(This review appeared in The East African 16th-22nd November 2013 under the title Abortion, Birth Control and the Enjoyment of Sex)
The play is about Marie Carmichael Stopes (1880-1958) who, together with her second husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe, founded what is now Marie Stopes International.
Stopes was firmly opposed to abortion but advocated for birth control and the enjoyment of conjugal union, issues that were very controversial in her time.
“Why does Mrs Jones have 13 children?” asks Stopes in Devaney’s play, “three of them dead and two defective? It is not for Mrs Jones to take the initiative but for the leisured and the wise to tell her the meaning of what she is doing… For…Mrs Jones is destroying the race.”
Not surprisingly, she ruffled many feathers, especially those of the Roman Catholic Church.
But much as the question of birth control is controversial even today, it is worth noting that Stopes was born in the Victorian era (Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901) in which society lived under stringent moral codes, very akin to those of the Puritans a few centuries earlier. So strict were these rules that it was considered impolite to even say such mundane words as ‘leg’ or ‘trousers’. Instead, one said ‘limb’ or ‘the southern necessities’, respectively. And as is often the case, such exigencies give rise to a great deal of hypocrisy, which is why this was the era was notorious for gruesome child labour, prostitution and other social ills.
It is against this background that Stopes lived and worked but Devaney’s play doesn’t idolise Stopes. She contrasts Stopes’ intelligence with her eccentricities and her philanthropy with her vanity. She portrays a vulnerable Stopes who seems to be a victim of the very issues to whose appraisal she devoted her life.
Devaney uses a nifty technic of stating that the play is not a play. In this production, directed by June Gachui, Stopes (Millicent Ogutu) enters stage with house lights on and stage lights off and asks the audience to leave as the play has been banned. Then, as an after-thought, she says that the ban doesn’t stop her from telling us what the play is about.
The play is therefore structured by intermittent narration and reading out of correspondence between Stopes and her family and fans. From this, the events in Stopes’ life are gleaned, some of which justify the importance of sex education while others seem to, perhaps unwittingly, vindicate the Church’s view that we cannot entirely control the bringing forth of life.
Three years into her first marriage, she wonders why she hasn’t conceived yet. So, being always a brilliant scholar, she goes to the library and reads extensively on human sexuality. And finally, she stumbles upon the information that puts the puzzle together! She reads aloud: “In order for sexual intercourse to result in pregnancy…(dramatic pause).”
It is at this point that she realises that whatever she has been doing with her husband cannot lead to conception. She is technically still a “virgin” (and here I make a concerted effort to not speculate about what it is then that they were doing).
“Knowledge gained at such cost must be put at the service of humanity,” she argues.
Again, being the avid scholar, she goes back to the library and reads the Law extensively to figure out how to get an annulment of her marriage and succeeds, although it costs her a lot.
Her second marriage does not seem to be any more successful. From her correspondence, it emerges that her second husband is impotent. She none-the-less manages to conceive, somehow, although her first pregnancy results in a still birth. The second time she has a son and then she tries to adapt a child but seems too fussy about how she expects the adopted child to behave.She therefore tries several children and keeps sending them back.
June Gachui is a remarkable actress and Millicent Ogutu a notable director. In this production, they swap roles- Ogutu takes to the stage and Gachui directs her. It is too soon to comment on the success of the respective changes in the direction of their careers. However, for this production, given the complex layers of Marie Stopes’ character and considering the versatility Gachui has shown in the roles she has played (most recently in Steel Magnolias) and the ingenuity Ogutu has shown in directing, especially in directing women (House of Bernarda Alba comes to mind), I couldn’t help wishing that it was Gachui on stage and Ogutu directing her.
© Anne Manyara 2013