Saturday, January 28, 2006

Michiana Chronicles: Vagina Monologues

April Lidinsky, one of the five local writers who write
"Michiana Chronicles" for the local (South Bend, Indiana)
NPR station, broadcast this yesterday.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Play's the Thing

Ok, folks – time for a literature quiz that should take you back
to, oh, maybe your Sophomore language arts class. So: Who said the
following line: “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the
conscience of the king.” Anyone? Ah ... I see lots of hands.
And yes, “Hamlet” is correct. But with that line, Shakespeare
illuminates something larger than Hamlet’s desire for revenge.
That line reminds us that the best theater catches everyone’s
conscience, and makes all of us shift a bit in our seats.
Art is political– it’s about power.

A friend once gave me a t-shirt, decorated with Andy Warhol
images and the jaunty motto, “Art can’t hurt you.” I wore it a few
times, feeling pretty bohemian-hip, until a colleague said, “You know,
that t-shirt is totally wrong! It can too hurt.” And ... he was
right. To say art can’t hurt us is to say it doesn’t have any teeth, any
power– that art doesn’t matter. A quick reflection on the long
history of censorship reminds us that art has always been under suspicion
for blasphemy or sedition. Art makes arguments we don’t always want
to hear.

But unlike editorials or ranting TV commentators, art rarely
presents one single perspective, which might be its greatest virtue.
Perhaps you, like me, have stood in front of a painting, or in a theater
lobby at intermission, muttering darkly, “Huh ... I don’t get
it.” Art, at its best, reminds us that we should never assume we
“get” anything at first glance. Even those pastel-pretty landscape
paintings by Claude Monet say to us, “You think you know what a
pile of hay looks like? Think again. Look at a haystack in this
light. And now late in the day. And again in a storm.
And again in wintertime.” First impressions are always partial, imperfect.

Art usefully undermines our assumption that we know it all; it keeps
us from thinking simply, and from simply taking sides.

In my college classrooms, sometimes students feel sopassionately
about ideas they want to pick a fight with everyone who disagrees
with them. Not so fast, I urge them – if you tell people
they’re full of hooey, you’ll only get an “Am not!” for every one of
your “Are too!”s. So how do you invite someone to try on a new
perspective? Well, reach back to your childhood, and remember
how those interactions with friends went. Something like: “Ok, now
you play like you’re a such-and-so, and then I’ll play like I’m a
something-or-other, and then let’s play like ...” and on and on.
Remember? Yeah – the play’s the thing. Trying on new roles is
a skill that weakens, sadly, with our harrowing passage to

But art reminds us to play with ideas. To empathize with
perspectives that stretch us, however uncomfortably.

And that is why I teach plays like Eve Ensler’s The Vagina
Monologues, and why college students everywhere have found power
in producing the play themselves, despite the controversy that
often surrounds it. The Vagina Monologues is a response – a creative
response – to a terrible truth about power, and that is that
women worldwide suffer – and resist – the mental and physical effects
of sexism in ways that are both readily apparent and everywhere

But instead of dashing off a rant in the face of gruesome
statistics, Ensler wrote a play, with a multitude of perspectives
for us to try on. Now I’m not comfortable, myself, with every
voice in that piece. But when I watch students practicing for
the production, I see the power of art at work as they inhabit
these different roles, empathizing with an amazing range of
human experience. I test myself by the students’ brave example:
How could I become a person who wouldn’t leave a battering husband?
How might I live a life in which fear or belief led me to
inflict violence on others? What would it be like not to
feel vulnerable in my own body? And I wonder,
why are these questions threatening to ask right now?

I think of a playwright controversial and censored in his own
time, Molière, and the pleasure I get every year when I attend the
exuberant undergraduate performance at Notre Dame, all in
French, and this year coming in February, just like some productions
of The Vagina Monologues. While full of humor, Molière’s political
satires still leave tooth marks, thanks to talented student performers
who inhabit his hypocritical, unjust, and foolishly lovable
characters so fully they feel familiar to us, despite the period costumes.

The cliché says that, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” But how
much better off we’d be if we acted as if it were. Art strengthens
our atrophied empathy muscles. It says, play like you’re born into
a Bangkok slum and sold into sexual slavery. Play like you’re a
president. Play like you’re a person who lets someone tape a
bomb to your chest, and really feel the power of your belief, the
strange weight of metal and wires, the pull of the duct tape on your

What is your life like? And what powers of imagination might
revise your story?

The play is the thing. And the conscience that needs catching
is always our own.

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