The Muteli Monologues: feminism and activism converge in Georgian theatre

The first complete Georgian-language production of Eve Ensler's feminist performance piece <em>The Vagina Monologues</em> caused substantial controversy. Tara Isabella Burton meets two of the women behind it.

Lika Barabadze and Sonya Tamazovna do not look like revolutionaries. They are petite, soft-spoken, dressed in tank tops and jeans. Throughout our hour-long interview, they giggle about inside jokes; they spar back and forth, jokingly correcting one another's memories. When they talk about the men who tried to “beat us up”, who “were coming at us”, who “wanted to kill us,” they do so with awkward laughs, exasperated eye-rolls. From the casual tone of their voices, they might well be complaining about a difficult colleague, an intractable boss.

But when Lika and Sonya, along with around twenty volunteer actresses, performed the first complete Georgian-language production of Eve Ensler's feminist performance piece The Vagina Monologues at Tbilisi's Shota Rustaveli Film and Theatre University on 26 June, the controversy they attracted was anything but prosaic. Admission to the play, organised by LGBT rights organisation Identoba, was by invitation only – a necessary security measure in a country where feminist and LGBT rights activists are routinely subjected to violence (even the play's director refused to make her identity public out of fear for her safety). Yet a few male students from the Theatre University found their way in.

They began by laughing, Lika and Sonya recall, giggling at words like “clitoris” and “orgasm”. But after one particularly incendiary monologue – in which audience members are encouraged to shout a particularly taboo word for the female anatomy – the hecklers grew angry. “They called us rude, dirty,” Sonya recalls, demanding to know, “how dare [we] say such filthy words on a stage where actors regularly portray Georgian saints.” They were escorted out of the theatre, but not before the lighting technician had left “in protest”: over the play's frank discussion of sex.

“The day before, [in rehearsals], he was fine,” Lika sighs. “But when he heard that people didn't like it, he left. It's a classic case of conformity.”

The show continued, but the atmosphere was tense. “Some of my friends were so scared,” Lika recalls, “They were all thinking – what if these three guys go and come back with a crowd to beat us up?” Such a situation was far from unlikely; one month earlier, on 17 May, 50 non-violent anti-homophobia protesters on Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue – Lika and Sonya included – attracted a counter-rally of 20,000 self-identified Georgian conservatives, led in large part by Tbilisi's Orthodox priests. “You never know if someone's going to come after you and say, “I saw your picture in an article [about the protest] and beat you up,” Sonya says. The play was originally scheduled for May, but was postponed to avoid inciting additional violence.

The hecklers did not corral their friends, but they did return, accosting one older actress and demanding to know if she'd received the patriarch's blessing to perform such “filth”, accusing her of being a Jehovah's Witness, and therefore in league with Satan (in Georgia, Lika explains, Jehovah's Witnesses are popularly associated with the Anti-Christ). “They were aggressively going towards her...they wanted to hit her,” Sonya remembers. Eventually, the actresses had to barricade themselves inside the dressing room to fend off the hecklers, who insisted that such “shameless” women had no right to preserve their modesty out of sight of men. “They wouldn't let us out.” The police were eventually called.

Yet, in spite of – or even because of – the commotion it caused, Lika and Sonya alike argue that the performance represented a vital method of protest in a society all too often dominated by misogyny and homophobia: twinned and often indiscriminate prejudices that have in turn led to a firm alliance between Georgian feminists, the gay community and their allies. The Vagina Monologues is, Lika notes, about “straight women, gay women, any kind of woman”, yet, in the eyes of many Georgians, it was seen as promoting wantonness, homosexuality, and a whole host of sins against the Georgian national identity. “LGBT member, feminist, activist, supporter, human-rights activist – [Many Georgians] don't care. They don't know the difference. They think [we're]  all just as bad,” says Lika.

Yet, Lika feels, the performance's greatest success was in demonstrating to an ardent, if small, group of Georgian feminists and LGBT rights supporters, that they were not alone.  “[Yes,] we are preaching to the choir, but those people were really encouraged to see someone doing that. Yes, they're [already] feminists, but they need support too. They're tired of fighting and yelling and demonstrating all the time. Sometimes they want to see something that confirms their beliefs, and feel that they are not alone – those five or ten girls in the world – that something is being done in Georgia that they can believe in, [which] gives them some hope.”

Such hope, Sonya and Lika agree, is more necessary than ever after the violence of the 17 May riots, which stands out in their memory as a watershed moment in the history of Georgian activism. Police were simultaneously ordered to “make sure nobody [got harmed]” and to ensure that “the rally didn't take place” - as Lika puts it, “to avoid upsetting the international community [while] avoiding making all of Georgia angry.” What resulted was a mass mob attack that resulted in no deaths, but which effectively ended any possibility of civilized discourse about homophobia in Georgia.

