“Girls have been written and represented in popular culture in many different ways. Most of these representations have been largely unsatisfying because they never get girlhood quite right. It is not possible for girlhood to be represented wholly—girlhood is too vast and too individual an experience. We can only try to represent girlhood in ways that are varied and recognizable. All too often, however, this doesn’t happen.” – “ Girls Girls Girls”, Roxane Gay
Beloved Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch was back at the GCTC with another Ottawa premiere, this time produced by Halifax’s 2b Theatre, What A Young Wife Ought To Know. Set in the 1920s and tackling prevalent women’s issues like reproductive freedom, sexual education, and accessibility to contraception, this play attempts to show audiences what women’s lives were like in Canada almost 100 years ago. Make no mistake, however, Moscovitch’s text makes it very clear exactly which young wives her work is speaking to, which seemingly puts it at odds with a community that, in 2018, is actively striving to be more inclusive of race and gender in the arts.
Generally speaking, the story happens in two parts: The first part revolves around young Sophie and older sister Alma who both dream of making something of themselves in spite of their humble upbringings- and it’s clear that both girls have a very different idea about what this entails. Alma, who works at a hotel as a chambermaid, maintains illusions of grandeur through her constant interactions with rich (and often lascivious) patrons; whereas Sophie’s dreams are a little more domestic. Throw the attractive Irish stable boy Johnny into the mix and you’ve got yourself one classic “Betty and Veronica” love triangle- only this one isn’t always so congenial between the sisters and, in fact, ends in tragedy.
The second part sees how Johnny and Sophie adapt to married life and, more explicitly, sex (and the female body) after children. Sex, in this play, is something that’s seen as immensely pleasurable but also incredibly risky given the time period’s critical lack of information surrounding sexual education and contraception. It was at the time, in fact, illegal in Canada for information about birth control (let alone the contraceptives themselves) to be disseminated for public consumption. The main thrust (no pun intended) of What A Young Wife Ought To Know becomes a question of how women balance their desires to be sexually active versus the desire to procreate – not to mention the lengths to which individual women will go to maintain control over their reproductive freedoms.
The production itself is fairly enjoyable. The stage design (by Andrew Cull) is kept simple with only a few items evoking Sophie and Johnny’s small Ottawa home like a wooden rocking chair, table, and a small sideboard. Similarly, Leesa Hamilton’s costume design is both appropriate for the time period and represents the characters well (Alma’s dress, for example, is a darker and more ‘mature’ colour as if to make her seem older than she is). The acting, though a tad melodramatic at times, is carefully reigned in by Director Christian Barry, who also uses the performers to create some lovely stage pictures.
As a whole, the piece is a solid effort at putting women’s issues front and centre stage and is one that attempts to navigate any awkwardness or discomfort about these highly sensitive topics with thoughtfulness and light humor. The scene where Sophie and Johnny are trying out the “trendy” new method of birth control (i.e. by using a mixture of shea butter and tannic acid as a vaginal douche) comes as such a moment of comedic relief in the midst of a text whose characters are, for the most part, enshrouded in pain and sadness.
That being said, from a purely textual standpoint, while this play undoubtedly depicts women and women’s issues it falls short of speaking to or adding anything new to the way that we understand what it is to be a woman on stage and in the world. We exist in a time where information is constantly being disseminated and often times reaches a viral scale. Through social media channels we have been able to congregate en masse and help push for reform for women across the globe. When, in 2013, major news outlets failed to significantly cover Texas state senator Wendy Davis’ thirteen hour filibuster against a bill that would have closed thirty-seven of the state’s forty-two abortion clinics, 180 000 viewers turned to YouTube’s live-stream of the event. We are acutely aware of how women take matters into their own hands when there is no (or very limited) access to abortion and/or various contraceptive methods; and we are only beginning to scratch the surface on how race and class come into play. Not to mention the shift towards the idea that having a vagina and/or a uterus isn’t what makes you a woman (and to speak more broadly: that your sex organs don’t define your gender) has seen transgender activism skyrocket.
This is where I have some very complicated feelings. Throughout the piece, the playwright chooses to make extensive use of a narrative/dramaturgical device we call the “direct address”, where the character breaks the Fourth Wall and addresses the audience directly. In What a Young Wife Ought to Know, Sophie almost always prefaces her direct address with a call-out to the “ladies” in the audience (i.e. “Ladies, have you ever kept secrets from your husband?”). It feels a bit odd to hear considering that by and large our current definition of “ladies” has changed to include individuals who are a) not heterosexual b) not cis-gendered and/or c) not able to conceive. It’s not to say that non-hetero cis-gendered women and women who are infertile cannot enjoy or relate to the work of straight cis women, but rather to ask why the playwright feels it’s necessary to have the character of Sophie address the audience in such a way? If it is an attempt to emotionally implicate the spectators, it perhaps works against itself given the recent cultural shift towards incorporating more inclusive language into our public spaces.
I understand that given the title of the play, the character of Sophie, who is portrayed as being rather innocent and a bit naive, would of course be asking advice from other people in similar situations which, I suppose, in her mind would be the “ladies” of the time. However, I would argue that there are many things within this piece that ‘young spouses ought to know’ that don’t exclusively relate to contraception and childbirth. Maintaining a relationship during financial troubles is something that, I am positive, hits home for a lot of individuals in 2018 regardless of gender. When we are moving away from such pronouns like addressing people by “sir” and “ma’am” as the cultural norm, for example, repeatedly addressing your audience as “ladies” in this sense feels a bit unnecessary.
