Eve Ensler's Necessary Targets, first produced in 1996 (and later published by Villard Books in 2001), was inspired by the author's trip to the former Yugoslavia. Ensler went there to interview Bosnian women war refugees. It was from Ensler's experience with these women that Necessary Targets was born. "When we think of war," Ensler writes in the introduction to her published play, "we think of it as something that happens to men." The focus is on bombs and the immediate destruction that they wreak. Little media attention or conscious thought on the part of people living in other countries is focused on the aftermath of war. "But after the bombing," Ensler continues, "that's when the real war begins." Ensler wrote Necessary Targets in an attempt to change this focus.
In Bosnia, Ensler met women who were forced to deal with the aftermath of war, and it was their stories that inspired her. "It was their community, their holding on to love, their insane humanity in the face of catastrophe, their staggering refusal to have or seek revenge," Ensler writes, "that fueled me and ultimately moved me to write this play." The outstanding performances of many actresses have paid tribute to Necessary Targets. In 1996, Meryl Streep and Anjelica Huston read the play at a benefit performance in the United States; Vanessa Redgrave did the same in London. In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, Glenn Close and Marisa Tomei performed the play.
Ensler, who won international fame for her award-winning play The Vagina Monologues Page 202
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(1996), has stated that she dreams of building a world in which women are safe and free. Necessary Targets is one of the first steps toward that goal. It is the story of two American women who go to Bosnia in the hope of teaching five female survivors of war how to cope with their trauma. By the end of the play, it is one of the American women who has learned the more valuable lesson. After Ensler won an Obie in 1997 for Vagina Monologues, Necessary Targets gained renewed interest and, in 2001, was performed in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. The following year, it opened off Broadway at the Variety Arts Theatre in New York.
Eve Ensler was born on May 25, 1953, in New York City. Her childhood was not a happy one. She has revealed that she was sexually and physically abused by her father. After her father's death, Ensler told her mother about the abuse. Ensler has stated that it was this revelation to her mother that set her free. "At that moment," Ensler told Cora Llamas, a writer for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, "my entire life changed. I went from a depressed, self-hating person to a free one." Llamas went on to write in the same interview that it was because of these difficult experiences that Ensler has been able to empathize with women around the world who also have suffered abuse.
In 1975, Ensler graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont. Later, she worked as an editor for Central Park Magazine. The first of her plays to gain media attention was Floating Rhoda and the Glue Man (1995), about a dysfunctional relationship between a man and a woman. Ensler's stepson, Dylan McDermott, played the male protagonist, whose character often stepped back from the action of the play to dissect his feelings.
Ensler's next play, Necessary Targets (1996), enjoyed public readings by such famous actresses as Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, and Glenn Close, to raise money for Bosnian war refugees. The play garnered little media attention, however, until Ensler gained international fame for her successful 1996–1997 production of The Vagina Monologues, in which she performed all the roles. This play won her an Obie Award for playwriting and launched her career not only as a dramatist but also as an activist for women's rights. Jack Helbig describes The Vagina Monologues in Booklist as a "witty, wildly popular meditation on female sexuality." The play also is referred to, in an article by Marc Peyser for Newsweek, as "one of the biggest theater successes in years."
The success of The Vagina Monologues caused quite a strong reaction around the world. China, at first, banned it. According to one newspaper headline, Japan braced for it. Many women, however, wrapped their arms around the play. As a result of the enthusiasm, Ensler founded the V-Day movement to stop violence against women. From the founding of the movement on, Ensler has been a political activist. She travels around the globe, raising people's awareness about the plight of women subjected to violence. The V-Day movement is so powerful that many people credit Ensler with stimulating a new wave of feminism.
In 2003, Ensler produced the film documentary What I Want My Words to Do to You: Voices from Inside a Woman's Maximum Security Prison. The Good Body, in which she also starred, premiered in 2004. In addition, Ensler published the book Vagina Warriors (2005) and, as of 2005, had begun writing two new works, I Am an Emotional Creature and V-World. Other plays include When I Call My Voices (1979) and Rendezvous (1983).
Ensler was married for a brief period to Richard McDermott. During their marriage, Ensler adopted McDermott's son, Dylan. Dylan, only a few years younger than Ensler, has gone on to become an accomplished actor, crediting Ensler for his success. In 2005, Ensler was sharing her life with Ariel Orr Jordan, a psychotherapist.
Necessary Targets is not broken down into acts, only into scenes. It begins in a plush apartment somewhere in New York City. Two women are onstage. The first to speak is Melissa, who is described as "a young, strong woman who sits awkwardly on the sofa." The second woman, called J.S., is a "reserved woman near fifty." Through the conversation, the audience can tell that Melissa is very laid back, whereas J.S. is just the opposite.
J.S. is a psychiatrist, but Melissa refers to her as a "shrink" and becomes self-conscious about the questions J.S. asks her. She senses that every time she offers an answer, J.S. is analyzing her. This is especially apparent when Melissa makes the comment, "Well, I've been through a lot." Melissa offers this information to make the point that she is older than her calendar years. Melissa has come to J.S.'s apartment for an interview. Melissa is a trauma counselor and a writer, and the two women are planning to travel together to meet with Bosnian women who are refugees from the war. Melissa has worked in other countries, with other victims of war. J.S., on the other hand, has never been to a war-torn country. This is why J.S. has asked Melissa to go with her to Bosnia.
Melissa challenges J.S. about her lack of experience. J.S., however, states that "trauma is trauma," indicating that her background in dealing with such problems as anorexia should qualify her to work with women who are suffering from the violence of war. Melissa expresses doubts about this. She also objects to being called J.S.'s assistant. She is used to working alone.
The setting is a refugee camp in Bosnia. J.S. complains of the filthy conditions in the bathroom. She would prefer to stay in a hotel. Melissa points out that the distance and the dissimilarities between the camp and the hotel would foster resentment among the women they have come to interview.
The third scene opens with J.S. and Melissa in a room with Jelena (a middle-aged woman), Zlata (a sophisticated older woman), Nuna (a teenager), Seada (a young adult), and Azra (an elderly woman). The Bosnian women are a bit testy, and they make fun of the American women. One woman refers to J.S. as a "loony doctor." Then the Bosnian women talk among themselves, kidding one another and appearing not to listen to J.S., who is trying to set up the guidelines for their sessions together. The Bosnian women are reluctant participants. Instead of responding to J.S.'s questions, they ask their own questions, including questions about the process of the counseling. J.S. attempts to keep the conversation on course, but the Bosnian women point out the irrelevance of J.S.'s questions. Melissa, too, is impatient. When J.S. asks whether one of the women is from Bosnia, Melissa is the first to respond, and the words she has chosen—"Of course she's from Bosnia."—reflect her irritation at J.S.'s seeming lack of awareness.
Zlata then says, "We're all from Bosnia. What do you think we're doing here?" This comment adds to the tension, as the women gang up on J.S., mocking her as a way of pointing out how ridiculous it is that she is there. Jelena steps in at this point and subtly reminds the other women of their manners. "We are very honored that you Americans came all the way here," she says; then she proceeds to introduce the other Bosnian women. The Bosnian women ask why the Americans have come. Melissa tries to explain. First, she tells the women that they have come to help them talk. The Bosnian women scoff at this. All they have been doing is talking, they say.
J.S. tries to make it clearer. She tells them she has come to help them talk about the war, in particular. This makes even less sense to the refugees. Several of them make condescending remarks before Zlata says: "You flew all the way here for that?" She asks J.S. what she thinks they have spent most of their days talking about since they arrived at the camp: "Our lingerie, our dinner parties …?" The Bosnian women are tired of talking. They are tired of people coming from the outside and wanting to hear their stories.
Melissa tells the women that she wants to record their stories so that the whole world knows about them. Even Jelena, who had been supportive of the Americans up to this point, finds this difficult to swallow. At the end of the third scene, Nuna says, Page 204 | Top of Article"So this is American therapy?" To this, Azra responds: "It just feels like another terrible day to me."
Scene 4 begins in J.S.'s room at the camp. She has given up and is packing her suitcase. She says that she feels embarrassed and ludicrous. She does not believe she has anything to offer the women. Melissa tries to talk her out of this. She reminds J.S. that the women are only taking out their frustration, anger, and fear on the two of them. It is here that the title of the play is explained. Melissa tells J.S. that the women are attacking them because she and J.S. are "necessary targets." But Melissa and J.S. are interrupted when Nuna runs into their room. "Baby Doona won't stop crying," she says. Melissa leaves the room. Nuna tells J.S. that the women are not as bad as they first appear. When Melissa comes back with the baby, she tells J.S. that one of the Bosnian women is ready to talk to the Americans. Melissa does not say which one.
Jelena opens the next scene, talking about her husband and the awful changes in his personality since the war. Jelena is talking to Azra, but Azra is not really connecting with her. Rather, Azra is lost in her own world. She wants her goats and her cow.
It is nighttime when scene 6 opens. Someone creeps into J.S.'s room. It is Seada, who refers to J.S. as "mama." Seada wants to sleep with J.S. and climb into her bed. J.S. feels awkward and tries to talk Seada out of it, to no avail.
