‘What a Young Wife Ought to Know’ explores the life of women before birth control

New Stages presents a staged reading of Hannah Moscovitch's acclaimed play at Peterborough's Market Hall on May 12

New Stages Theatre Company presents a staged reading of Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch's "What a Young Wife Ought to Know" on May 12, 2019 at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in downtown Peterborough. Moscovitch was inspired by a collection of letters written in the 1920s by real women and men to family planning pioneer Dr. Marie Stopes, who co-founded Britain's first family planning clinic ("The Mothers' Clinic for Constructive Birth Control") in North London in 1921. (Public domain photo)
New Stages Theatre Company presents a staged reading of Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch's "What a Young Wife Ought to Know" on May 12, 2019 at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in downtown Peterborough. Moscovitch was inspired by a collection of letters written in the 1920s by real women and men to family planning pioneer Dr. Marie Stopes, who co-founded Britain's first family planning clinic ("The Mothers' Clinic for Constructive Birth Control") in North London in 1921. (Public domain photo)

On Sunday, May 12th, New Stages Theatre Company concludes its 2018-2019 season with a staged reading of Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s What a Young Wife Ought to Know.

Directed by Randy Read and featuring Toronto-based performers Nikki Duval, Benjamin Sutherland, and Evelyn Wiebe, What a Young Wife Ought to Know is inspired by the letters of real women living in the 1920s and tackles a subject rarely acknowledged: women’s sexual health issues and birth control practices of the early 20th century.

Written by Hannah Moscovitch, one of Canada’s most acclaimed young playwrights, What a Young Wife Ought to Know debuted in 2014 at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax. Moscovitch developed the play after she read Dear Dr. Stopes: Sex in the 1920s — a collection of letters written by real women and men to Dr. Marie Stopes, scientist, author of the 1918 sex manual Married Love, and an early advocate for birth control who opened the first birth control clinic in England.

Through the letters included in the book, Moscovitch discovered a whole new dialogue about sexual issues and anxieties that have gone forgotten in our modern world of The Pill, IUDs, and other birth control devices.

“The voices of the men and women in these letters were distinct from anything I had read before,” Moscovitch writes. “The letters are explicit about ‘unmentionable’ topics: sex, desire, adultery, childbirth, and birth control. The style of the letters is stark, hilarious, and unflinching, and the vocabulary is amazingly frank and sexual. To me, the letters felt like a voyeuristic glimpse into what life was like before birth control.”

Playwright Hannah Moscovitch was inspired to write "What A Young Wife Ought To Know" after reading the book "Dear Dr. Stopes: Sex in the 1920s", featuring letters written by men and women seeking advice from early birth control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes. Some of the dialogue in the play comes directly from these letters. (Publicity photo)
Playwright Hannah Moscovitch was inspired to write “What A Young Wife Ought To Know” after reading the book “Dear Dr. Stopes: Sex in the 1920s”, featuring letters written by men and women seeking advice from early birth control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes. Some of the dialogue in the play comes directly from these letters. (Publicity photo)

As New Stages artistic director Randy Read explains, Moscovitch’s use of real-life source material is one of the things that the makes the play so compelling.

“One of the great things about this play is that a lot of dialogue is taken from the letters that were written to Doctor Stopes by real women who lived at that time,” Randy says. “In some cases Hannah Moscovitch lifts the dialogue right out of these letters. The women in these letters were very open with their thoughts because they were doing it in writing.”

What a Young Wife Ought to Know centres on a young wife named Sophie (Nikki Duval) who is madly in love with her husband Johnny (Benjamin Sutherland), the former lover of her older sister Alma (Evelyn Wiebe).

In "What A Young Wife Ought To Know", Nikki Duval performs as Sophie. Duval has appeared on stage in "Knickers! A Brief Comedy" (Globus Theatre), "The Pitchfork Disney" (Precisely Peter Productions), "Well Born" (So Co Theatre/ Truth and Lies Theatre), "Hamlet" (Hart House), "The Circle", "Prey" (New Words Festival-NTS), and more. Her film and television credits include "Workin' Moms" (CBC), "Murdoch Mysteries" (CBC), "Hyena Road" (Elevation Pictures) and more. (Publicity photo)
In “What A Young Wife Ought To Know”, Nikki Duval performs as Sophie. Duval has appeared on stage in “Knickers! A Brief Comedy” (Globus Theatre), “The Pitchfork Disney” (Precisely Peter Productions), “Well Born” (So Co Theatre/ Truth and Lies Theatre), “Hamlet” (Hart House), “The Circle”, “Prey” (New Words Festival-NTS), and more. Her film and television credits include “Workin’ Moms” (CBC), “Murdoch Mysteries” (CBC), “Hyena Road” (Elevation Pictures) and more. (Publicity photo)

When Sophie finds herself pregnant with their fifth child, the reality of another difficult pregnancy and the burden of not being able to support another child becomes unbearable to her. In desperation, Sophie seeks console from the spirit of her sister — who herself died from a botched abortion.

