“In the Body of the World”: Eve Ensler

Glenda Frank in New York
6 February 2018


What kind of stories do theatre artists choose to dramatize: stories about themselves or about the world? When dramas are self-revelation, a window into personal passions, they sometimes transcend the narrative, moving us, the audience into keener self-recognition, changing us emotionally. This is so with Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World, directed by the incomparable Diane Paulus who is equally at home in the world of Cirque du Soleil, Broadway, and opera. It is a magnificent creation which is intensely personal, as well as fierce and funny.


Eve Ensler in In the Body of the World. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.


Ensler has long been a righteous warrior, angry in The Vagina Monologues about the invisibility of women. (“I was worried about vaginas. l was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them … So I decided to talk to women about their vaginas”). In this new solo piece off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, she is outraged by her own metastasized cancer. As well, she is outraged by the rape and subsequent rejection of women and girls in the Congo. After being diagnosed, she linked the two. Women, forced into exile from their bodies, must create a new place for themselves.

Does this sound like a diatribe? Far from it. Remember Wit, Margaret Edson’s drama about a college teacher struggling with invasive cancer? This is more powerful – and more empowering – because the patient, Ensler, is on stage vibrantly alive, proving that the victim of larger-than-life monsters (disease and war) can be the victor.” lt is when we don’t live that the dying comes,” she observes. Facts slide easily into metaphors. She recognizes the dark inflammation on a scan of her body because she has seen images of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Congolese soldiers’ “multiple violations of women, causing leaking fistulas, is the rape of the earth itself!” Although she wears the typical New York black, her couch, the carpet, the Asian cabinets behind her, and her scarf are red, the Chinese colour of success (set and costume by Myung Hee Cho).


Eve Ensler in In the Body of the World. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.


The monologue is divided into three sections: Somnolence (what she calls “knowing but refusing to know”), Burning (chemotherapy), and Second Wind. Her journey begins in 2010. She is in the Congo, working to establish The City of Joy, a healing centre for women (and their children) damaged by war. She finds a suspicious lump. The diagnosis and treatment are horrifying, not just Stage IV but the necessary removal of many organs, including her colon. Her narrative touches familiar bases – hair loss, nausea, depression — but she emphasizes the traveller’s need for reaffirmation. One surgeon walked around the table to look her in the eye and say: “Eve, l know your work with women. You are going to get well.” (Later he donated time and medical supplies to The City of Joy, now in its sixth year.) She remembers the nurse who touched her hand; the large “Fart Volunteer” who helped her understand her reconstructed body; her friends who threw an Indian fiesta in her hospital room; her sister, a life-long rival, who never left her side; the counsellor who tells a terrified patient that chemotherapy is her battalion in the war. Not an invasion! And the women in the Congo, whom she spoke with almost daily, continue to plan The City of Hope. (The physician who shoots a needle painfully deep into a wound and says nothing to her is simply a contrast, and she seeks treatment at another hospital.)

In the Body of the World is a mix: tales of her treatment segue into struggles to complete the project, true grit and self-pity teeter, the personal and a recognition of the suffering of the others balance. In the hospital she is too weak to read or talk, so she stares at a tree outside her window. One day she notices the bark. The next day, the branches; another, the leaves. Peacefulness and focus revive her will to survive. She, a privileged westerner, and the African women who are often poor and outcast, become sisters in a common struggle with their wounded bodies. (The dominant projection is a lush green jungle.) She makes us her friends. Twice, she asks the audience to rise and dance to celebrate being here, still being here.