A rainstorm begins scene 7. All the women are sitting around a table. Some of the women are willing to talk, but Zlata continues to refuse. Jelena says that everyone knows everyone else's story, but no one knows Zlata's story. Azra is the first to tell her story. When she starts to cry, Zlata wants to know how this is helping anyone. Coffee is poured for all the women, but J.S. does not drink hers. When she is asked why, she tells the women that she has given up caffeine. The Bosnian women think that this sounds like an American thing to do. Nuna takes offense at J.S.'s not drinking coffee with them. She thinks it means J.S. does not like them. When Jelena explains this to her, J.S. hesitates but finally sips the coffee.
Zlata is sitting in a room by herself, crying, when J.S. walks in. J.S. feels awkward about her intrusion and, to cover her awkwardness, starts up a conversation about the weather. Zlata quickly switches the topic to J.S.'s wealth and profession. J.S. refuses to answer Zlata's questions, explaining that she is trained to pose questions, not answer them. Zlata confronts her on this, asking whether J.S. is even able to hold a normal conversation. The women start talking about the war. Zlata says she used to blame the leaders for the war, but now she thinks that there is a monster in all human beings that waits for an opportunity to come out. They each laugh at themselves when they try to describe the monster inside of them. And when Zlata's body begins to shake, J.S. becomes concerned, wanting to help. She tells Zlata that she wants to be her friend.
In scene 9, J.S. confronts Melissa. She asks Melissa to stop using her tape recorder. J.S. thinks the recorder makes the women feel uncomfortable. Melissa does not believe this. J.S. is warming up to the women, but Melissa is standing back, seeing it as the way to help the women as quickly and efficiently as possible and allowing her to move on to the next assignment.
In scene 10, the women are sitting by a river. A French company has sent skin cleansers, and the women are having facials. The women start talking about what they miss. Nuna tells how she is of mixed heritage and belongs to neither side of this ethnic conflict. Then Jelena produces a bottle of booze. The women sing, drink, and dance. J.S. notices that Zlata is missing. She goes to find her.
In scene 11, J.S. finds Zlata and talks about how she can no longer sing. J.S. is a professional woman, she says, who cannot allow herself to be sloppy. Zlata urges J.S. to sing. The other women join J.S. and Zlata, singing and dancing.
At the start of scene 12, J.S. finds Azra lying in a large hole in the earth. Azra says she wants to die. She is in her grave. J.S. persuades Azra to talk to her cow. This cheers Azra up, and she crawls out of the hole.
Seada's story unfolds in the next scene. Zlata is mending Jelena's black eye, the work of Jelena's husband. Melissa blames this injury on the drinking from the night before. But the Bosnian women claim that it was one of the best nights they have had in a long time. J.S., however, is concerned that she has crossed a line and needs to be more professional. Melissa keeps pushing for the women to open up. Zlata resists. Their stories belong to them, she tells Melissa. Seada is not in the room, but Nuna begins to tell Seada's story. Soldiers came into their village and were threatening to rape all the women. Seada's husband hides her, but the soldiers find her. When her husband tries to protect Seada, the soldiers shoot him in the head. Seada starts running with her baby. In her panic, she drops the baby but does not realize she has done so until too late.
Seada walks into the room. The women are unaware that she is hearing her story told. When Nuna talks about Seada's having dropped her baby, Seada unwraps the rags she has been cradling and realizes there is no baby there. She starts screaming and running. The women go after her. J.S. and Melissa are told to stay behind. J.S. berates Melissa for pushing the women too hard to open up and tell their stories. J.S. fears that Seada was not ready to face reality. Nuna runs in and yells that they have found Seada and she is hurting herself badly.
Seada is eating dirt and pulling out her hair. She is crying for her mother. She thinks J.S. is her mother. J.S. holds Seada but tells her she is not her mother. Seada offers details of the rape that she suffered after losing her baby. J.S. holds her and sings a lullaby to soothe her. Melissa tells everyone that she did not mean to hurt anyone. She was just doing her job.
When scene 15 opens, Melissa is packing her bags. She tells J.S. that she is going to Chechnya to gather material for the final chapter of her book. Melissa suggests that she herself suffered some kind of trauma when she was young. She tells J.S. that she used to have terrible nightmares. When she started traveling to war-torn countries and dealing with the problems of other women, the nightmares went away. Melissa takes her bag and leaves.
Scene 16 focuses on J.S. and Zlata. The women are sitting outside, under the stars. Zlata opens up to J.S. and tells her about the massacre of her parents. They were beheaded. Then Zlata recounts the beauty that once was Bosnia. With its friendliness and openness, Bosnia was once a paradise, she says.
J.S. is back in her apartment in the United States in the final scene. She is talking into a recorder. She directs her thoughts to Melissa. J.S. tells Melissa that she feels empty but happy. She says that the women in Bosnia have changed her forever. She cannot return to what she once was. She wants only to be with the women in Bosnia.
Azra is the oldest woman of the group. She is from the countryside and is known for repeating her stories, especially stories about her cow. Azra complains a lot. She wants to go home. She wants a doctor to look at her and ease her pains. Azra stands for the traditional Bosnian woman, a woman tied to the earth and her country ways. She exists at one end of the spectrum, while Nuna, who is described as a very Westernized teenager, is positioned at the other.
Azra is one of the first women upon whom J.S. has an effect. J.S. talks Azra out of a so-called grave that Azra has discovered and climbed into. Azra wants to die. She feels as if she has nothing more to live for. J.S. uses Azra's pleasant memories of her cow to bring Azra back into the world of the living. Although Azra is the oldest woman of the group, she does not necessarily represent wisdom. She does, however, have Old World charm. At one point, she tells everyone that talking about Seada behind her back is bad luck. In some ways, this turns out to be true, as Seada hears the women talking about her and is thrown into a desperate fit of anxiety. Azra is not among the women who later soothe Seada, however. Her character does not exhibit any nurturing or mothering skills. The exception is the loving way that Azra talks about her cow. Azra has apparently never been married and has never experienced sex, which, someone suggests, is the reason she is so grumpy.
Doona is the name of Seada's baby. Throughout most of the play, the women talk about Doona Page 206 | Top of Articleas if she were present in their midst. They talk about her being cold and about her crying, which is so loud that they become annoyed and worried. However, at the end of the play, the audience discovers that the bundle that Seada has been carrying around is merely a bunch of wrapped rags. Doona was lost during the time when Seada was running away from men who wanted to rape her. Seada dropped her baby and did not realize it until it was too late. There is no mention of the real Doona's fate, whether she is still alive or not.
Jelena is described as an earthy woman. She is in her forties, and it is she who calms the group of Bosnian women and reminds them to be respectful of the American women rather than continually mocking them. While the other women respond to the American women in sarcastic tones, Jelena takes a more nurturing attitude, as she attempts to understand why J.S. and Melissa are there and then to explain it to the Bosnian women.
Jelena has the only connection to a man in this play. Her husband fought in the war and suffers psychologically from his memories. He takes out his pain on Jelena, who appears one day with a black eye. The rest of Jelena's story remains untold. She is the most optimistic of the refugee women, however, and continually tries to represent hope for the future. She finds things to feel good about, despite her hardships, and encourages the other women to do the same. She is the most down-to-earth character and the most resilient.
J.S. is a well-established and successful psychiatrist, living a comfortable life in New York City. She has been appointed by the president to go to Bosnia to help war refugees there. J.S. has never been in a war zone and is very uncomfortable when she arrives at the camp. She dislikes the filthy conditions and wants to stay in a hotel rather than live with the refugees.
At first, the refugees mock J.S.'s attempts at therapy. They feel her separateness and try to bring her down from her pedestal. It almost defeats her. J.S. comes close to giving up and returning home. She gives it one more try, however, and slowly drops the walls she has built around herself. She does this first with Seada, whom she allows to sleep in her bed and to pretend that J.S. is her mother. Then J.S. drinks with the women one night and talks about personal aspects of her life. For instance, she tells Zlata that she has not been able to sing as an adult, although she loves singing. This is Ensler's way of demonstrating that the most pleasurable things J.S. enjoyed have been locked away inside her, because she has donned what she believes is the mask of professionalism. She hides behind this mask until Zlata challenges her to take it off.
Of the two American women, J.S. is the one who is transformed by her experiences in Bosnia. She is the opposite of Melissa in many ways. The most telling of these is that she is able to see who she is and what she does not like about herself, and then she is able to alter her life's course.
Melissa, a young woman in her twenties, is a writer and a trauma therapist. She has traveled all over the world trying to help women who have suffered from war. She is in the process of collecting stories from these women so that she can write a book about their experiences. Melissa stands in diametric opposition to J.S., the American psychiatrist. Melissa, too, is an American, but she is much more experienced in international settings and war-torn circumstances. Melissa is also very wary of psychiatrists. Her sensitivity and defensiveness in response to J.S.'s questions suggest that Melissa herself might have been in therapy.
Still, Melissa is somewhat in awe of J.S., as well as being disdainful of her. While visiting J.S. in her posh apartment, Melissa feels uneasy and admits that comfort unsettles her. However, in Bosnia, Melissa demonstrates her strength. There seem to be fewer barriers between herself and the other women, despite their differences. She mocks J.S.'s need to keep a distance between herself and the refugees.
Melissa, though, has troubles of her own. She is trying to run away from an ugly past. She does not stand still and take stock of her life, as she strongly suggests that the other women do. Instead, when she is confronted and challenged by J.S. for being too harsh with the women, Melissa packs her bags and rushes off to yet another country. She fulfills the Bosnian women's definition of her: Melissa turns out to be just another journalist trying to capture a story.