As Sonya and Lika remember 17 May, their tone grows darker. “I was under the impression that [the situation] was getting better before 17 May,” says Lika. “Then all my illusions were shattered.” She'd hoped that Georgia had been undergoing a gradual change in recent years, as the country as a whole sought to cast itself as Europe's eastern frontier: “In the beginning you have to fight for survival, for recognition of your right to be alive. Many people in Georgia have accepted that. I think we're on the second stage, where people are fighting not for their existence but for their happiness. Our demands are now – you should let me live a full life, rather than 'you should not stone me.' But after 17 May, I think we've regressed.”

Yet, Sonya suggests, the controversy caused by the 17 May riots and by the The Vagina Monologues forces a discussion about homosexuality and its relationship to concepts of “Georgianness” that all too often goes unspoken in Georgian society. “[At least] people saw that there is a community, that it's not a made-up fact,” Sonya says. “[People] usually say that “there are no gay Georgians”, that these gay people are imported from foreign countries (“Western countries,” Lika clarifies), “or are under foreign influence. Now they have to face the fact that they really do exist.”

Lika agrees. “I know that many people have a very hard time with reconciling their national identity with their sexual identity after 17 May. If you're gay, [it seems] you're not Georgian. Several of my gay friends complained – I don't know who I am anymore.”

It is for this reason, Lika says, that the act of translating The Vagina Monologues into Georgian felt particularly transgressive. Several of the actors, who worked together to translate their monologues, found it unsettling to translate particular words into Georgian; one monologue, dealing with orgasms, initially found no willing takers. “It's different when you hear it in Georgian,” says Lika. Educated in America, she is perfectly comfortably swearing liberally in English – she reels off a laundry list of colloquial terms for female genitalia – but found that to speak about similar topics in Georgian was to encounter a “mental block”. “I associated it with swearing,” Lika says, “with men in the street who swear by their mothers' vaginas. After performing, I finally felt comfortable saying the word vagina [in Georgian] in public. It was one thing to break taboos in English; it was quite another to practice transgression in her native tongue: to reconcile her Georgian identity with her identity as a heterosexual ally to the LGBT movement.

Valuable, too, Lika notes, was the degree to which performing in the all-female Vagina Monologues allowed the actresses involved to challenge Georgian conceptions of patriarchy and female visibility. While many Georgian conservatives equate feminism and homosexuality as products of insiduous, so-called Western, influence – threats to Georgian nationalism – Lika argues that all too often misogynistic attitudes find their way into the country's LGBT politics. On both the pro- and anti-gay-rights sides, she says, the discussion constantly focuses on gay men: because women are rarely seen as sexual agents (and, indeed, are expected to be virgins before marriage), they are almost invisible in the discussion. Such invisibility can be useful – says Lika,  “it's easier for a girl to hide her sexual preferences, because less is expected of her.” – but it comes at a cost: the issues of gay and straight women alike become subordinate to those of gay men.

After the 17 May protests, Lika says, several male Identoba members used Georgia's nineteenth-century kinto culture among Tbilisi tradesmen, in which homosexuality was perceived as common enough for Russians to refer to it as the “Caucasian sickness"1 to argue for the possibility of reconciling Georgian identity and homosexual orientation. The best case for tolerance of homosexuality, it seemed, was to argue for its fundamental, historic, Georgianness. “My lesbian friends got so mad,” Lika says, “like – we don't exist anywhere on the map? Not in the nineteenth century? Not even now?”

The Vagina Monologues, it seems, allowed for a twofold breaking of taboos, an attack on the “double discrimination” that faces LGBT-allied women in Georgia – at once challenging conservative Georgian ideas about the “foreignness” of feminism and homosexuality alike, and addressing the more insidious problem of female silence still prevalent within the Georgian LGBT-community.

As we wrap up our interview, I ask Lika and Sonia about the Georgian word that so incensed the hecklers. They laugh, half-embarrassed, before teaching me the word muteli. “Don't call your article that,” Lika says. “You'll get a lot of angry emails from Georgians.”

The Vagina Monologues was performed for a second time at the State Medical University on 23 July 2013. The performance went off without incident.

_______________________

cf. Paul Manning and Zaza Shatirishvili, “The Exoticism and Eroticism of the City: the “Kinto and His City”, in Urban Spaces After Social: Ethnographies of public Places in Eurasian Cities, ed. Sypylma Darieva et al, Campus Verlag 2011

 

Sonya Tamazovna, Lika Barabadze and another member of the company.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era