Interview: Eve Ensler
Eve Ensler is the writer of a globally successful play that has inspired thousands of women.
Eve Ensler raises awareness of violence against women through her V Day campaign. She says she’s not sure if she is primarily a writer or an activist
Eve ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues is perhaps the unlikeliest hit in the history of theatre. Written 13 years ago, it has been performed countless times in auditoriums all over the world in front of audiences numbering in their thousands. Hollywood stars clamour to appear in it. It has had the kind of success usually reserved for big-budget musicals, and the kind of impact normally associated with groundbreaking drama.
Not bad for a play consisting of a series of monologues — both serious and humorous — intended originally to be performed by a cast of one.
The play started life at New York’s Westside Theatre in 1996 starring Ensler herself, who had been slogging away as an unknown actress in off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions. It made an instant impression among women who were drawn to a work covering issues of female sexuality and oppression that, up to that point, had rarely been aired in the theatre.
Soon celebrities were queuing up to be cast in it and the piece became a three-hander. It has been performed over the years by stars ranging from Maureen Lipman to Caprice in this country and Oprah Winfrey, Cate Blanchett and Winona Ryder in the United States. Jane Fonda is one of the show’s biggest fans.
“Fifteen years since I wrote it I now think: ‘OK, this will be the last year’. But when the opportunity [to perform it] comes, it doesn’t matter where, I think that it’s great. It’s because we haven’t yet fully broken the taboo,” says Ensler.
“People are repressed everywhere. They just have different cultural disguises,” she continues, using her well-worn armoury of post-feminist expressions. “Most places are so repressed no one talks about things. No one deals with sexuality. Paris was one of the last places to do the play. They were very reluctant to stage it. It took quite a few years before it was seen as a substantial play.”
One effect of her work is that it has encouraged women to talk about their experiences of abuse. “Because [the play] connected with so many women, it was kind of a dialogue between me and the audience that I was performing for,” she says.
Indeed, the 55-year-old playwright began writing because of her own abusive past. She was raised in a wealthy suburb of New York, the middle child of three, her father a Jewish businessman.
“I had a very hard time growing up,” she admits, reluctant to go into more detail, although she says she has now forgiven her mother for ignoring her suffering at the hands of her father.
“At a young age, I wrote all the time,” she says. “It was really how I saved my sanity. It was giving a voice to what was going on around me. I didn’t have any way to articulate it at that point. My writing eventually focused itself on the world: sexism, racism, personal oppression and violence in general. It just happened organically.
“I wrote a play on nuclear war when [US President] Reagan was in power. I realised that there was a way that I could put political ideas together with theatre and activate people. I don’t know what came first, being an activist or being a writer.”
The success of Monologues spurred Ensler to create V Day — a multi-national charity event which has been held every year since 1997 on February 14 and seeks to raise awareness of violence against women, from domestic abuse to the violence seen in conflict zones like Dafur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Ensler has visited around 40 countries promoting her campaign — she admits it is something of an obsession for her.
“As I travelled I began to understand what a truly cultural thing violence against women is,” she says. “It’s endemic.”
V Day is now marked in 120 countries across the world. Among the 60 events happening in the UK this year is the West End premiere of Ensler’s play, A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer, with contributions from well-known authors such as Alice Walker and Edward Albee. “I employed a lot of different writers to write around violence against women. I reached out to my favourite writers and we got an overwhelmingly wonderful response,” says Ensler. “What I’m glad about is to have so many different voices, and we had men writing as well.”
Her response to the Gaza crisis is categorically anti-violence. And she believes that if women were in charge on both sides of the divide, the response to the situation would be different.
“I don’t believe military ‘solutions’ are an option,” she says. “Many women in Israel and many women in Palestine really see another way. There’s huge solidarity between women’s groups.”
Ensler — who was in a relationship with Israeli writer and psychotherapist Ariel Orr Jordan for around 16 years — says she is proud of her Jewish heritage.
“For me the tradition of philosophy, imagination and asking questions and going deeper into ourselves to find solutions is what I’m most proud of. We have all this knowledge and wisdom, and all the potential that comes from that has been desecrated. That’s not to say that Hamas should be shooting rockets at Israel.”
But for now she is focusing on the global success of her V Day movement. It is a long way from performing in tiny fringe venues in London and New York.
“I loved my life before Vagina Monologues,” she reflects, “but there was also a certain level of frustration about not being able to reach a wider audience.”
A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer and The Vagina Monologues are at New Players Theatre, London, WC2 on February 17-21. Box office: 020 7478 0135