Nuna is the youngest of the Bosnian women. She likes everything American, and the other women tease her about watching too many American movies. Nuna is fascinated with J.S. and Page 207 | Top of Articleasks her many questions about American culture. Nuna is lost in a fantasy of what she thinks America is, and it has become her escape. As a character, Nuna provides an occasional break in the tension by saying something that is entirely bizarre or by displaying a rather comical view of Americans. Her character also shows the Western influence on the people of Bosnia before the war.
Seada is the second-youngest Bosnian woman, referred to as the "gorgeous one." Seada's story is the most tragic. Her character draws the strongest emotional response from the audience. She has lost a husband and a mother. She dropped her baby somewhere along the path while running from the soldiers. She was raped unmercifully by them. And she is the character who is most caught in denial. She is the catalyst that brings J.S. out of her objective, professional stance. She is also the character around whom all the other Bosnian women come together. Seada's abrupt and brutal awakening is caused by Melissa's sharp and possibly heartless demands. Seada's healing process, on the other hand, begins with J.S., who soothes her and even rocks her in her arms and sings a lullaby to her.
Zlata is a medical doctor and a Bosnian refugee, and she relates to J.S. better than the other women do. This could be because of their similar education, knowledge, and experience. But it is also because of Zlata's background that she dislikes what J.S. and Melissa are doing. Of all the women, it is Zlata who knows that the American women really have nothing at stake and will one day leave. This barrier of awareness is difficult for Zlata to break down. She does not want to be treated as if she were sick. She does not feel that there is anything wrong with her. If there were, she believes that she could heal herself, so she closes herself off to the Americans and their desires to do good.
It is through Zlata, more than any other character, that Ensler develops the concept of the "other." Ensler portrays what she believes is a general notion among Americans that people who are not Americans are different. Taken to an extreme, some people remove their sense of humanity from specific groups of people and think of them as the "other." Zlata confronts J.S. with this. She tells J.S. that before the war, she and her family and friends were just like a typical American family. They had wealth, comfort, and leisure time. J.S. sees them after the war has utterly destroyed their way of life, but that does not mean that the Bosnian women are any different from the Americans.
By the end of the play, Zlata has undergone a certain transformation. She is one of the few characters that experience change. She can put down her barriers after she sees J.S. dropping hers, and the two women become friends.
The theme of isolation is apparent in many of the characters in Necessary Targets. First, there is the overall environment of the war in Bosnia, which isolated one ethnic group from another. People in villages were cut off from people who lived in cities, as neighbor fought neighbor. There is also the isolation that the victims of war, the female refugees of the play, suffer in its aftermath. The Bosnian women are not the only ones who feel isolated from their past, from their families, and from themselves. The American women also suffer from isolation.
J.S., the American psychiatrist who travels to Bosnia, has built for herself what she once considered a safe haven. She lived within the psychological walls of her castle, believing that this was the proper way to conduct her life. She was a professional, and her job was to maintain an objective distance between herself and her patients. It was not until she arrived in Bosnia and was confronted by the women there that she realized that the so-called safe haven she had constructed kept her isolated and alone.
J.S. was able to break through this isolation. Melissa, J.S.'s American counterpart, is not so fortunate. The nature of Melissa's suffering is not fully explained, but some trauma in her childhood made Melissa build walls around herself also. Melissa's walls are more transparent, more fluid. They are easily penetrated, so she must keep moving in order to keep everyone and everything outside herself from touching her. Despite her efforts to get the Bosnian women to break through the walls that keep them in isolation, Melissa cannot stand still long enough to allow anyone to help her deconstruct her own psychological barriers. In the end, Melissa is the most isolated character in the play.
The aftermath of trauma is one of the main themes of Ensler's play. As a result of the war in Page 208 | Top of ArticleBosnia, hundreds of thousands of war victims poured into refugee camps. These masses of people are represented by the five Bosnian women characters. These women all suffer from similar traumas, but each manifests her trauma differently. Nuna, the young girl who is fascinated by all things American, does not speak of her trauma but rather fantasizes about what life in America, a safer world, is like. Azra, the oldest woman, had to abandon her animals, while Seada cannot face having abandoned her baby. Seada has lost all touch with reality because of her shock. Zlata is forced into silence and bitterness, after seeing her parents beheaded in front of her. She is a trained physician, and yet she could do nothing to save their lives. She reacts in anger toward anyone who attempts to save her.
The American women travel to Bosnia to help alleviate the trauma the Bosnian people have been through, but these Americans also suffer from trauma. It is a more subtle form, one that they do not completely face until their confrontations with the Bosnian women force them to do so. J.S. has never dealt with people who have suffered through a war. She believes that trauma is trauma, whether it is produced by the debilitating mental stress her American patients suffer or the devastating ordeals that war victims experience. She learns, through her visit to Bosnia, that there are different kinds of Page 209 | Top of Articletrauma. The challenges she faces in Bosnia shake her so completely that she wakes up to a new vision of herself. Melissa, the victim of another kind of trauma, is not so fortunate. Possibly, as Melissa states in the play, her trauma came at too early an age and, therefore, has become a part of her that she cannot shed. Instead, she continually tries to run away from it.
There are two therapists in the play: J.S., who is a psychiatrist, and Melissa, who has been trained as a trauma counselor. These two are at odds with each other in their therapeutic techniques. J.S. uses a soft, even subtle approach, while Melissa is in a hurry and, therefore, is very blunt. She throws psychological punches at the Bosnian women, in attempts to get them to open up. It is not clear whether (as the Bosnian women suspect) Melissa wants to obtain her stories quickly and then travel to another country to gather more, so she can complete her book, or if (as Melissa believes) she is a focused therapist who wants to get to the heart of an issue instead of tiptoeing around it.
Despite the fact that both the American women have been trained as therapists, they have failed to apply their knowledge to themselves. It is Zlata who acts as J.S.'s therapist; trained as a medical doctor, she uses her bedside skills to help J.S. work through her own issues. Jelena, on the other hand, uses alcohol as therapy one night, encouraging the women to drink, dance, and sing their cares away, at least for a few hours. Although alcohol offers Jelena a short reprieve from her worries, drinking only worsens her husband's condition. Alcohol, J.S. and Melissa both agree, is not an effective therapy for trauma.
Therapy is often criticized or mocked in the play. Melissa rejects J.S.'s attempts to figure her out, and so do the Bosnian women. Zlata accuses J.S. of hiding behind her therapy techniques and encourages her to embrace their interactions, not as a trained, objective asker of questions but as one person communicating with another. Toward the end of the play, J.S. seems to follow Zlata's advice and wraps her arms around Seada, rocking her, while singing a lullaby. It is implied that this is not what J.S. had learned in school or in all her years as a therapist. J.S. finds her way to her own cure through the therapy of friendship.
The theme of empathy weaves through the play, in stark contrast to the accounts of the lack of empathy that existed during the war, when whole throngs of men were massacred, women were raped, and villages and cities were destroyed. Despite that horrifying lack, the women in this play, for the most part, find or recover their empathetic natures. One of the strongest illustrations of this can be seen in the way the Bosnian women play along with Seada's need to believe that she is carrying her baby in her arms. Although Seada merely holds on to a bundle of rags, the women complain of the baby's loud crying. They worry that the baby might be sick, and they hold the so-called baby in their arms to make Seada comfortable. In the face of this, J.S.'s objective stance breaks down for Seada's sake, and, finally, she empathizes with the young woman's need to be cuddled by her mother. J.S. takes on the maternal role out of empathy for a woman who needs to be loved. She allows Seada to sleep with her in her bed.
The Bosnian women stand up for one another in various empathetic ways. They protect one another from intrusions from the American women, and yet Jelena, in particular, also empathizes with J.S. and Melissa and goes to them, telling the Americans that the Bosnian women are not as unfriendly as they seem. Again, it is Melissa who stands out in the group. She is so hardened by her personal trauma that she appears to have no room in her heart or no understanding of how to empathize with anyone else. Still, she is drawn to their situation and wants to help. Taking a broad view, perhaps Melissa feels empathy too.
Character Arcs of Growth
A character arc charts the change that a character goes through in the course of a work of dramatic fiction. In Necessary Targets, many of the characters experience change in the form of growth—some more than others. First there is Azra, who is coaxed back into the world of the living after she is found lying in a hole in the ground that she calls her grave. This is a significant change for Azra, who had until that moment not felt that she had any reason to live.
The most dramatic growth is exemplified by Seada, who has created an imaginary world, because she could not face the fact that her husband and mother are gone, as is her baby. Seada's growth happens in a piercing moment when she hears Nuna recounting the truth of her life. In one clashing Page 210 | Top of Articleconfrontation, all of Seada's pretenses are shattered. She tries to hurt herself, wanting to physically manifest the emotional pain she is suffering from. Although, by the end of the play, Seada is not depicted as a fully healed person, the audience can anticipate her recovery, or at least partial recovery, and that is growth.
Zlata does not, for most of the play, tell anyone her story. She is bitter and angry and often lashes out at or completely excludes herself from the group of other women. She is particularly upset with the two Americans, whom she looks upon as yet another intrusion into her life. However, Zlata grows through her encounters with J.S. and finally reveals the trauma she has suffered. She also is able to find a way, through their shared training, education, and past experiences, to make friends with J.S. In reaching out, Zlata demonstrates her willingness to change, a willingness that she knows is necessary if she wants to grow.
