The first performance of The Vagina Monologues at Notre Dame generated fierce debate along with capacity crowds.
Thirty-five students from Notre Dame and one from Saint Mary’s staged two performances of the much-talked-about show in late February, 2002. The 450-seat auditorium of DeBartolo Hall was filled to overflowing both nights, and the audiences responded enthusiastically. But in the days leading up to the performances, a debate raged over whether the play was appropriate for a Catholic university.
Some students and alumni called on Notre Dame to forbid the performances, arguing the show condones or promotes attitudes and behavior inconsistent with Gospel values and the teachings of the Catholic church. Supporters said the show empowers women and raises awareness about violence against women. Others considered it an issue of free speech; they might not agree with everything in the play or even want to see it, but they opposed censorship.
The Observer received more than 400 letters about the play in the weeks leading up to the shows. The ratio was about 2-1 in favor of allowing its performance, the editor of the student paper said.
The performances were initiated and organized by students and sponsored by the Program in Gender Studies and the Department of Film, Television and Theatre. In the past, administrators have permitted academic departments and student groups to bring an array of speakers, films, performers and artwork to campus in the interest of an open exchange of ideas and opinions.
The Vagina Monologues consists primarily of a series of soliloquies drawn from author Eve Ensler’s interviews with hundreds of women of various ages, races and ethnicities around the world. As the title indicates, the focus is on the female sex organ. One by one, characters step to the microphone and reminisce and muse in R-rated terms about sexual pleasure and practices, along with universal female experiences like their first menstrual period and gynecological exams. It’s mainly observational humor akin to stand-up comedy, with a few deadly serious segments. Most notable of these is a chilling description by a Bosnian woman in a refugee camp of her horrific gang rape and torture.
Those urging the show be banned said it presents deviant, immoral behavior as normal and healthy. Two of the monologues involve lesbian encounters, and one of the characters is a prostitute.
Members of the Notre Dame council of the Knights of Columbus prayed the Rosary outside the performances in protest.
Senior Nathaniel Hannan, the group’s president, said, “It’s not like we’re just being prudes and saying you can’t talk about things.” He said the group was more concerned with what he described as the play’s overall vision of human beings as objects.
Senior Kerry Walsh, who acted in and directed the performances, said the Monologues don’t endorse or promote any specific lifestyle. “They are simply real women’s stories.”
Since 1998, the show has been performed on college campuses around Valentine’s Day as part of a global movement called V-Day, which organizers say is aimed at stopping violence against women and girls. The publisher allows the play to be performed royalty-free on college campuses during this period if proceeds are donated to related causes.
Sales of tickets to the Notre Dame shows ($5 for students, $7 for all others) went to Saint Joseph County Sex Offense Services, the YWCA Women’s Shelter and a national fund to aid Afghani women.
Other Notre Dame V-Day events, which Walsh coordinated, included a service project at a domestic violence shelter, a poetry reading, an art exhibit and an open discussion of the show the night after the final performance.
The play was performed two years ago at Saint Mary’s with the permission of school officials but banned the following year after alumni and others voiced concerns. Individual students gathered to read the play aloud in defiance of the ban. This year Saint Mary’s allowed it to be performed openly again.