What a Young Wife Ought to Know
What a Young Wife Ought to Know by Hannah Moscovitch Inspired by true stories of young women during the birth control movement in the early 20th century, this unflinching love story follows a young working class woman in Ottawa. In a time where information on sexual health is withheld from her, Sophie is forced to …
by Hannah Moscovitch
1hr 15min NO INTERMISSION runtime
November 15–December 2
Previews November 13–14, 2018
Opening November 15
Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm
Sundays @ 2pm
No Shows Monday
2 for 1 on November 20 & 27
A Note from the Director
In the past few weeks, while living with this play, I read many stories about working class women in the early part of the twentieth century, and most of them were brutal, concerning birth control. I have talked with the women on my creative team, and each one of us has had some kind of experience, or knows someone who had an experience that relates to what Sophie and Alma go through in this play. I am sure this production will trigger many of our female audience members to remember something that happened to them, concerning a sexual experience that went wrong somehow.
In the 1920’s the only form of contraception that was endorsed by society was abstinence. Many women were told by their doctors that further pregnancies could be life threatening and were advised against having any more children, but they were given zero options concerning prevention. Women were expected to perform their wifely duty as far as sex was concerned, and as a result they were forced into risking their lives to have children they could not afford to feed. They were trapped, doomed.
I think this play speaks about a class system where the rich view abstinence as a moral and social responsibility and choose to sleep in separate beds and take up gardening (the husband could always go out and get a mistress, while the wife could always stay home and prune the rose bush), and the poor are judged as substandard humans who choose to live in destitution and breed like animals.
In this play I see love being something to avoid, because with love comes sex, and with sex comes children, and if you are poor you cannot afford to care for your children, and your life becomes a horror story. Sex kills love. It causes resentment, fear, starvation and violence. By giving in to momentary sexual urges, both husband and wife enter into an endless cycle of misery, pain and suffering.
But I also see love being unavoidable and necessary in generating hope. A new baby generates love, affection and goodness. Even though Sophie and Jonny are trapped in this never ending cycle, hope is always present.
There is an image from this play that stays with me. Moments before their love blossoms, Jonny and Sophie lie on their backs, side by side, looking upward. And that made me think of Oscar Wilde, who said:
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Dr Marie Stopes & Sex in the 1920s
What a Young Wife Ought to Know is loosely inspired by Dear Dr. Stopes: Sex in the 1920s, a compilation of the letters sent to the British birth control advocate, Dr. Marie Stopes, as well as by another book of similar letters published in 1915, titled Maternity: Letters From Working Women edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies. There are phrases and turns of phrase lifted directly from the letters in the text.
-Dr Marie Stopes (alongside her husband Humphrey Roe) founded the first birth control clinic in Britain. The Mother’s Clinic was located in a poor area of North London to ensure accessibility for women of all socioeconomic classes. This was the first time sexual health counseling was provided to women of the lower class.
-An average visit at The Mother’s Clinic consisted of a brief set of questions and a vaginal exam that included the fitting of a rubber cervical cap with instructions and demonstrations of its use. Although the clinic served primarily women, it was one of the first valid options for working class couples seeking greater control over their reproduction. The clinic did not perform abortions.
-The Mother’s Clinic still exists today but grew to become the not-for-profit charity Marie Stopes International (MSI) that promotes reproductive and sexual health for women.
-Dr. Stopes wrote Married Love or Love in Marriage in 1918. The book was geared toward teaching monogamous couples how to have a happy marriage that included great sex. This book was considered controversial for the time but it rapidly sold-out and was in its sixth printing after two weeks. In 1935 a survey of American academics named it as one of the 25 most influential books of the past 50 years.
-It is important to note that Stopes’ interest of birth control also intertwined with her support of eugenics and sterilization as a means of putting society on the path towards making more perfect human beings.
-Dr. Marie Stopes made her share of enemies including the Church of England – which took issue with her belief that sex had value in and of itself, not just as a means of procreation.
-In 1999, Dr. Stopes was voted as Woman of the Millenium by the readers of the UK newspaper, The Guardian.
-Margaret Llewelyn Davies was a lifelong advocate for women. She helped found the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1921, championed a minimum wage for women employees, equal divorce rights for women, and improved maternity care.
What We Ought to Know
An Interview With Hannah Moscovitch
When you found the letters to Margaret Llewelyn Davis and the writings of Marie Stopes was that your point of inspiration for What A Young Wife Ought to Know? What was in those letters that pushed you to write the play?
The letter described a 1920s world that was technologically recognizable (indoor plumbing, telephones, electricity, cars, machine guns) but birth control was illegal and unavailable so the lives of women where 100% alien to me. The lives of these letter-writers, who lived only a hundred years ago, were unfathomable. Imagine what it would be like if we had to have as many children as our fertility dictated (think eleven to eighteen children) and if we wanted to stop having children our only recourse would be to stop having sex, or, as they called it in the 1920s, ‘marital continence’.
Plus the voices of the men and women in these letters floored me: they wrote very personally and explicitly about ‘unmentionable’ topics: sex, desire, adultery, childbirth, and birth control. None of the literature of the time (think F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T.S Elliot, Virginia Woolf) documented or even mentioned what people’s sex lives were like. Coming across the letters felt a lot like discovering the untold story of women’s lives. It also felt like voyeurism.
The working class and their economics are driving forces in your play and they are almost a character themselves – how was this discovered?
Sure, yes. My father is an expert on poverty (he’s an economist) and my mother came from a working class background, and I’m keenly aware that it was working class women who were by far the worst off when birth control was illegal. The Marie Stopes and Margaret Llewelyn Davis letters that were the most gruesome, and the most harrowing, were from working class women (mainly because they couldn’t afford medical help either for themselves or their small children, and so they were the most desperate to stop getting pregnant).
What A Young Wife Ought to Know is a love story as told by a female narrator, what attracts you to that style of story telling where an actor can directly address an audience, and how does that help you explore your stories?
I like having access to the inner life of my characters and so direct address allows me to do that. I also like to have access to the audience, and to involve them in the story directly, mainly because the audience have opted to come to a live event, and it feels weird to me not to acknowledge it.
We have lots of stories from the male perspective about love and sexuality, what did you want to explore in regards to sexuality?
I wanted to talk about the deep conflict that used to exist for women around wanting to physically love (have sex with) their husbands while also wanting to limit the number of children they were having.
What A Young Wife Ought To Know stirs up feelings and audiences will be thinking a lot about our world today and how far or how little we have progressed towards equality and women’s rights; is this a conscious question you ask yourself in the writing process?
Frankly, no. I was interested in this story as an untold part of women’s history. But in the time since I wrote it, women’s reproduction rights in Canada and the USA have become a question again, for sure. I wonder what will happen now that Brett Kavanaugh is on the US Supreme Court.
There were people that fainted while watching the play in Toronto? Did you expect that?
I didn’t expect it. In fact people fainted in Halifax, Ottawa and Toronto. There were seven people who passed out in total: seven people for whom paramedics needed to be called and the show was stopped.
Finally, what’s next for you (it can be non-theatre related)?
I’m flying to Beijing, China to work with a Chinese film director on an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story.