J.S. returns to the United States so completely changed that she cannot go back to doing anything she once did. In her friendship with Zlata, J.S. has found a new center. She finds happiness in friendship, where once she would not allow anyone to come close to her. Melissa is portrayed as a flat character, one who seems not to change. Many critics of the play point this out as a weakness. When a character does not transform in any way, it is difficult for the audience to empathize with her. Without some indication of growth, the character appears less real and becomes something of a stereotype, standing only for a certain sentiment or one-sided belief.
Symbols of Hopelessness and Frivolity
The most poignant symbol in this play is the bundle of rags that Seada carries in her arms, pretending that it is her baby. When the bundle is unfolded and there is no baby inside, the tragedy of war suddenly becomes that much more apparent to the audience. The moment is designed to elicit a gasp from a live audience, as the truth of Seada's trauma is revealed. The baby (or the lack of baby) signifies the hope that is lost, the dreams that are shattered. The women's talk of the atrocities they have endured has had a significant impact on the audience, but the overwhelming need of the women to pretend that Seada's baby is not only alive but also well protected and cared for pierces the hearts of those watching the play.
Other symbols include the journalists, who personify the outside world. In the minds of the Bosnian women, at least, the journalists do not seem to really care about the Bosnian people. They come to Bosnia to capture stories and images but do nothing to stop the war and suffering. In the play, the journalists represent everyone who has come to Bosnia and who, after seeing what is happening, leave and return to their comfortable lives, forgetting the pain and anguish they have witnessed. The journalists have collected their stories, and that is all they wanted.
Nuna, in some ways, also represents the outside world, at least in all its frivolous aspects. Nuna is a young teenager who is fascinated by American culture, mostly the surface glitz and glitter. She focuses on things like clothes and makeup rather than on deeper, psychological topics. Although Nuna is typical of teenagers all over the world, it is through her character that the play makes fun of Americans. In contrast to what the Bosnian women are living through, Americans, as seen through the play, appear frivolous.
Unlike many plays, Ensler's Necessary Targets has an insignificant plot. The American women go to Bosnia to help war victims; in exchange, one of them is transformed by the experience. Although this is enough of a plot to make the play interesting, it is the dialogue and development of the characters that make the play worth seeing. In other words, a major plot or dramatic action is not required to stir the interests of an audience. People may be interested in this play for a variety of other reasons, including wanting to know about the sufferings of Bosnian women during the war, how these experiences have affected them psychologically, and whether the American women will be able to help them. The development or changes of the characters drive the play, rather than a well-thought-out line of action.
Conflict: World Events and Personal Lives
The conflict in this play comes, for the most part, through the accounts of the challenges of life after a war and how people deal with them. But there is also the internal conflict that all the characters face. Melissa suffers from nightmares, so she constantly keeps herself on edge by surrounding herself with the conflicts that other people are facing. J.S. wants to sing, but she believes that by acting out her own emotions, such as the joy she might express in singing, she is coming into conflict with her image of what a psychiatrist should be—a stoic, Page 211 | Top of Articleobjective receiver of information. Jelena wants to love her husband for what he once was and yet has to deal with the present reality of his abuse. Zlata, who has been trained to help other people, must face the fact that there are many thousands of people she cannot help. The conflict in this play builds, as all the forces come together when the characters help Seada face the strongest conflict in the play: that between her fantasy world and the world of reality.
Opposing forces are represented by the disputing characters, J.S. and Melissa. Their theories of how to conduct their therapy sessions differ quite drastically. Their lifestyles are at opposite ends of the spectrum, with J.S. living in luxurious comfort and controlled organization and Melissa living out of her suitcase in war-torn countries. J.S. wants to work slowly with the Bosnian women, while Melissa wants to hit them over their heads and crack their stories open. Despite the fact that they are in opposition, for the sake of the play and its development, these opposing forces work together, providing tension that eventually erupts, stimulating a catharsis, or at least a partial resolution.
Bosnia: The Land and the People
Bosnia is located in south-central Europe, east of the Adriatic Sea, and shares borders with Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. The country, about the size of Missouri, is officially called the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the capital at Sarajevo. The country's geography features both mountains (with the highest point being Maglic in Herzegovina) and plains, which spread out from the Sava River. The people at lower altitudes enjoy moderate weather (cold and snowy, but bearable, winters and humid, but tolerable, summers). Most areas of Bosnia are under constant threat of powerful earthquakes.
Bosnia is a land of many different cultures, most based on the population's religious beliefs, which include Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism. Although outlying villages tend to be homogeneous, the cities (this was especially true before the war) have populations that are quite diversified, and people of different backgrounds and beliefs accept one another. The majority of the population in Bosnia is made up of Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians), Croats (Catholics), and Bosniaks (Muslims). Despite the fact that the three different groups have chosen different names for the language they speak, it is basically the same, differing only in a few mutually understandable dialects and individual alphabets.
War and Its Aftermath in Bosnia
Trouble for Bosnians began in 1990 with the breakup of Yugoslavia, of which Bosnia was a part. Bosnia officially became independent the following year and was ruled by Croat and Muslim political parties, which had come together to defeat the Serb nationalists. This angered the Serbs, who were adamant about creating a so-called greater Serbia by uniting the Serbs in Bosnia with those in Serbia. Serbs in Bosnia began to worry about rumors of mass killings, despite the fact that parliament had declared equal rights for all ethnic groups. Tensions exploded during a demonstration in Sarajevo in 1992, when Serb gunmen shot into the crowds. At that point, civil war broke out.
Serbs were committed to their plan of a greater Serbia and began to expel all Muslims from northern and eastern Bosnia. Homes and mosques were destroyed. Thousands of Muslim men were massacred, and women were raped. In the summer of 1992, Croats took up arms against the Bosniaks (Muslims). The killings in this war culminated in 1995 with a massacre of an estimated six thousand Muslim men in Srebrenica. It has been estimated that at least two hundred thousand people died during the conflict. The city of Banja Luka (which is mentioned in the play) became the provisional capital of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia during the war in the 1990s. One of the largest concentration camps was built there, and it has been estimated that the city suffered the most extreme of the war's ethnic cleansings, a term that arose out of this conflict and refers to forced deportation and even genocide.
For three weeks, from November 1 to November 21, 1995, the Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, the Croatian president Franjo Tudman, the Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović, the chief American negotiator Richard Holbrooke, and General Wesley Clark met in Dayton, Ohio, to work out a peace agreement that would end the civil war in Bosnia. Through what has become known as the Dayton Accord, the country was divided into two parts, the Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb state, called the Republika Srpska. Despite the seeming success of the Dayton Accord in stopping the fighting, the country struggled in the aftermath Page 212
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of the war. Cities were destroyed and families were torn apart and murdered. The psychological scars remain to contribute to tensions. War tribunals have tried and convicted many of the war criminals, but peace is not assured. In 2005, the European Union Force, an international military group, continued to police the towns and cities. There were no plans for removal of these troops in the foreseeable future.
American Theater, 1990s
Large, extravagant musicals with corporate backing prevailed among the productions that were staged on Broadway in the 1990s. Mainstream plays that could pull a large audience became the mainstay. More provocative plays were often seen off Broadway and in regional theaters. Low budgets curtailed the building of lavish sets in these smaller productions, and many of these off-Broadway plays had only a handful of characters at best.
There was concern, among critics and others who study drama, that the gap was widening between the entertaining, extravagant productions on Broadway, such as the Walt Disney Company's Lion King, and the somewhat radical, small-audience dramas produced in regional theaters. Although the second category of plays might be thought-provoking, very few people had the chance to see them. There was seldom enough money in the budget for these plays to travel around the country, and only if the play was adapted to a film script and made into a movie did anyone outside the region have a chance to experience it.
This does not mean that there were not big successes in the production of serious plays. For example, Tony Kushner was not daunted by the prevalence and popularity of musicals. His Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika (1993), a two-part work, won two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. The plays deal with the very serious topic of the epidemic of AIDS. Other thought-provoking plays that were successful in the 1990s included two by the elder statesmen—dramatists Edward Albee, author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman (1949). Both of these playwrights are considered masters of American drama. Albee's Three Tall Women, a play that looks back at three stages in the life of an elderly woman, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. That same year saw the production of Miller's Broken Glass. Prompted by the civil war in Yugoslavia, Miller wrote a play concerning the troubled marriage of a Jewish couple, set in 1930s Brooklyn at the time when Nazi mistreatment of Jews was beginning to make headlines around the world.
Necessary Targets went through several public (and celebrated) readings before it was staged as a play in the United States. Movie stars read the play in benefits to raise money for war refugees. Ensler then gained fame, even world recognition, with the successful run of her Obie-winning Vagina Monologues. This brought interest in her earlier play, and Necessary Targets was staged.
The first staging in the United States took place in Connecticut in 2001. Despite the many previous readings the play had received, Markland Taylor, writing for Variety, finds that Ensler's work still needs some polishing. "If it's ever to be the shattering cri de coeur [protest] it seemingly intends," Taylor writes, "more work is needed." Taylor faults the writing, stating that Ensler's characters need more depth. In the end, however, Taylor offers an oblique word of praise when he says that "Ensler must deliver the assured theatrical sophistication the play needs if it is to live up to its admirable intentions."
