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University concern asymmetric

Letter to the Editor | Friday, March 3, 2006

Given the extensive discussion stimulated by University President Father John Jenkins’ remarks about – and restrictions put upon – the play “The Vagina Monologues,” and the renaming and recasting of the Queer Film Festival, a couple of simple points have escaped examination. The first has to do with an aspect of staging the play: “The Vagina Monologues” is the sort of theater that rewards production by amateurs. Any number of mid-level theatrical endeavors profit by an often unstated ratio: level of difficulty to put on versus what proportion of the work’s merits will be retained however done. In other words, how much bang for your buck do you get?

“The Vagina Monologues” is not badly served when done by nonprofessionals, whereas if a group of young people with a couple weeks of rehearsal was to stage, say, “The Merchant of Venice,” the distance between what the play could be if done well, to what it is when done badly, is quite large. Some theater art is harder to do justice to than other art. This is one reason that Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is so often done in high schools and by amateurs. It’s difficult to do too bad a job with it. Again, a lot of mid-level theater art, such as “The Vagina Monologues,” continues to live because of this favorable relationship between demands of the play and its execution.

The second simple point is the question of why “The Vagina Monologues” is done year after year. One could ask that question of the Bengal Bouts. Both “The Vagina Monologues” and the Bengal Bouts are hyper body conscious. Both have been produced year after year to raise money for a good cause. And both are part of evolved traditions, largely continued by dedicated students.

Now, the Bengal Bouts may have some critics, those who don’t find much edification in two young men beating on one another, one hoping to vanquish his opponent, perhaps even to knock him senseless. The Bengal Bouts may or may not be the sort of performance that embodies the Catholic character, or the mission of the University (though it earns money for foreign missions). Some homophobes might even find such a spectacle of half-naked young men grappling with and pummeling each other offensive.

For a variety of reasons, staging “The Vagina Monologues” has become a tradition among female students here at Notre Dame. They pass it down to one another; it is not a faculty-centric production, just as the Bengal Bouts have very little academic faculty involvement. But the battling young men have not been the subject of the president of the University’s concern and sanction.

The problem of “The Vagina Monologues” echoes one of the difficulties of the firing of Tyrone Willingham, the first of President Jenkins’ large decisions. That became national news because of race. Tyrone Willingham happens to be black and that made his firing more notorious and newsworthy. “The Vagina Monologues” is an all-female show, fixated on the subject of women. The Queer Film Festival was all about, well, queer film. There is a trend here. As in the case of Tyrone Willingham, what many people outside the University see is Notre Dame reacting to groups, not individuals, not ideas, not even ideologies – just blacks, women, gays.

The two simple things I started with certainly can lead to complications, as they have. But one last thing is why Jenkins decided to make “The Vagina Monologues” the focus for reconciling the problems he and others perceive exist concerning the Catholic character of the University. Given the University in all its aspects, “The Vagina Monologues” is one of the smallest things imaginable: A play put on by students in a most humble way as a fund raiser for locally abused women. It is a small, small thing. Too small, one would think, to bother the president of a great university. Why pick on it? Why not, for instance, pick on the University’s stock portfolio and see what sort of companies and products the University is supporting with its money? But, “The Vagina Monologues” must have bothered some people more powerful than the female students who put it on each year – and not just the right-wing organizations who complain about the play’s performance at Catholic colleges, the same crowd that hounded Father McBrien with exaggerated plagiarism charges. “The Vagina Monologues” must have had enemies in high places. And that is not so simple.

William O’Rourkeprofessordepartment of EnglishMarch 2