Furthermore, this penchant for writing women-centred plays that revolve solely around a uterus is getting to be a little familiar (if I had a nickel for everytime a female character’s arc is built around miscarriage and/or abortion…). Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay has an excellent article (“The Careless Language of Sexual Violence”) dedicated to analyzing television shows that use rape, sexual assault, and abortion in their narratives (particularly around Sweeps periods) and have seen their ratings increase accordingly. I am aware that Moscovitch’s piece was commissioned over a period of eight years and originally premiered in 2015, but there is literally a 2014 episode of Downton Abbey (“A Lady’s Right to Choose”) that tackles almost the exact same premise which makes me hesitate towards calling this work “brave”. How can we when Hollywood has been capitalizing on these plotlines for decades?
Not only is the reduction of women’s stories to conception troubling, the story of contraception equally should not be reduced to a white women’s issue. The absence of racial issues in the text is also a bit concerning given the significant amounts of literature that have been published in recent years to suggest that the development of certain contraceptive methods (primarily the Pill) were initially tested with more nefarious purposes in mind such as the desire to control racial minorities, people with mental and physical disabilities, and the poor (aka eugenics). It’s incredibly jarring when Sophie mentions that her doctor for one of her pregnancies is Black and the moment feels like a subtextual smack of, “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend”, and I may be going out on a limb here, but I am going to assume that a lot of people will not be aware of the historical significance that going to a Black doctor at that time is supposed to stress how poor Sophie and Johnny actually are.
That being said, while Sophie and Alma’s situations are indeed harrowing due to their socioeconomic class, they still carry the benefit of White Privilege where a man will “take care” of them should they conceive out of wedlock. I am not sure the same can be said of those women of colour living in Ottawa at the time when literally 10 years from the play’s historical context court proceedings ruled to allow Canadian business owners to legally refuse service to Black individuals, for example. Moreover, it’s important to note that while Johnny is portrayed as the hard working, though poor, Immigrant, he comes from one of the preferred immigration areas of the time. Many non-British immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries were having difficulties assimilating In Canada due to the longstanding racial prejudices held against them (and that’s not even touching on the experience of Indigenous Canadians).
In both Sophie and Alma’s case, Johnny wants to be there to help provide for and take care of the sisters and he mentions this quite a bit throughout the course of the text. Working women of colour, who were often the sole providers for their families, arguably weren’t afforded that same choice given the views on interracial relationships at the time, not to mention they were more often than not the victims of sexual assault and/or rape at the hands of their customers and/or coworkers. Again, this isn’t to say that the decision to terminate a pregnancy (or not) is more or less difficult or more or less valid in one situation than the other, but that it should be taken into account that we aren’t all afforded the same choices and opportunities in life. This is just one of many reasons why all Canadian women deserve the constitutional right to abortion.
Listen, I am all for art that deals with women’s reproductive rights, sexual freedoms, and the like but we are in a much different place now than in 1920- and 2018 has its own set of issues that need to be addressed by politicians and artists alike. With our sexual education curriculum getting a much needed update, we can also boast that most contraceptives are easily and readily available, not to mention the efficacy of said methods has increased tremendously. In Ontario not only are abortion services safe and fairly accessible, it is no longer legal to picket outside of abortion clinics offering patients “safety access zones” as they arrive and depart the clinic.
This desire playwright’s seem to harbor about “reflecting on history” so we don’t come to repeat it is a valid one, however, the focus that this particular text has on the past only serves to make us more complacent with where we are now instead of inspiring change for the future. Because the fact of the matter is this: we still haven’t totally won the fight when it comes to these issues and there’s still a long ways to go. Women’s maternity leave is still mostly insufficient, for example; access to abortion clinics is not consistent across provinces, and the Pill and other methods of contraception are, by and large, a significant monthly expense most women feel should be subsidized to a greater degree. Furthermore, women still have problems with pregnancy- Kim Kardashian is easily one of the most open celebrities about her rough pregnancies, her difficulties getting pregnant, and her ultimate decision to use a surrogate for her third child, Chicago West. This is not an individual experience and I recognize that.
I don’t doubt the power and resonance that What a Young Wife Ought to Know probably had for some women. There are a lot of things young women aren’t told before deciding to settle down, get married and have kids, primarily what happens to our bodies. We are constantly bombarded with magazine images of female celebrities and how they got rid of their baby weight in a matter of weeks and yet the same dedication towards showing women what childbirth actually entails is virtually nonexistent by comparison: that an episiotomy can damage sensitive nerve endings in a woman’s sexual organs that can severely affect how they receives sexual pleasure; that postpartum depression is still a very real condition that unfortunately too often goes unreported and undiagnosed; and, of course, the fact that our bodies might be permanently changed post-pregnancy are things that tend to get swept under the rug against viral content devoted to the trendiest baby names of the year, weight loss tips and how to get rid of stretch marks, and finding out which Kardashian sister or British Royal is pregnant next.
In this sense, Moscovitch’s play provides a good sense of the trepidation many women, I’m sure, feel towards sex after pregnancy (not to mention how they might feel towards childbirth post-pregnancy) and the tension that can put on a relationship (even more so if that family is experiencing financial instabilities). It also, like many female-centred works, underscores the fact that women will literally do anything to achieve their reproductive freedom and that deaths related to “back alley” abortions could be more or less eliminated provided the government recognize a woman’s right to abortion within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While it may not have resonated with this critic as strongly as it might have in 2015, What a Young Wife Ought To Know is nonetheless an interesting capsule piece showing us how rapidly the political landscape has shifted not only in the last century but even over these few years.
What a Young Wife Ought to Know
January 16- Feb 4, 2018
A 2b Theatre Production
Written by Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by Christian Barry