The New York Times critic Alvin Klein also has trouble with the play. Klein recognizes the play's "transparent manipulation" but then goes on to write that "it takes an ingrate to lack appreciation for ensemble acting so fine, and a curmudgeon to think that there is nothing here that cannot be fixed." Another New York Times critic, Ben Brantley, finds Necessary Targets to be "more artistically introspective" than Ensler's more famous play, The Vagina Monologues. However, he also finds weaknesses. "Yet while 'Targets' bristles with enough tantalizing topics to fuel a year's worth of symposiums, it never shapes its themes into a seductive dramatic structure," he writes.
Joy Press of the Village Voice mentions the fact that the audience appreciated the play by honoring it with a standing ovation, but Press does not find that much to applaud. She finds that the play tends to stray "into cliched territory once or twice too often" and that Ensler's vision was often "clouded by ambivalence." Charles Isherwood, writing for Variety, finds the play to be "awkwardly structured, chopped up into brief scenes that meander around and seem to end just when they should be beginning."
Although Karen Bovard, for Theatre Journal, also notes the play's weaknesses, she praises Ensler for her focus on the American women in the play. "By centering on the American psychiatrist's story, Ensler avoids the most egregious kind of speaking for 'the other' and thereby committing an arrogant act of imagined empathy," Bovard writes. Instead, Ensler is concerned about the "changes in consciousness" that the Americans experience, the effect that the war refugees have on the foreigners, who come from a "position of privilege and relative safety." It is this focus that Bovard thinks produces "some of the most telling lines" in the play.
Tricia Olszewski, writing for the Washington Post, takes just the opposite position from Bovard's. Olszewski finds that the focus on the American women "prevents anyone from being terribly sympathetic" with any of the characters. Although "Ensler takes a few satisfying jabs at American culture," Olszewski writes, "in a play allegedly about the atrocities of war, the sharpest commentary shouldn't be about the absurdity of the States."
Looking at the play through a director's eye, the Washington Post reporter Dan Via quotes Cornelia Pleasants, who directed Necessary Targets at the Olney Theatre in Maryland. Pleasants readily admits that the play presents challenges but had this to say: "I think it's a play worth discussing and it's a time in the world's history that we need to look at closely."
Hart is a freelance writer and published author with degrees in English and creative writing. In this essay, she examines what Ensler refers to as the "death of trust" and what Ensler suggests that it takes to bring trust back into life.
In her introduction to the published version of Necessary Targets, Ensler refers to the difference between the loud and obvious catastrophes that occur while a war is in progress and the less observable psychological wounds that the victims must endure after a ceasefire has been proclaimed. "It is the bombing, the explosions in the dark," she writes, "that keep us watching." She refers here to the media coverage that is sent out to television stations around the world. People are often glued to their TV sets while the bombs are falling, but then, when the streets of the war-torn countries become quiet, the journalists and their cameras disappear. All that is left is the physical rubble of the buildings, along with the terrible destruction of people's lives. A camera can broadcast pictures of the buildings, but how does one capture images of a person's shattered mind and soul? How can one depict the trauma that a victim of war has suffered? And yet it is when the impoverished victims face the horrors they must live with in the aftermath that "the real war begins," Ensler writes.
"When we think of war, we do not think of women," Ensler continues, "because the work of survival, of restoration, is not glamorous work." Ensler is referring to the fact that the media is not interested in this type of story. It is too difficult to Page 214 | Top of Articlepinpoint, to dramatize in a single shot. But this "real war," Ensler believes, can be found "in the broken-down fabric of community, in the death of trust, in the destruction of the everyday patterns of living." Ensler wrote her play to dramatize what she felt the media had skipped over and ignored. In this play, she portrays one element of the psychological wounds the Bosnian women have suffered, the death of trust, and what they do in an attempt to resurrect trust.
Ensler describes several variants of the destruction of trust. Some of the women who survived the war are so badly wounded that they distrust their own versions of reality. Others are suspicious of outsiders, those who have come merely to talk about the war but have not suffered from it. But the American women, who admittedly are not survivors of a war, also suffer from lack of trust. Their wars are more personal and internal. All of these women appear to suffer from the same affliction. Some are more deeply wounded than others and are unable to heal. A few have buried their trust deep within themselves, yet it is not quite dead. They may not be fully aware of it, but they appear to reach out, hoping that someone will come along and help them learn to trust again.
Ensler, who based the writing of her play on interviews she conducted with real victims of the war in Bosnia, has the war refugees mock the American women when they first arrive at the refugee camp. J.S. and Melissa want to help them, but the Bosnian women are suspicious of the therapists' motives. The Bosnians accuse the Americans of being no more empathetic to their condition than the journalists who once crawled all over their country, gathering stories so they could send their reports to their respective publications and other media. The journalists invaded the victims' lives, stole the grimy details of their circumstances, and disappeared unscathed. As a group, the Bosnian women no longer trust anyone who has not suffered through the war and who can leave all the destruction behind and return to a cozy life somewhere else. Their trust in outsiders has been broken. The words of outsiders hold little meaning for them, because the refugees found that words were empty. The journalists did nothing to improve the Bosnian women's lives. They did not stop the war; they did not save their families. Now that the war victims have nothing left, why should they trust these American women?
Death of trust does not mean, however, that the women have lost their sense of humanity, despite the horrendous crimes they have both survived and witnessed. One brave woman, Jelena, is not entirely broken. She still has hope, and therefore a little trust, left in her. She steps forward and tries to build a bridge between her comrades and the American women. Jelena's trust, though shattered, is amazingly strong. It is through her example, her willingness to try yet one more time to breathe life into the fragile remnants of her trust, that some of the other women gain the strength to piece together, slowly but surely, their own sense of faith in humanity.
Standing in opposition to Jelena's willingness to trust is Zlata, the physician, who is the least trusting of the Bosnian women. She turns her back on the American women, literally, and walks away from them. She will have nothing to do with their attempts at therapy, which she finds lack any personal involvement. She is vehemently opposed to Melissa's use of a tape recorder, which too obviously reminds her of the journalists. She does not want her life, yet again, to be captured and then forced, slavelike, to reveal itself not in the intimate connection between one person and another but broadcast by a camera into the square eye of a television set, so that strangers she will never meet can watch it while eating dinner.
Zlata, if she answers the therapists' questions at all, does so sarcastically, mocking their insensitivity. Page 215 | Top of ArticleShe is in no way taken in by the Americans. She wants to know why they are there, what they intend to do, and how they plan on doing it. She takes a logical stance, as if she were mirroring the objective stance she sees the American women taking. When she is dissatisfied with their answers, she tells them that she and the other women are "sick of talking." She does not, in other words, trust their intentions. Why should she? All the other outsiders came and took what they wanted. What do the Bosnian women get from the exchange?
Ironically, it is Zlata who finally makes the deepest connection with the Americans, or at least with J.S. After confronting J.S. about her own inability to open up to anyone, Zlata slowly begins to reveal herself. She does so after watching J.S. help Seada. Seeing J.S. break down her own barriers, stepping out of the role of psychiatrist and allowing Seada to sleep with her, causes Zlata to reevaluate her perception of J.S. Maybe this outsider is not just like the journalists. Maybe J.S. has real compassion for these women. With these thoughts, Zlata begins to mend her broken trust, one small step at a time.
Zlata's trust grows when she and J.S. are sitting alone. Zlata notices that J.S. has scrubbed her face and is in a natural state. "You look different without your makeup," she says. Her statement has symbolic meaning, demonstrating that Zlata feels as if J.S. has taken off her mask; she is now more like the Bosnian women. Without her makeup, J.S.'s true emotions are revealed. Zlata sees sadness in J.S.'s clean face, something that Zlata can relate to. Even though J.S. is not a victim of the Bosnian war, J.S.'s sadness probably indicates to Zlata that J.S. has been wounded by some other kind of war. This is important to Zlata—not that J.S. is wounded, but that, because of her wound, J.S. might actually have real compassion.
Melissa, on the other hand, does not express any recognizable compassion. She appears to be in Bosnia for herself. She wants to write a book, and Page 216
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she wants to put herself in the midst of other people's tragedies so that she can forget her own. Melissa does not trust any of the women, including J.S., and none of the women trust her. Melissa is, indeed, like the journalists of whom the Bosnian women speak—journalists who got what they wanted and then left as soon as they could.
By comparing J.S. to Melissa, in terms of their relationships with the refugees, audiences grasp Ensler's message. They see that in some ways, both American women came to Bosnia without any trust. They both arrived with the impression that they were doing a job. They both had personal problems of their own that diminished their ability to trust. The circumstances that ravaged the American women's trust remain undefined. J.S. mentions locking herself up in a very conservative and objective suit of armor, which she thought was required by her profession. Melissa hints that something awful happened to her when she was young. Whatever originally caused these two women to close themselves off from others is not the issue. The issue is that J.S. changes and Melissa does not. The change in J.S. occurs when she allows her compassion to lead her. Thus, Ensler dramatizes with J.S. that it is through compassion that trust is rebuilt. The implication of this statement might be that if trust is rebuilt, perhaps there will be no reason for future wars.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Necessary Targets, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following review, Bovard describes the plot of Necessary Targets and praises Ensler's "naturalistic, character-based drama."
