The Vagina Monologues is an award-winning play written especially for the lips not legally kissable in public. Except possibly in Amsterdam. It debuted off-Broadway in 1996 and featured a single actress, Eve Ensler, speaking all of the production's dialogue through her vagina.
The idea for The Vagina Monologues stemmed from Ensler's love of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his well-known wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. While ventriloquism continued to have some level of popularity through the 1970s and 80s through television shows like Soap and Washington Week in Review, its following has slowly waned over the past 25 years with the growing realization than grown men talking with wooden dolls is just creepy.
Ensler postulated that audiences had bored of listening to the humourous but contrived conversations of the classic art, and yet she still embraced the value of speaking through alternative mediums as a way of broaching sensitive subjects. Jay Johnson (with his dummy, Bob) and George H. W. Bush (with his dummy, G-Dubya) were able to make some extremely witty and derisive statements as a result of speaking through an object (though Johnson's are still criticized for being "too political", and Bush's may not have been intentionally humorous after all).
In considering the mechanism for a new paradigm in humour delivery Ensler wondered, "What has been more objectified than the female body?" In a move calculated to take back female control over their private parts, as well as guarantee the fixated attention of an audience for two solid hours, Ensler began the writing play to be spoken almost completely by her southern cousin down who lived down at the Y.
Conflict with the religious right was anticipated, and so it was no surprise when they began picketing the rehearsal studios daily with sloganed placards like "Ban the Bearded Clam" and shouted protests:
|Vaginas should be seen, not heard! No... that's not right... Vaginas should be heard, not seen! Ewwwww. Definitely not. How about: 'If God had intended vaginas to talk, He would have given them lips.' Uhhhhhh... no. That one doesn't work either. Chin up folks, we'll get one eventually.|
Negative publicity only served to create demand for tickets to dress rehearsals, and even more demand for the subsequent undress rehearsals.
Audience feedback proved very fruitful in stage design and theatre decoration. While Ensler's own voice was amplified by way of a covert wireless microphone built into her brooch, a pair of prop mics on booms were arranged — one pointed at her mouth and one pointed much lower — which helped to cement the illusion of throwing her voice.
Additionally, an executive decision was made to segregate the sexes. The women's sections remained unchanged, but substantial modifications were made to meet the special needs of men. Seat covers and enormous amounts of plastic sheeting on the floor were deemed a necessary precaution. Then, it was suggested to add paper towel and hand cream dispensers at regular intervals in each row. Some debate followed over whether these expenses should be built into the ticket prices with a premium added for male attendees. In the end, complex questions over the myriad of individual sexual preferences led to a standard price vending machine system being implemented. Later still, it was decreed that women could sit in the men's section and men in the women's section, and transgendered people could sit wherever they could find a seat. For clarity, the mens and women' section were re-designated as "wanking" and "non-wanking", respectively.
Even with these changes there were more protests from gay rights activists who objected to the newly implemented "labels". Some within the lesbian movement demanded that they have their own subsection of the wanking area, as they too were of that persuasion, but did not take kindly to the oppressive, unwanted male attention from those around them. The theatre company also expressed concern over the distraction this was causing, though insiders later said it was just Ensler's frustration over having to share the spotlight.
After some weeks of controversy, the lesbian lobby was deemed to be too small to warrant action being taken. Or perhaps everyone just forgot about them. It's unclear. Moving on...
Media accounts, while varied, were generally favourable:
|After being asked "Wanking or non-wanking?" by the ticket seller, and choosing the latter, I wondered whether I'd made the wrong choice — both in my selection of seating and in my decision to attend in the first place. My questions about attending turned out to be ill-founded with Enlser turning out a marvelous performance, but I may well return for a future date to get a closer look at the "show within the show" that occurred just up and to the right of me.|
- ~ Shanda Lear, Rolling Stone
|Regrettably, I was unable to remain for the full showing. As it turned out, my front row center seat was in the "non-wanking" section, and I found it necessary to excuse myself to the restroom after a tense 40 minutes.|
- ~ Dick Hertz, The Chihuahua Provincial Examiner
|While Ensler certainly does not disappoint, the much-hyped "show within the show" I'd heard so much about is nothing of the sort. After a promising start and a rather enthralling 3 minutes, it was all over. Most of those in my row fell asleep, while I remained awake, alone and feeling cheated.|
- ~ Harry Sphincter, The Washington Post
|Oh I found this play delightfully witty and insightful, more so than those damned stirrups, but nevertheless the show was a budding flower and a chance to really get to know your own vagina.|
- ~Connie Lingus, OCD Cat Burgler Gazette
Historically, it would go on to become the largest and most comprehensive investigation of its kind, fueled by an unprecedented outpouring of volunteer support. Members of the CIA, ATF, FBI, and Secret Service were joined by numerous others from across the country from municipal police departments, rural sheriffs, army reserves, and others affiliated with law enforcement, judicial and military organizations. The number of department store security guards that were turned away is almost beyond calculation.
In the end, thousands of man-hours, gallons of hand cream and entire forests-worth of paper towels failed to substantiate any claims of indecency or pornography against the show or its producers.
But, just in case, everyone signed up again to go another round. Second opinions, and all that...
Many millions of man-seconds later, Eve Ensler was formally notified that she had contravened the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide accommodation for the hearing impaired. In a written statement, the executive committee stated:
|Even with priority seating near the stage, it can be tremendously difficult and often frustrating to read Ms. Ensler's lower set of lips. Subtle cues on her face provide a constant reminder that words are being transmitted through her pelvic region, but which are obscured by her constantly-moving fingers and lush pubic hair.|
- ~ Phil Latio, Executive Member
...And if you want to know more, I'm afraid you'll just have to buy a ticket like everyone else.