“Cognitive dissonance” is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes—especially with regard to behavioral decisions and attitude change. It is the state of conflict whilst holding two or more fundamentally opposed beliefs at the same time. It’s no secret that George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, has risen to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. To give you a better idea, it’s now sold out and Penguin is struggling to print enough copies to keep up with demand. Doublethink, a term coined by Orwell, is a lack of awareness in the midst of cognitive dissonance: that is, being brainwashed.
Set in St. Mary’s House, a 1914 Catholic Reformatory, Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know is riddled with the exposed skeletons of complex power structures and the suffocating grip of institutional manipulation of women, and one thing becomes immediately evident: the play could hardly be more necessary than now.
Girl focuses on four teenage women Lucy (Midge Parry, University of Glasgow), Anne (Taylor Tranfaglia, MCAS ‘18), Theresa (Michaela Dolishny, MCAS ‘17), and Joan (Gabrielle Esposito, MCAS ‘17). The latter three are in the reformatory for “sexual irregularities.” Anne, the angriest and most unwavering, was abused by her brother; Theresa was seduced by a doctor when she was twelve only to have his wife walk in mid-coitus; and Joan protested her father’s sexual assault of her mother for distributing Margaret Sanger pamphlets. Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League, now Planned Parenthood, turns out to be the animating force of the plot and the author of the essay from which the title of the play is taken.
The sexually innocent Lucy discovers Sanger’s pamphlets by way of Joan and is inspired to write highly imaginative letters to her. The ritual is turned into a force for the girls’ bonding and they are taken on surrealist excursions through the intrusion of choreographed dream-like dancing and ethereal music. The purpose of these excursions is, at first, unclear, although it seems by the end that Byrne intended to aggrandize and inject the play with mysticism. They each take turns writing letters to Sanger from exotic places. Lucy idolizes Sanger, which is reflected in a purer uncorrupted adoration. Adopting a different approach, Theresa chooses to muse about having sex with someone such as Sigmund Freud all the way to Napoleon. The more the girls build their fantasy world, the more the divide grows between themselves and the real world.
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If art exists to communicate the things we fail to talk about, then Girl upholds this notion. There are masturbation jokes juxtaposed against the damage of abuse, and perhaps most importantly, there is an honest dialogue about the society they live in.
“The same people who told you that you couldn’t be with a negro are the same people who said the Virgin Mary never took a shit,” Anne says to Lucy when she mentions her crush on an African American boy.
Reality asserts itself when the ecstasy of the four girls’ bonding is interrupted by the knowledge that Joan is pregnant. Her virginity is called into question and it is established that Father Dolan, a figure who never makes a physical appearance, has been secretly abusing all, but Lucy, who must face a terrible truth: to escape the prison of St. Mary’s Reformatory, they must leave with the pregnant Joan so she can keep her child. When Joan asks what happened to the girl who previously occupied her bed, the other three reluctantly cede that she had died from childbirth and neglect.
As a result, two important ideas are raised by these characters. Lucy arrives at the conclusion that “All women are born dead,” a depressingly oppressive indictment of society’s treatment of women. While Anne, on a more active note, asks in a fury “Do we make up stories or do we live them?”
To return to Orwell, these girls have not been brainwashed willingly. They are intelligent and self-aware, but they come face to face with nearly every form of oppression whether they know it or not. Their room in St. Mary’s, the only setting the whole play, is both a protective barrier against the world and means of their subjugation. Perhaps the most lasting line of the whole play is: “None of this means anything if we don’t know anything.”
No one else is going give them a chance in society, so they just have to attain it themselves. Ultimately, these girls almost leave behind Lucy in a conflicted wreck, torn by the pains of cognitive dissonance—what one should do versus what one is told to do.
It is all too fitting that What Every Girl Should Know made its debut in Robsham Theatre the day before Vice President Mike Pence attended the March for Life anti-abortion rally in Washington, D.C. Maybe in some place outside of time, Margaret Sanger was either rolling in her grave or smiling at this coincidence. Perhaps she was doing both. In any case, shows like this are more important than ever in this divisive age.
Featured Images By Kristin Saleski