The world premiere of Eve Ensler's play about women managing the aftermath of war-time atrocities in Bosnia opened in the early days of active US military involvement in Afghanistan. Traditional and chronological in structure, the play follows two American therapists who go to Bosnia to help refugee women recover from trauma. One is a wealthy New York psychiatrist in mid-life, well known for her work with eating disorders, who lacks all experience with refugee populations and—with her designer nightgown and pampered hygienic Page 217 | Top of Articlehabits—seems initially quite ill-suited to the work at hand. Played by Shirley Knight, the character J.S. is the most changed by ensuing events. The other American citizen is a young trauma specialist and expatriate who never stays long in any given location but has considerable experience with international crises. At first her hard-nosed practicality renders her sympathetic, but it quickly emerges that Melissa (Catherine Kellner) is a "story vulture" whose highest priority is tape-recording traumatic personal accounts for a book she is writing. The pressure she exerts precipitates a crisis, and her own volatile feelings about her exploitation of the women she is supposed to be helping induces her to leave the camp abruptly, headed for the latest crisis in Chechnya.
The five other characters are all refugees, living together and doing their best to look after one another. Nuna (Maria Thayer) is a hip urban teenager of mixed ethnic heritage; Seada (Marika Dominczyk) is a young mother who refuses to accept her baby's death; Jelena (Alyssa Bresnahan) is deeply in love with her husband, who has been undone by her rape. She accepts his beating her as a reaction to his own impotence. Azra (Sally Parrish) is an elderly woman displaced from a rural village; and Zlata (Diane Venora), a doctor in her own right, is the most skeptical about outside intervention. The play moves from a framing scene in New York where the two therapists size each other up to the refugee camp in Bosnia, where they are to conduct group therapy. A series of ensemble scenes are punctuated by two-person confrontations. It is Zlata who refuses to accept the role of victim and who, despite her resistance, praises J.S.'s handling of the crisis that develops. Once J.S. acknowledges the limitations to the do-gooder posture she initially held, a real relationship of mutual respect is possible between the two physicians, but J.S. recoils from the intimacy of touch and returns to her Park Avenue life, changed, confused, and challenged by her encounter with the refugees.
Music provides the bridge for the most genuine contact between characters. In one case, this is a Madonna song on cassette that Melissa shares with young Nuna; in another, it is a lullaby that J.S. sings in an attempt to comfort Seada when she has a breakdown. The most joyous and transcendent scene involves the women drinking and dancing together. Michael Wilson's direction of the all-female cast won him high praise in local reviews and captured the kind of abandon into physical release that women sometimes share outside the gaze of men. John Gromada's sound design effectively incorporated ethnic music, helicopter sounds, Bach (important symbolically as the source of J.S.'s name), and urban cacophony. Scenic designer Jeff Cowie used the thrust space in predictable ways to indicate multiple locations and Susan Hilferty's costume designs flirted with stereotype but provided significant character information. This may have been unavoidable, given the somewhat typed nature of the roles as written.
It is only in the final moments of the Hartford production that the imaginative, non-literal potential of the theatre as a form is activated. Necessary Targets is very much in the tradition of the well-made play, centered around one character's arc, in a method-based acting style that involves limited direct address to the audience and precludes an actor stepping out of role. Given this stylistic choice, the play might work as well or better on film or television. This could suit Ensler's interest in reaching a mass audience and promoting activism, as she has with V-Day and the website www.vday.org, dedicated to preventing violence against women worldwide.
In the array of options about how to make art about trauma without exploitation or retraumatization, Necessary Targets represents a mainstream choice: naturalistic character-based drama. It is not an adaptation of interviews (as Ensler's Vagina Monologue is, or The Good Body, her work in progress on women's body image), nor does it depend on heightened language and stylistic innovation to add artistic value. By centering on the American psychiatrist's story, Ensler avoids the most egregious kind of speaking for 'the other' and Page 218 | Top of Articlethereby committing an arrogant act of imagined empathy, but focuses instead on the changes in consciousness that traumatic events have on Americans from our position of privilege and relative safety. Some of the most telling lines in Necessary Targets provide this kind of pointed cultural critique.
Ensler actively revised the play during its Hartford run and also after the production transferred to the Variety Theater in New York, where it ran from 28 February to 21 April 2002. Simultaneously, she was engaged in political action around the breaking news in Afghanistan. An incognito visit to Kabul in 2000 gave her connections to underground women's organizations there. From 4-5 December 2001, Ensler attended the Afghan Women's Summit for Democracy in Brussels. V-Day was one of the sponsoring organizations of this gathering of fifty Afghan women, which authored the Brussels Proclamation in support of women's participation in the reconstruction and governance of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Ensler accompanied a delegation of six of these women as they addressed the European Parliament on December 16th, and then flew with them to the U.S. to address Secretary of State Colin Powell and members of Congress before bringing the group to Hartford on December 16th to see Necessary Targets and conduct a well-attended public talkback. They addressed the United Nations the following day. After the production transferred to New York, Ensler traveled to Kabul to participate in a roundtable with thirty prominent Afghan women leaders on 9-10 March 2002, as a follow-up to the Brussels conference.
New York reviews of Necessary Targets were generally lukewarm, though some praised aspects of the production or individual actors. Hartford reviewers tended to focus more on political context than on the play itself. To my eye there were two outstanding performances: Alyssa Bresnahan as Jelena, who projected a luminous sensuality that was never manipulative, and Diane Venora, who brought great physical precision and piercing intelligence to the pivotal role of Zlata. Whether the play will have a life beyond the immediate political situation is unclear.
Source: Karen Bovard, "Necessary Targets," in Theatre Journal, Vol. 54, No. 4, December 2002, pp. 642-43.
Giselle P. Kasilag
In the following essay-interview, Ensler describes to Kasilag her organization of V-Day and her reaction to the experiences of women in the Bosnian conflict, which inspired Necessary Targets.
Fact no. 1: There are 300,000 women in prostitution and 75,000 prostituted children in the Philippines. (The Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation, 1999)
Fact no. 2: At least one in three women and girls has been beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. (UN Report on the Commission on the Status of Women, February 2000)
Fact no. 3: At least 60 million girls who would otherwise be expected to be alive are "missing" from various populations, mostly Asia, as a result of sex-selective abortions, infanticide or neglect. (United Nations Study on the Status of Women, 2000)
The list goes on and on and it is likely that a computer capable of storing all the horror stories regarding the abuse of women has yet to be invented. And even if one can come up with a list of the top 10 atrocities against women, always, a new one is bound to come up more horrifying than the last.
It may therefore seem like a miracle that playwright Eve Ensler has kept her sanity since the "vagina revolution" she spearheaded with her play/book The Vagina Monologues.
Three years after her first performance in the basement of the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York, and after hearing one story of abuse after another from women who saw her performance and were moved by it, Ms. Ensler made a decision to play a more active role in the crusade to end the violence against women. Thus, VDay was born.
"It never grows tiring," said Ms. Ensler in a press conference for the VDay celebration in Manila held last Saturday at Powerbooks Makati. "I never get to the point wherein I don't feel (affected). I really believe that the desecration of women on this planet is the desecration of the human species. And it really doesn't matter if you are in Manila or in Africa or in Louisiana. When you see women being violated to the degree that they are violated on this planet—being raped and sold and beaten and mutilated—you know that if you don't change this in a radical way and we don't do it soon, we're not going to be here much longer."
VDay, she explained, started in 1998 in New York but the organizers never dreamed that a "vagina revolution"—a growing awareness of women's rights and an active campaign to end violence against women—would come about five years later. This year, 800 VDay events were scheduled in 550 colleges worldwide and 250 venues.
VDay is Valentine's Day which the organizers proclaimed as "Victory Day." It was the day Page 219 | Top of Articlewhen a group of women in New York, headed by Ms. Ensler, banded together demanding the end of violence against women. It has become a global movement for which annual theatrical and artistic events are staged to raise funds in support of international organizations and programs that work to end rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation and sexual slavery.
Their vision is simple and clear. They would like to "see a world where women live safely and freely. We believe women should spend their lives creating and thriving rather than surviving or recovering from terrible atrocities. We will work as long as it takes. We will not stop until the violence stops," states an official pamphlet promoting VDay.
VDay, Ms. Ensler proudly announced, has penetrated all continents and all cultures with the exception of the Muslim world. But Ms. Ensler predicted that this would not be the case for long. They are actively working on a project to reach the Muslim community as well.
The Vagina Monologues, a series of monologues based on interviews with a wide variety of women on their experiences and attitudes towards their bodies, won for Ms. Ensler the Obie Award in 1997 and the Elliot Norton Award in 2001 as well as nominations for the Drama Desk and the Helen Hayes Award.
Ms. Ensler is also a poet, a screenwriter and an activist. She was a recipient of the 1999 Guggenheim Fellowship Award in Playwriting, the Berilla-Kerr Award for Playwriting, and the Jury Award for Theatre at the 2000 U.S. Comedy Festival.
Among her other works for the stage are The Depot, Floating Rhonda and the Glue Man, Extraordinary Measures, Lemonade, Ladies and Scooncat.
Her newest play, Necessary Targets, which is based on women's plight in Bosnia, opened in New York last weekend—an event that she skipped in favor of the VDay celebration in Manila. It was previously performed at the National Theatre in Sarajevo, the Kennedy Center, the Alley Theatre and the Hartford Stage.