“Sophie and Johnny have huge desire and affection for each other, but also a terror of having another child,” Randy says. “People (of that time) were terrified to have sex.”

What a Young Wife Ought to Know not only studies the early issues around female sexual health, but also the real-life damaging effect that an unwanted pregnancy can have on the family in an era where birth control was rare and ineffective.

In "What A Young Wife Ought To Know", Benjamin Sutherland performs as Johnny. Sutherland has appeared on stage in "The Secret Garden" (Young People's Theatre), "A Few Good Men" (Theatre Aquarius), "Peace River Country" (Tarragon Theatre), "Breathing Corpses" (The Coal Mine Theatre), "Hamlet" (National Theatre School), and more. His film  and television credits include "Kim's Convenience", "Shadowhunters", "Love Locks", "Murdoch Mysteries", "Saving Hope", and "Mayday", and more. (Publicity photo)
In “What A Young Wife Ought To Know”, Benjamin Sutherland performs as Johnny. Sutherland has appeared on stage in “The Secret Garden” (Young People’s Theatre), “A Few Good Men” (Theatre Aquarius), “Peace River Country” (Tarragon Theatre), “Breathing Corpses” (The Coal Mine Theatre), “Hamlet” (National Theatre School), and more. His film and television credits include “Kim’s Convenience”, “Shadowhunters”, “Love Locks”, “Murdoch Mysteries”, “Saving Hope”, and “Mayday”, and more. (Publicity photo)

“Another child, in some ways, became a death threat to a family,” Randy notes. “You had families that were devastatingly poor, and had four or five kids already that they couldn’t feed.”

Filled with love, madness, desperation and moments of comedy, What a Young Wife Ought to Know takes the audience back to a bygone era with an entirely different set of sexual issues beyond those that we have today, but which are still immediately recognizable to a modern audience.

A unique way to watch a theatrical production, New Stages’ The Page on Stage Reading Series has actors performing a play in a dramatic script reading, but without any sets or costumes and with limited interaction on the stage. This allows the focus to be on the words and the meaning of the show, as well as allowing top talent to perform challenging productions that otherwise would not come to the Peterborough stage.

In "What A Young Wife Ought To Know", Evelyn Wiebe performs as Alma. Wiebe is an actor, dancer, classical singer, and collaborator. She is a recent graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, where she performed in the role of Lady Macbeth in David Latham's 2018 production of "Macbeth". (Publicity photo)
In “What A Young Wife Ought To Know”, Evelyn Wiebe performs as Alma. Wiebe is an actor, dancer, classical singer, and collaborator. She is a recent graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, where she performed in the role of Lady Macbeth in David Latham’s 2018 production of “Macbeth”. (Publicity photo)

What a Young Wife Ought to Know will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 12th (Mother’s Day) at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre (140 Charlotte St. E, Peterborough).

General admission tickets are $25 ($15 for students, art workers, and the underwaged) and are available in person at the Market Hall Box Office or by phone at 705-749-1146 (12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday) or online anytime at markethall.org.

While this is the final production of the current season, New Stages returns in September with its 2019-2020 season, when Randy plans to produce two staged readings and three productions:

  • Torch Song by Harvey Fierstein (Sunday, September 15, 2019)
  • Bang Bang by Kat Sandler (Sunday, November 10, 2019)
  • Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe (Tuesday, January 14 and Sunday, January 19, 2020)
  • Canadian Rajah by Dave Carley (Sunday, March 8, 2020)
  • Iceland by Nicolas Billon (Sunday, May 3, 2020).

For more information about New Stages Theatre Company, visit www.newstages.ca.

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Sam Tweedle
Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough's theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world's most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam's pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post, CNN.com, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he's concerned, it's no longer a thing.

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