A New Monologue For Eve Ensler, Re-Enacting Life With Cancer

Feb 10, 2018

If any feminist walks the walk, it's author, actress and activist Eve Ensler, best known for her play The Vagina Monologues. In 2009, Ensler went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help victims of rape and torture create a sanctuary called City of Joy.

That's when her own life got upended.

"And we're at the height of it, and it's almost impossible building something in the middle of a war zone," she says. "You don't have roads, you don't have electricity, you don't have — it was just, it was madness. And as that's all in chaos, I got diagnosed with stage 3-4 uterine cancer. The alchemy of it all was just, you know, change or die."

That's the story of her memoir In The Body Of The World, which toggles between Ensler's harrowing journey to fight cancer, her own painful family history and how she relates to the world. Theater director Diane Paulus read the book and thought it would make a great one-woman show.

"It was signature Eve," Paulus says. "Philosophy, politics, feminism, all told through humor and her point of view, which she does not shy away from. But it was so deeply personal."

And, after meeting in Ensler's Manhattan loft for a couple of years, they created the play. She's now delivering lines like this off-Broadway:

So, how'd I get it? Was it tofu? I ate a lot of f*****g tofu. Was it failing at marriage — twice? Was it worrying every day for 56 years that I wasn't good enough?

Whatever the source of her cancer, Ensler says her own experience with rape and abuse had caused her to mentally disconnect from her body.

"And so, I think my whole life, not only have I been trying to get back into my body, but I've been really working to find ways to support women coming back into their bodies," she says. "And cancer did the trick, as well as building City of Joy, because those two things together — you know, we were building a place where women could come back into their bodies."

On stage, Ensler really uses her body to tell the story. Diane Paulus says she pushed Ensler to her limit.

"We had a very intense rehearsal process, where there were a couple times she said, 'You really are going to ask me to crawl across the floor while I'm speaking?'" Paulus says. "I'm like, 'Yeah, let's do it.'"

Eve Ensler says there's something very "meta" about re-enacting her own physical pain and spiritual journey for 300 people, eight performances a week.

"It's been really so interesting to play oneself going through pain, while looking at it at the same time as experiencing it," she says. "It almost feels like how we need to be dealing with trauma, in some way — that we go and we revisit it with that third eye, which is protecting us and keeping us safe enough to revisit it and purge it and cleanse it."

I lay there on the table, my underpants down around my ankles, and I think, "OK, this is it. This is it. This is what the end looks like." The most handsome man in the world knows I have some disgusting tumor inside me and he has to feel for it. I'm clearly shell-shocked.

And it's a tough performance schedule for a 64-year-old cancer survivor, so she doesn't plan to tour the play, like she did with her signature work, The Vagina Monologues. But that show has had a life of its own.

Twenty years ago, on Feb. 14, the first V-Day was held, when productions in professional theaters, colleges and even living rooms raised millions of dollars towards ending violence against women and girls. For the anniversary, 3,000 performances are scheduled.

"I'm so emotional right now, coming up on the 20th anniversary," she says. "You know, when I think 20 years ago, how hard it was to say the word 'vagina,' you know, how crazy everybody thought it was — and then to see how women, amazing women across the world, across this country took this play, brought it into their communities, were brave enough to put it on."

And all because Eve Ensler has been brave enough to walk the walk as a women's rights activist for decades.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Let's talk now about Eve Ensler. Of course, she's best known for her groundbreaking play "The Vagina Monologues." More about that later. Right now, her one-woman show, "In The Body Of The World," based on her memoir, is playing off Broadway. And as you may have surmised, the play and this story deal with adult themes. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Eve Ensler went to the Congo in 2009 to help victims of rape and torture create a sanctuary called City of Joy when her own life got upended.

EVE ENSLER: And we're at the height of it, and it's almost impossible building something in the middle of a war zone. You don't have roads. You don't have electricity. You don't have - it was just - it was madness. And as that's all in chaos, I got diagnosed with stage 3-4 uterine cancer. The alchemy of it all was just, you know, change or die.

LUNDEN: That's the story of "In The Body Of The World," which toggles between Ensler's harrowing journey to fight cancer, her own painful family history and how she relates to the world. Theater director Diane Paulus read the book and thought it would make a great one-woman show.

DIANE PAULUS: It was signature Eve - philosophy, politics, feminism - all told through humor and her point of view, which she does not shy away from. But it was so deeply personal.

LUNDEN: And after meeting in Ensler's Manhattan loft for a couple of years, they created the play.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD")

ENSLER: (As herself) So how'd I get it? Was it tofu? I ate a lot of [expletive] tofu. Was it failing at marriage twice? Was it worrying every single day for 56 years that I wasn't good enough?

LUNDEN: But whatever the source of her cancer, Ensler says her own experience with rape and abuse had caused her to mentally disconnect from her body.

ENSLER: And so I think my whole life, not only have I been trying to get back into my body, but I've been really working to find ways to support women coming back into their bodies. And cancer did the trick, as well as building City of Joy, because those two things together - you know, we were building a place where women could come back into their bodies.

LUNDEN: And onstage, Ensler really uses her body to tell the story. Director Diane Paulus says she pushed the playwright and actress to her limit.

PAULUS: We had a very intense rehearsal process, where there were a couple times she said, you really are going to ask me to crawl across the floor while I'm speaking? I'm like, yeah. (Laughter) Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD")

ENSLER: (As herself) I lay there on the table, my underpants down around my ankles. And I think, OK, this is it. This is it. This is what the end looks like. The most handsome man in the world knows I have some disgusting tumor inside me, and he has to feel for it. I'm clearly shell-shocked.

LUNDEN: Eve Ensler says there's something very meta about re-enacting her own physical pain and spiritual journey for 300 people, eight performances a week.

ENSLER: It's been really so interesting to play oneself going through pain, while looking at it at the same time as experiencing it. It almost feels like how we need to be dealing with trauma in some way - that we go, and we revisit it with that third eye, which is protecting us and keeping us safe enough to revisit it and purge it and cleanse it.

LUNDEN: And it's a tough performance schedule for a 64-year-old cancer survivor, so she doesn't plan to tour the play like she did with her own signature work, "The Vagina Monologues." But that show has had a life of its own.

Twenty years ago, on Feb. 14, the first V-Day was held, when productions in professional theaters, colleges and even living rooms raised millions of dollars towards ending violence against women and girls. For the anniversary, 3,000 performances are scheduled.

ENSLER: I'm so emotional right now, coming up on the 20th anniversary. You know, when I think 20 years ago how hard it was to say the word vagina, you know, how crazy everybody thought it was - you know, and then to see how women - amazing women across the world, across this country took this play, brought it into their communities, were brave enough to put it on.

LUNDEN: And all because Eve Ensler has been brave enough to walk the walk as a women's rights activist for decades. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.