"My new play (Necessary Targets) is about two Americans who go to Bosnia during the war and hear stories," she explained. "When I first went to Bosnia in 1994 during the conflict, I thought I would go as a detached writer, listen to things and have an answer. What happened is that I was destroyed. I sat for hours listening to stories of women who have been raped and abused. There were horrible, horrible stories. And what I did was cry. I sat and I cried, and I cried, and I cried. I realized that if I showed up as I am, as I lived, as I feel in this body, that I don't get numb. And when I try to be somebody I'm not—like this detached journalist or this writer—then I get into trouble.
"I feel very inspired by Monique Wilson and Rosanna Abueva (producers of the local staging of The Vagina Monologues). I am very inspired by the thousands and thousands of people in Manila who clearly care about women and are rising up to say that they care. And I know that we are going to win and we are going to end violence otherwise this species isn't going to be here anymore. And I like being alive. And I like human beings. And I think we should keep going."
There is no reason that can justify violence, she continued. The events of Sept. 11, she admitted, led her to wonder about how her country and her government have been handling the situation in Afghanistan. According to her, today, despite the intervention of the rest of the world, the women in Afghanistan are experiencing a more difficult life than ever before.
"When people resort to violence, it often means that they have been humiliated and ashamed to the point wherein they have no alternatives. There is a need to look at why people are willing to fly airplanes through buildings. What does that mean? Why are people raging at the United States?
"Somebody asked me if I think Laura Bush is a feminist and I said I think there is a burning feminist in every woman and if Laura Bush's moment has come, more power to Laura Bush. I think the wave of feminism never ends. For whatever reason, The Vagina Monologues connected with Page 220 | Top of Articlepeople's psyches, I think, because it is based on real women's stories and because women have such a desire to think about their vaginas and talk about their vaginas and reclaim their vaginas and feel good about their vaginas, and protect their vaginas that suddenly the world just grabbed a hold of this."
She dismissed as false perceptions that she is a man-hater. She is, in fact, happily living with her partner, Ariel Orr Jordan, who accompanied her to Manila. There are many men, she added, who have seen The Vagina Monologues and have become "vagina-loving men"—men who are supportive of the movement and have actively participated in ensuring that violence does not happen to women.
She confided how a sniper who was part of a protection firm hired for her trip to Kabul in Afghanistan saw her performance about a Bosnian woman who was gang-raped by soldiers. The sniper approached her after the show weeping—"Something is shifting in the world when you see a sniper cry!" said Ms. Ensler.
The biggest problem, however, lies in the silence among women who have been abused. The reluctance to speak up, according to Ms. Ensler, is something she has seen everywhere she has been. Women tend to take the blame, believing that they brought the abuse upon themselves rather than feeling they were victimized.
She said it has become a tradition on VDay performances to ask the members of the audience who have been victims of abuse to stand up. And every year, half the audience gets on their feet. But Ms. Ensler believes many opt to remain seated because of the shame. The challenge is to free the women of the shame and give that shame back to the abusers. And the first step is to break the silence and stop feeling that it is their fault.
"You can wear whatever you want to wear, and walk anyway you want to walk … and you can get drunk, and no one has the right to touch you unless you invite them to touch you … We still believe that if we had not been wearing that, if we hadn't said that, if we hadn't been friendly, that it would not have happened. And the answer to that is that it would have happened! If someone makes a decision to rape you or beat you, they are going to rape you or beat you whatever you are wearing. You can be wearing a burqua and men would rape you because it happens all the time. So it is really important for women to understand that it's not their fault and that they have power."
At one point, in an attempt to challenge The Vagina Monologues, a play The Penis Response was staged but the production did not last long. Though she has been asked many times to write a play about penises, Ms. Ensler dismissed the idea saying it would be redundant. "We are, after all, living in a 'Penis Monologue' and the world does not need any more of that," she quipped.
No, she reiterated, she is not anti-penis or anti-men. A line in the monologue, "My Short Skirt," reads that "My short skirt is about provication and initiation. But mainly, my short skirt has nothing to do with you."
"I love men and I adore men. But The Vagina Monologues is not against men or for men. It does not hate men. It just does not address men. It is about women. Get used to it!"
Source: Giselle P. Kasilag, "All about Eve," in Business World (Philippines), February 26, 2002.
In the following interview, Grossman talks to Ensler about reaction to The Vagina Monologues, her own body image, and her other projects, including Necessary Targets.
"'Vagina.' Doesn't matter how many times you say it, it never sounds like a word you want to say." That's Eve Ensler in the prologue to her immensely popular play The Vagina Monologues, which began as a one-woman show performed by Ensler off-off-Broadway four years ago. The play is currently in production off-Broadway, with rotating three-woman casts. Alanis Morissette, Julie Kavner and Marlo Thomas were recent performers; Claire Danes is among those onstage now.
The play condenses 200 interviews Ensler conducted with women about their vaginas into a series of character-driven monologues. The research process transformed Ensler from a woman who hesitated to say the word "vagina" to a performer who said it 128 times per show. Ensler has taken advantage of the play's success, using it as a political vehicle and in fund-raisers for international women's charities. "V-Day" benefits, staged by celebrity actors on Feb. 14 for the last three years, have routinely sold out; one show in Los Angeles alone raised approximately $250,000. Meanwhile, college students across the country are eagerly staging the show, and HBO will tape Ensler performing it in August.
I recently met Ensler for breakfast at City Bakery in New York, days before she left on a four-month worldwide trip to research her next project. I found her confident and hugely enthusiastic, Page 221 | Top of Articleamazed and overjoyed about recent self-discoveries—physical and emotional. "Through the course of doing the show," Ensler said at one point in our interview, "I feel like I've reentered my vagina. And that has completely changed my life."
[Pamela Grossman]: The New York Times said that many people think of you as "the Messiah heralding the second wave of feminism."
[Eve Ensler:] [Laughing] Yes. I call myself "messiah" every day, and I'm making everyone refer to me as that.
How do you feel, hearing that kind of thing?
I try not to think about what people think of me. You can't, because then you get hung up in all the people who love, you, and you've also got all the people who hate you, because of what you're doing. What I feel excited about is the work. And I feel that with Vagina Monologues and V-Day, we are, in fact, creating a huge movement. And if I have contributed to that in any small way, it is my deepest privilege and honor.
I really want to help stop violence toward women. I feel I'm here to do that, to work on making that happen. I think that anytime you get clear about what your mission is or what your focus wants to be, things start to come together in your life. Lack of clarity—which I think plagues women particularly, so much of our lives—to me is very connected to lack of desire. We don't get to understand what our desires are. Doing The Vagina Monologues was, for me, reconnecting to my desire, allowing myself to know what I wanted. That just made me so happy. And then to get to actually do it—to have the clarity, to know my desire and then to get to manifest it—you know, life doesn't get better.
Humor feels very important in the show. What role do you think it plays?
When people are laughing, they process things in ways they're not conscious of. And a lot of times, places where they're closed up, where they have a limited way of thinking, open up. So I really believe in laughter. There is enormous community that happens around it. When I was younger, I was more didactic and more polemical. I was insecure, and I didn't really believe that my message would come through. And now, after writing for a long time, I have more of a security that what I'm saying will be heard, and I don't have to beat people over the head with it.
When did you feel like you wanted to create The Vagina Monologues? Was there any sort of an epiphany?
It was all very accidental. I just stumbled upon questions and started asking people casually, and before I knew it, I was down the vagina trail. I don't think I consciously set out to do this. I mean, who would have done that? It would have been such a weird thing to do. It was more that it took me. And I have to tell you, I feel the last five years I have been hostage, in a very good way, to this thing. When I did it off-Broadway for months and months, I really felt like my job was to keep my body in shape—that it was a much bigger thing than me and that I just had to stay in shape, but it didn't really have a lot to do with me, ironically.
The intro to the show mentions the difficulty of saying "vagina." I had to laugh because, going to the theater, I had this very courtly, polite cabdriver. I told him where I was going, which theater, and he asked what was playing, and I couldn't tell him. I said it was a one-woman show, and he said, "Oh, really, it's called 'One-Woman Show'"? But I felt like I would horrify him if I said it, and I just couldn't.
[Nodding] At the beginning of this, it was like, "What am I doing?" But I don't have issues with vaginas anymore.
Has writing or doing the show changed how you feel about your body?
It's completely changed that. I think when I began doing the show, I was completely disengaged from my vagina, disconnected. I lived in my head. Now I feel right with myself. I'm in my body, and I really like it in there, and it's the motor of my life. You know, before, I was kind of living—I was hanging onto the car door, and a lot of times it was throwing me off. And now I feel like I'm in the Page 222 | Top of Articlecar, and it's my car, and I determine where it goes. And that's the best thing that's ever happened in my life. As I said to you at the beginning, I know what I desire. I don't feel apologetic. When you feel insecure, you either beg people to let you in or you demand to be let in. But when you are in your body, you just know that you're in. You don't ask permission, and you don't hurt people.
It's a long journey. You have to do a lot of work, particularly if you've been raped or violated, because the degree to which you are disassociated and leave yourself is profound, and it takes a long time to come back. But you can come back, and that's the good thing.
I think a lot of times, what we're told is that if we've been raped or violated, we'll never come back. Sex will never be good again; we'll never feel good again. I think that you can fully recover; you can totally get your body back; you can totally get your sexuality back. You just have to do work, and you have to go through fire. And then, when it's over, it's over, and you move on. But you have to make a decision, too, not to live as a victim anymore, and not to see yourself as a victim, and not to be treated as a victim. And that's a huge thing to give up. Huge.
