A quarter century before Gwyneth Paltrow created a scented candle called This Smells Like My Vagina, Eve Ensler wrote a gynecological homage that has burned longer and more powerfully than Gwynnie’s novelty. The 70-year-old playwright is the creator of The Vagina Monologues, which she first performed in 1996 and then published 25 years ago in 1998. This work was composed of monologues about vaginas.
One was titled My Angry Vagina (a rant about tampons, douches, and gynecological equipment). The second was titled My Vagina Was My Village (compiled from the testimonies of women tortured in rape camps during the 1992–95 Bosnian War). The script, political and personal, has been performed in more than 140 countries, in more than 48 languages, by stars including Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Oprah Winfrey.
Ensler – now known as V, for reasons we’ll get to – says he’s lost count of how many times he’s seen it. ‘Lots of them!’ she says with a laugh over Zoom from her home in New York state. Her favorite performances are not those with famous names, but performances by indigenous women in oppressed situations. ‘I saw one in prison (in Queens, New York) that blew my mind, and another covering a production in Pakistan. It was performed by Filipino women in their congress and to government officials in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He really impressed me.
Vee looks unnaturally cheerful, full of energy, her former Anna Wintour-esque black bob now a short grey-blonde crop. This is the style she adopted after being diagnosed with uterine cancer and undergoing chemotherapy in 2011.
Always upbeat, she once called it ‘the gift of cancer’ that has made her stronger.
As a struggling artist in Manhattan in the 1990s, Vee wrote The Vagina Monologues after having candid discussions with friends.
She interviewed more than 200 women whose stories of sex, love, birth and abuse became the basis.
‘I didn’t even want to write a play about vaginas, but there were stories that needed to be told,’ she says. ‘The monologues are not evidence: they are imaginary, based on emergent themes.’ (And as one line says: ‘Women secretly love talking about their vaginas. They get very excited, mainly because no one has ever asked them before.’)
He first performed the play without any actors or props on October 3, 1996, on a high stool in a small theater in New York City. Originally only 40 minutes long, it was to run until 15 November. But it was a hit and V was asked to continue till 31 December. Then a producer, David Stone, took it off Broadway with a rotating cast. “Since I started, it has become a place where women can talk about issues in solidarity with other women,” says Vee.
But there was anger too. In Paris, the directors said they would stage it only if the name was changed; CNN ran a ten-minute US broadcast about it but did not mention the V-word once; And in late 2013, a Wisconsin newspaper discreetly ran a strike-through headline, advertising it as XXXXX Monologues. Even feminists had issues. Germaine Greer, performing in the British production, found it ‘a much-hyped and fundamentally unchallenging piece of buffoonish American hoop-la’. American critic Camille Paglia called it ‘a painfully outdated branch of feminism’ ranging from ‘a fevered charlatan and pantheist’.
‘There was outrage from the Catholic Church: that young women were performing this in schools; That it was unethical. “There is no place where a play is performed that is not controversial,” she says. “But controversy is not a bad thing.
It opens up spaces where people couldn’t interact before.’
Vee remembers a production lit by a single lightbulb in a small warehouse in Oklahoma City, an extremely conservative part of America. After the first night, word spread and so many locals came to watch that they had to bring their own chairs. During a conversation, a young woman in the crowd fainted. When she came forward she said that the drama had inspired her to say for the first time that she had been raped by her stepfather.
This often happened like this. After the performance, crowds of female audience members would line up to talk to Vee.
‘Ninety percent of people were lining up to tell me they had been raped or abused. It was too much.’
In 1998 she launched V-Day, an initiative to help end violence against women. Funds raised from performances of the Vagina Monologues have since contributed over $100 million to anti-violence programs globally.
V is also a survivor. In 2019, she wrote The Apology, a memoir about enduring her father’s sexual abuse, which began when she was five years old. When she turned ten, he was strangling and beating her while her mother watched.
She never received his apology: ‘I waited years for this, then he died.’ So V prepared himself by writing from his perspective. ‘I got into the psyche of my father, who almost killed me because of fate. It was painful, but it helped me release his hold on me. Because I understood it, I saw that it had nothing to do with me.’
She felt free after finishing the book. ‘There was no malice or bitterness in my mind now. Even being angry at my father proves that I am still his story. But it took a while to find a new engine for my life, because a lot of it was about fighting that.’ In a last ditch effort to break free from his influence, she stopped using his surname and became V. ‘It helped me say, ‘This is my life – I’m going to write the next chapter.’
The next chapter of V is Reckoning. Published this month, it is a comprehensive compilation of prose, poetry, letters, essays and diary excerpts written over a 45-year period, detailing her sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, which she later To avoid her trauma, she survived. Uterine cancer and its activity. It’s dedicated to ‘The Pod’, a group of friends with whom she lives in a commune in New York State – an arrangement you may or may not consider pleasant, depending on your current circumstances.
‘They are wonderful people – four women, two gay men and my dog, although two of the members are in Spain at the moment. It’s beautiful to live in a community where you have your own sovereignty but come together for food and to process things. I Always Lived With Partners (she was married to Richard McDermott between 1978 and 1988, and is the adoptive mother of his son, actor Dylan McDermott). Now, I am alone but together. Each of us has a little house, and we may or may not get along. We are protectors of each other’s privacy.
Friendship has always been essential. ‘I was attacked a lot while writing The Vagina Monologues. How do you survive that, turn it into something positive? By surrounding myself with friends – women, for me – I can turn to them when I’m attacked to help me cope.’
Twenty-five years after the first publication of The Vagina Monologues, Vee reflects on what has changed for women. ‘#MeToo was important, but what I haven’t seen is any apology from the people who have spoken out about it. Have the menus changed?
There has been no introspection, no accounting on what he has done.
She stops. ‘It is my prayer that The Vagina Monologues will become obsolete. I dream that it will reach a point where they will seem completely irrelevant. Sadly, we are not there yet.
Reckoning by V Published by Bloomsbury, £16.99*