By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Ladies, you’ve come by it, have you? Can I ask, do you tell your Husbands…that you’ve come by it, or…do you….keep it from them….?” — Sophie in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Hannah Moscovitch
In the Hannah Moscovitch play that opens the Theatre Network season Thursday, we meet a young working-class woman in the Ottawa of a century ago who’s struggling against the enforced ignorance of her age. And in a society that doesn’t acknowledge women’s sexuality, except to decry it, Sophie is up against it.
She’s barred from information about birth control, birth, abortion, sexual health. She’s trapped into choosing between ever-riskier (and financially ruinous) pregnancies and foregoing any intimate, fully loving relationship with her husband. And in considering the potentially disastrous consequences of being a sexually active woman, Sophie has to hand the tragic example of her sister Alma and botched DIY surgery .
When 12thnight.ca talked to Moscovitch last season about Infinity, produced at Theatre Network, the country’s hottest playwright mused on the disconcerting loop by which history seems to be spinning backwards. Just look south, past the 49th parallel, she pointed out, where the forces of conservatism are gathering their might against women’s reproductive rights. “When we premiered What A Young Wife Ought To Know in 2015 (a production by Halifax-based 2b theatre that has toured since), the question we most often asked ourselves was ‘is this even relevant?’ Now every interview starts with “this is so relevant!’ The whiplash is insane!”
Moscovitch’s curiosity (and horror) was piqued when she stumbled on a yard-sale volume of startlingly frank and desperate letters, pleas for information, written by women to the pioneer British birth control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes in the ‘20s and ‘30s. And in the course of this research that worked its way — sometimes very directly — into What Every Young Wife Ought To Know, she also discovered “the very bizarre history” of the birth control movement in Canada, and its unlikely father, a businessman with a rubber-boot factory in Kitchener, Ont. Moscovitch’s The Kaufman Kabaret, commissioned for the U of A theatre school graduating class of 2016, premiered at Studio Theatre.
The fraught history of women’s reproductive rights and identity as sexual beings is clearly something that has inspired the playwright (Bunny, which premiered at Stratford in 2016, is a more contemporary take, the story of one woman’s life and sexual history). We met up with the three 20-something actors in Marianne Copithorne’s production of What A Young Wife Ought To Know in the Theatre Network green room last week, to find out what they think.
Carr-Wiggin produced and starred in Kat Sandler’s Punch Up at the Fringe. Bobbi Goddard arrives in 1920s Ottawa from two performances that crossed gender lines — Horatio in the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s Hamlet this past summer and an air force sergeant on a flight counting down to crash in the most recent incarnation of Dead Centre of Town. Cole Humeny won a Sterling Award last season for his performance in Collin Doyle’s Terry and the Dog. All three are U of A acting grads.
12thnight: So, why do this play in 2018?
Bobbi Goddard (Alma, Sophie’s doomed sister) : “There are plenty of women in other parts of the world for whom access to sexual education and contraception are currently problematic. And look what’s happening just to the south, the political climate of appealing the things we’ve worked for a long time to put into place. So these are legitimate fears of access.
Merran Carr-Wiggins (Sophie): “It’s a reminder that this is an issue to fight for every day. We can’t become complacent…. Access requires constant vigilance.”
BG: “What really resonated with me was the idea of feeling shame, shame about women having sex lives…. The world may have changed a bit and I’m glad about that, but it’s still there.”
MCW, nodding: “The invention of birth control completely changed the idea of women’s sexuality. But female sexuality is still punished. And birth control isn’t free. I buy it every month, but not everyone can.…”
Cole Humeny (Sophie’s Irish immigrant husband Jonny, a stable hand): “We males should shut the hell up and listen…. Jonny shuts Sophie down at every turn with his opinions. He doesn’t listen; he doesn’t know how she feels. He’s never in the room for the birth…. She has some credible information, but (to him) it’s about class, and the doctor is from another class.”
MCG: “The thing is, there is so much love between them; it’s a love story. Sophie is so attracted to Jonny. It’s not that she has to do her marital duty; that’s not what’s at issue in this play at all. Love: they both want it so badly. And they need a way to express this love; because of this lack of information and access (to birth control) they just don’t know how…. You go to the pharmacist and want a condom and you hear ‘are you having an immoral going-on’? If you like sex, and you want to have sex with your husband you must be a whore.
CH: Birth control: separate beds or gardening.
12thnight: Moscovitch plays often have a narrator who is anticipating disapproval from the audience; I’m thinking of East of Berlin, This Is War, Little One. In What Every Young Wife Ought To Know, who is Sophie talking to when she’s the narrator?
BG: I’m thinking that she’s speaking to the women of today! When Sophie asks the audience ‘is this what you do?’ (about birth control), that women in a totally different time can still have a relationship to that question is what makes the play so interesting!
12thnight: What is it like to work on such dark, even gruesome, material?
BG: What we’ve discovered is there’s a great deal of lightness inside in all that darkness; Hannah always finds it in her plays…. And (laughing) we have a big supply of kitten videos.”
What A Young Wife Ought To Know
Theatre: Theatre Network
Written by: Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by: Marianne Copthorne
Starring: Merran Carr-Wiggin, Bobbi Goddard, Cole Humeny
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Thursday through Dec. 2
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca