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Boston Globe: 'Vagina' Has Hope, Humor
By Maureen Dezell, Globe Staff
Eve Ensler interviewed 200 women for "The Vagina Monologues."
"If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?"
"Red high-tops and a Mets cap worn backward."
"If it could speak, what would it say?"
"It would say words that begin with `V' and `T' - `turtle' and `violin' are examples."
"What's so special about your vagina?"
"Somewhere deep inside it I know it has a really smart brain."
NEW YORK - This exchange from an interview conducted with a 6-year-old girl is Eve Ensler's favorite passage in "The Vagina Monologues," her Obie Award-winning, taboo-shaking play about the female body part that dares not speak its name.
Provocative and whimsical, poignant and amusing, Ensler's one-woman performance piece, a paean to the joys of female sexuality, opens this week at the Wilbur Theatre. It comes to Boston not just as a stage production but as a phenomenon. "The Vagina Monologues" has toured the world, and is currently playing to packed houses in six North American cities.
Championed by high-profile actresses (Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Meryl Streep), musicians (Alanis Morissette) and public figures (including Donna Hanover, estranged wife of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani), "The Vagina Monologues" has also given voice and resonance to V-Day Vision, a grass-roots effort and clarion call in the burgeoning international movement to end violence against women.
A radical in red lipstick and cowboy boots, Ensler is a playwright and lifelong activist who seeks to fundamentally change the secrecy and shame that surrounds women's bodies. She is a survivor of parental abuse herself. She exudes warmth, wit, and singular sense of verve.
"Let's just start with the word vagina," she says at the outset of "Vagina Monologues."
"It sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument: `Hurry, nurse, bring me the vagina.' Vagina. Vagina. It's a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word. If you use it during sex, in an attempt to be politically correct, you kill the act right there."
Ensler says she was a playwright with "exhibitionist tendencies" when she began collecting material for "The Vagina Monologues." She doesn't remember writing the piece. "It started when I had a conversation with an older woman - a feminist - who was going through menopause and who had contemptuous things to say about her vagina," she recalled. "I started asking other friends about it, and I found they had all sorts of things to say and were really open and willing to talk."
Contrary to the claims of cranky columnists and commentators, the piece - which ended up drawing on interviews with 200 women - is not politically correct. PC performers don't wear black dresses with spaghetti straps, giggle, and simulate joyous orgasms onstage. Ensler does.
Nor is she a male-basher, as the small but generally enthusiastic presence of men in many of her audiences attests.
"I don't hate men. Au contraire," she said recently over lunch at a Union Square cafe. Her French, like her English, is inflected with an unmistakable New York accent.
"I have never been a male-basher. Ever. I'm not interested. I think most men would like to be tender, would love to be able to have space for their feelings, would love to be good lovers. I don't think men want to end up proving their vitality and strength by beating up women!"
People query her about male bashing in much the same way they ask warily: "Are you a feminist?" "And I say, `Well, yeah, but here's what I mean by feminism: that women are entitled to their desires; that they should know their desires; that they should fulfill their desires.' That, to me, is what feminism is."
Now 47, Ensler came of age when the sexual revolution was in full swing, during the nascent days of what was then called "women's liberation" - a movement she considers a qualified success.
"The problem with feminism is that somehow it's translated into the world as something for a very limited number of people, as opposed to something that's very broad," she explained. "Let's look at how many women are working. Let's look at how many women are Supreme Court justices. I mean, we can't even begin to chart how different our lives are. I feel entitled, and I feel that I should have a job and I will have a job. I feel that my dreams are possible.
"I also think there are pieces that didn't happen," she added. "Sexuality didn't happen. People were scared to be sexy [in the late 1960s and early 1970s], because what the patriarchy had done with sexiness was so demeaning. Women were so focused then on being taken seriously and changing the world and thinking about equal pay and child care and all that there was a way in which people didn't get that sex was part of that.
"So sex didn't get integrated. It got political - and humorless. And it got over-there-ized. It was like: We'll deal with that later."
Ensler grew up in the wealthy New York City suburb of Scarsdale, in a home where love and security were in short supply. She says her father, who is now dead, abused her sexually until she was 10 years old, then continued to beat and harass her physically. She doesn't like to dwell on her childhood, except to say that feeling good about her self and her body - and sharing that sense by leading a crusade that spreads the good word about women's sexuality - has helped heal her wounds.
"One of the advantages of growing up in a violent situation, where the person you love the most is your perpetrator, is that you have both the capacity to despise that person and to empathize with why they're doing it to you," she said, speaking slowly and deliberately. "Because if you do not figure out why they're doing it to you, if you do not get to the heart of why the person who loves you would be hurting you like this, you go mad.
"I have never been in a situation where I didn't completely empathize with people - people I disagree with politically, people who may have done horrendous things. All you can do is do something to make life better, and try to understand why people become that, and try to change the roots of those things."
It took Ensler many years to achieve her current sanguine state.
As an undergraduate at Middlebury College, she was a militant, outspoken champion of feminist causes. At the same time, she held herself in extremely low regard. After graduating in 1975, she drifted around the country and in and out of relationships with men who beat or otherwise abused her. She drank, she drugged, and then she drank and drugged some more.
In 1977, she met Richard "Mac" McDermott, then a 34-year-old bartender, in a New York City watering hole. After they began dating, he persuaded her to go into rehab. She did, and then she helped him get sober. They married in 1978.
Ensler legally adopted McDermott's son, Mark, when she was 27 and he was 19. "From the moment I met him, I completely, utterly identified and connected with him," she said. She encouraged Mark McDermott to get into acting, a field in which he flourished.
When he registered with the Screen Actors Guild, her stepson took the name Dylan McDermott because Ensler, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, had planned to name her baby Dylan.
Now a co-star of ABC's "The Practice," Dylan McDermott has remained close to Ensler, who split up with his father in 1988. She now lives with Israeli-born psychotherapist and artist Ariel Orr Jordan.
Ensler was with Dylan McDermott and his wife, Shiva, for the birth of their daughter. Her poem about watching a vagina turn into a birth canal - "an archaeological tunnel, a sacred vessel, a Venetian canal, a deep well with a tiny child stuck inside waiting to be rescued" - is one of the most moving segments of "The Vagina Monologues."
Ensler has recently returned from Bulgaria, where she performed "The Vagina Monologues." She has staged the show throughout Europe, in Israel, South Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey.
On Feb. 10 - V-Day 2001 - a "Vagina Monologues"-inspired and funded series of films, workshops, and rallies took place simultaneously on 250 college campuses in the United States and in cities in Brazil, Canada, France, and Spain. A gathering at Madison Square Garden featured music by Melissa Etheridge, an anthem written by Morissette, and a performance of the monologues by such high-wattage figures as Close, Streep, Jane Fonda, and Calista Flockhart. It drew a crowd of 18,000.
"We sold out the Garden. We sold out Madison Square Garden!" said Ensler with delight. "It was women, it was girls, it was diplomats. It was human rights workers, it was politicians, it was teachers, it was celebrities, it was women of color. It was so radical in its diversity!
"We raised enough money that we're giving away $2 million [to fight worldwide violence against women] this year. It's huge. And what's really exciting is that I think that we're really beginning to have an impact. I can't tell you how crucial I think it is that we stop the violation of women on the planet."
She paused, smiled, and shrugged. "Who knew?" she said. "I mean, who knew vaginas would become my life?"
This story originally ran in the Entertainment section on page M1 of the Boston Globe on Sunday 3/18/2001.