said something I didn’t hear. “Oh my God! Really?” The man said, shocked. “I thought it was a metaphor!”

The only review I’d managed to read of Eve Ensler’s famous play’s opening night was by Jonathan Myerson in the Independent. In contrast to the hype that had surrounded it for the previous few weeks, he complained the play was badly staged and acted, and didn’t deserve to be called a play. Furthermore it was a ‘moan-fest’ and the questions Ensler asked women – even the existence of the play itself – were pointless: ‘do women really think about themselves so much in terms of their sexual organs?’. Bizarrely, he claimed that in collecting the stories Enlser had ‘forced’ women to talk about their vaginas (I get an image of Ensler with a semi-automatic, screaming ‘tell me about your vagina or the kid gets it, bitch!’). The play was ‘quaintly old fashioned’ in that it was taken for granted that ‘men were the enemy.’ Even worse, he said, he felt ‘excluded’.

Oh well. Ever one to keep an open mind, I decided to go and see it myself at the Saturday matinee showing on a gorgeously sunny day in early May. The audience was mainly women, as you’d expect; but not overwhelmingly so; there were men there too. Quite a few tourists (I heard a few American accents), and quite a few middle aged couples sat amongst the younger crowd.

The stage was simple: a microphone, a back-drop, the set painted red (of course!), and at the front, a row of pairs of shoes – all red – all different sizes and types: sneakers, wellington boots, high heels.

An old woman, an angry woman, a 6 year old girl, a rape victim…

Then Ensler appeared, sat down, and began to talk. The monologues are based on interviews with hundreds of women who discussed their vaginas with her. Many of them had never spoken about the subject before – nobody had ever asked them. But once they started talking, said Ensler, it was difficult to stop them. To begin with, she took us through the different names this part of the body has been given: from the clinical ‘vagina’ (sounds like an infection at best, she said), to the weird and wonderful ‘coochie snorcher.’ One of the monologues was about reclaiming the word ‘cunt’ (how very third-wave!).

The monologues themselves were fascinating, and were picked from a wide variety of sources. They included an old woman, an angry woman, a 6 year old girl, a bosnian rape victim, a woman who attended a ‘vagina workshop’, a woman’s experience of childbirth, and a hilarious portrayal of the ‘moans’ women make during sex (just wait till you hear ‘the British moan’!). I cried, but I also laughed, and afterwards, emerged blinking into the sunlight with a smile on my lips.

Of course women don’t think of themselves wholly in terms of their sexual organs – if anything it’s the opposite

Throughout the play I consciously tried to see where Jonathan Myerson was coming from; imagining how a man would feel hearing these stories. But I honestly could not see how he had reached such a harsh opinion. Fair enough, he criticises the theatrical performance, the acting, the drama, the setting. Not being a regular theatre goer, I wouldn’t know about that. Even so I think to focus on that side of it would be missing the whole point of the performance. The questions Ensler asked women (if your vagina could speak, what would it say; if it got dressed, what would it wear) may not tell us anything important on their own, but they were obviously designed to facilitate discussion and ease the process for the women to tell their stories. In answer to Myerson’s question, of course women do not think of themselves wholly in terms of their sexual organs; if anything it’s the opposite. Women hardly ever talk about it, or think about it. If the play demonstrates anything, it’s that point.

As I listened, I was ready to concede, if that’s what I experienced, that it was a moaning session (apart from the obvious orgasmic moaning monologue!). But I honestly did not get that at all. To dismiss comical rants at things like dry cotton tampons – and especially harrowing tales of rape – as a moan-fest defies belief. To tell these stories is not moaning. And to extract humour from annoyances and irritations is what comedians have always done since time immemorial. Are they moaning too? Some of loudest guffaws came from men in the crowd I was in.

Perhaps Enlser didn’t talk about men enough?

I’m also not sure why he grumbled at being made to feel ‘excluded’. Was it one woman’s description of the pleasure gained from lesbian sex where no men were involved? Was it the gleeful telling of the biological fact that the clitoris has twice as many nerves as the penis and is the only organ in the human body designed purely for pleasure (I don’t think the men in the audience knew how to react to that – and I don’t blame them! But for goodness sake, it’s a biological fact. Are we supposed not to mention it just to spare male egos?) Or was it simply the fact that this is a play performed by a woman, of monologues written by women, talking about women’s bodies. Our bodies, ourselves. It’s inevitable a man might feel excluded from that. But what on earth was he expecting? Perhaps Ensler just didn’t talk about men enough. Well, boo hoo.

I think the saddest thing is that he thinks the play takes ‘utterly for granted that men are the enemy.’ I am at a loss to even begin to explain where this impression came from (and I was really looking out for this; I wanted to write a balanced review.) Why does there have to be an ‘enemy’? The word was never mentioned or even implied. If women discussing their bodies together, laughing at our experiences and indeed, at ourselves, is threatening to men; if it is automatically seen as radical feminism with men as the enemy, then we still have a long way to go.

Anything that makes us feel good about our bodies has to be a good thing

Although both men and women will enjoy this, I think women will inevitably get more out of this than men. I can imagine some of them sat there listening to this feel-good session about the vagina thinking ‘but what about me?’ Well, if someone comes up with monologues about the penis that tells the real story; heartbreaking, funny, enlightening, humourous, vulnerable… I’d go and listen. Why not? Anything that makes human beings feel good about their bodies without denigrating the opposite sex has got to be good.

Eve Ensler will perform the monologues until 3 June 2001. The play will then be performed by a rolling cast of celebrities

Catherine Redfern is the editor of The F-Word.

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