That mind-set can take so many forms: anger, fear, guardedness.
Mm-hmm. And also, there are all of the people you've gotten to take care of you on some level or another because you are a victim. There's the fear of not being taken care of if you stop being a victim. You know what? People don't take care of you when you're not a victim. [Laughing] They don't. Things change. But that's OK. You take care of yourself.
I wonder if you'd like to address something I read [in Salon] recently. Camille Paglia called The Vagina Monologues "ravingly anti-male" and said it represents a "painfully outmoded brand of feminism." Any comment?
I'll be happy to respond to that. First of all, I don't think any brand of feminism is outmoded. I think the world is so desperate for feminism at this point, for the liberation of women, it's mad to even think about how deep that need is. There are a few other people who have said, too, that the play is anti-male. I don't really know what they mean. Is an examination of the condition of women anti-male?
I'm looking at the facts of rape and incest by men against women; I'm saying this is a serious issue that we need to deal with. If you want to call that "anti-man," that's one perception. I'm calling for an end to violence. I'm asking men and women to take responsibility for the eradication of women that's going on in the planet right now, the amount of battery, burning, shooting, suffocating and annihilating of women in every country in the world that is so out of control. If calling attention to it and if demanding an end to it is seen as anti-male, I don't know what to say.
I do know that the men I know who come to see The Vagina Monologues do not seem to think so. In fact, most men come up and say, "Thank you—I had no idea; I knew nothing about vaginas; thank you for inviting me into this world." Also, I'd like to point out that there are many "Vagina Monologues" that treat men very lovingly—and to say that I have never been attacked by a man, in the press, for being anti-male. So that's a fascinating thing. I believe that most men are embarrassed and ashamed of the amount of violence that's happening, and when it's talked about or dealt with, they feel relieved. In the college initiative all around the country, young men are deeply involved in productions of the show. And men have produced it everywhere I've been.
Your current director is a man.
My director's a man; my producer in New York is a man.
What's the college initiative?
In '98, we did it in 65 colleges, and in '99 it was 150. These are all kinds of schools—some conservative, even Jesuit. Next year, we think it's going to be at between 250 and 300 colleges. Of all the things we're doing, this is one of the most exciting to me, because young women are being revolutionized and are standing up. And just the process of putting this on on their campuses—producing it, directing it, publicizing it, rehearsing it—is a political act.
Are you surprised by all of this?
[Nodding vigorously] The last years of my life have been a huge shock. I'm just beginning to get my bearings. I'm surprised at the widespread success of The Vagina Monologues—completely surprised—and I'm surprised at how it keeps expanding. You know, out of this run of The Vagina Monologues, $10 out of every ticket goes to V-Day. So we can raise a lot of money—I mean, a lot of money! The fact that it's become this politically activating piece of theater, it's just shocking—that we're off-Broadway, that we're getting all these fabulous women to do it for the cause, that we can Page 223 | Top of Articledo more events for the cause. And, you know, I'm happy, I'm really happy, because it allows me to keep doing more work like this.
Tell me about V-Day.
Our mission with that is to create cultural events, mainly using my work, that will be a catalyst for energy to end violence. And we want to bring existing groups together, to unify them, so that they're more focused in their purpose. We have three paid consultants, who do the producing; besides that, everything is volunteer. And for V-Day 2001, we have booked Madison Square Garden for a huge event. So far Glenn Close has agreed, Jane Fonda, Alanis is going to do it, Melissa Etheridge, Joan Osborne. All the women who have ever performed The Vagina Monologues have been invited to come back as the Vulva Choir. Audra McDonald is singing. It's going to be truly fabulous—that will be the evening. During the day, we're going to have an international symposium on all the groups in the world that work to stop violence toward women. And there'll be chats and videos and talk backs, so women can come all day long.
You're also working on some newer things. There's Necessary Targets, a new play.
I wrote it during the Bosnian war. It's about Bosnians, the Bosnian refugees, but it's actually about two Americans who go to Bosnia, as so-called help, and in the process are radically transformed. It's had all these amazing, kind of star-studded readings, where we've raised a lot of money for Bosnian refugees. Meryl Streep did a reading on Broadway, and Glenn Close did a reading at the National Theater in Sarajevo, with a group of Bosnian actors, for 400 Bosnian refugees. So it's had this remarkable life. And now, finally, I'm one step away from it coming to New York. You know, things always take longer than you think they will. I really thought this play would be done about three years ago, but now is the right moment for it. I trust on some fundamental level that things find their way into the world at the right time and place, and you can't force them. If Vagina Monologues had happened a day earlier, it wouldn't have had the life it's had.
So the play is very dear to my heart. And then Points of Reentry is the new project that I'm starting, going around the world for four months. I'm interviewing women all around the world about their bodies—how they mutilate, change, transform, hide their bodies in order to fit in with their particular culture.
Where will you be going?
Everywhere. I'm going to Rio, to L.A., to Moscow, to Afghanistan and Turkey, to Paris, to the Bahamas, to Nigeria, to South Africa, to India, to Thailand and to Tokyo! And then we'll spend a lot of time next year in the States.
And how did the Bosnian cause in particular end up striking you, being so dear to you?
It started with a photograph I saw on the cover of Newsday of six young girls who had just been returned from a rape camp in Bosnia. I couldn't believe there were rape camps in the middle of Europe in 1993. It's one of those things: You go, "What?!" So I just knew I had to go there, had to go and see what it was. There are certain events in history you have no protection from. They just come into you, and you have to do something about it or you'll go insane.
The beautiful thing is, at that point in your career, you were able to do what you wanted to do.
Of course it meant not doing a lot of other things that were commercial—whatever. But, so what, you know? You make the decisions you make. It was an amazing opportunity, going there and being there, and staying for months in refugee camps with Bosnian refugees. It was very profound.
What are some things you're looking forward to, personally or otherwise?
Well, I'm looking forward to going around the world. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my granddaughter [the child of Dylan McDermott, Ensler's son through adoption]. I love that girl, love her, she's an angel. I'm looking forward to the HBO thing. I'm really looking forward to V-Day. And I'm looking forward mainly to the day when women aren't being raped or beaten. That's it. Then we can all relax a little.
Source: Pamela Grossman, "Down the Vagina Trail," in Salon.com, April 19, 2000.
Bovard, Karen, Review of Necessary Targets, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 54, No. 4, December 2002, pp. 642-43.
Brantley, Ben, "Exploring the Pain of Bosnian Women," in the New York Times, March 1, 2002, Section E.1, p. 3.
Ensler, Eve, Necessary Targets, Villard Books, 2001, pp. xiii, xiv, 3, 4, 7, 9, 23, 28, 29, 31, 36, 39, 58, 78, 79.
Helbig, Jack, Review of Necessary Targets, in Booklist, Vol. 97, No. 11, February 1, 2001, p. 1034.
Isherwood, Charles, Review of Necessary Targets, in Variety, Vol. 386, No. 3, March 4-10, 2002, pp. 42-43.
Klein, Alvin, "Melding Drama with Politics," in the New York Times, December 9, 2001, p. 14CN.13.
Llamas, Cora, "And God Created Eve," in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 4, 2002.
Olszewski, Tricia, "'Necessary Targets,' a Little Off the Mark," in the Washington Post, June 3, 2004, Section C, p. 5.
Peyser, Marc, "Eve Ensler Uses the V Word," in Newsweek, Vol. 139, No. 7, February 18, 2002, pp. 66-67.
Press, Joy, "The Words of War," in the Village Voice, Vol. 47, No. 10, March 12, 2002, p. 58.
Taylor, Markland, Review of Necessary Targets, in Variety, Vol. 385, No. 4, December 10-16, 2001, p. 38.
Via, Dan, "Wide of the Target, Still on the Mark," in the Washington Post, June 18, 2004, Section T, p. 27.
Malcolm, Noel, Bosnia: A Short History, New York University Press, 1996.
Noel Malcolm wrote this short history to provide a background for the conflicts that took place in Bosnia in the 1990s. Malcolm, a columnist for London's Daily Spectator, gives a politically interesting perspective on how Bosnia's civil war was fueled.
Manuel, David, Hope in the Ashes, Paraclete Press, 1996.
David Manuel traveled to Bosnia many times during the conflict there to gather information on how such atrocities could happen. In the process of talking to Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, he discovered that despite the fighting, everyone was hopeful for a peaceful future for their children. This book relates stories of people who lived through the war.
McLaughlin, Buzz, The Playwright's Process: Learning the Craft from Today's Leading Dramatists, Backstage Books, 1997.
McLaughlin spent time interviewing members of the Dramatists Guild to come up with enlightening tips for writing plays. Step by step, he takes his reader through the process, offering many examples and strategic materials that illustrate the process.
Sudetic, Chuck, Blood and Vengeance: One Family's Story of the War in Bosnia, Penguin, 1999.
Chuck Sudetic, a writer for the New York Times, has family members living in Bosnia. He covered stories for the Times, written in a journalist's objective voice. For this book, however, Sudetic writes from the heart, telling the story of the events that led up to the massacre in which more than six thousand Muslim men were killed in the town of Srebenica, in one of the worst massacres of the war.