Had Hannah Moscovitch not fished out a bit of spare change over a dozen years ago, Sophie, Johnny and Alma would likely not exist.
The three – with the spotlight on Sophie – make up Moscovitch’s play What a Young Wife Ought to Know, opening Jan. 16 at the Great Canadian Theatre Company.
Set in 1920s Ottawa, the award-winning playwright’s hometown, the love story explores the fate of women shackled by the lack of sexual education and freedom that characterized the period.
Moscovitch’s inspiration for the play was a compilation of letters she bought for 75 cents at a garage sale years ago. They were written by women in the early 20th century requesting birth control information from the famous British advocate, Dr. Marie Stopes.
When she opened the book and read the letters, Moscovitch says, “I went crazy for them. They were so frank and sexual … at a time when sexuality was (euphemized in most writing). I got these letters and I was like, ‘What the f_?’ It’s the voices of these women who are mostly working-class women and utterly underrepresented. They talked openly about birth control, sex with their husbands, infidelity, infanticide. I couldn’t believe this existed.”
She says it’s shocking to realize that while cars, indoor toilets and electricity were all becoming commonplace, birth control in Canada was illegal. That was especially tough on working class families. “Condoms were contraband but could cost you the rent,” she says.
Sensing that there was a play in all of this, she tucked the idea away until, in 2009, she was offered a commission by Halifax’s Neptune Theatre.
The offer was a chance to highlight a lesser-known aspect of women’s history – when we think of Canadian women in the 1920s, we usually gravitate to the Famous Five and the controversial Persons Case that saw women finally appointed to the Canadian Senate — and from that chance sprang the romantic comedy What a Young Wife Ought to Know, a title that Moscovitch says she “stole” from a 19th–century manual on how to be a wife.
“I definitely did some grinding and threw a lot of stuff out,” she says of the writing process.
The focus of the story is Sophie, who lives with her husband Johnny in an Irish working class area of Ottawa. Moscovitch says there are “tiny bits” of her own family, which is of Irish descent on her mother’s side, in that portrait.
Careful not to give too much away about the storyline, she says Sophie comes from a family of strong women and wants love and intimacy in her marriage but she’s up against the wall of poverty.
She’s also affected by the memory of her elder sister Alma, who had felt trapped by the strictures of 1920s Ottawa. “I’m from Ottawa, so I know what it feels like to have ambitions that are larger than the city you’re in,” laughs Moscovitch, who now lives in Toronto.
In the playwright’s case, those ambitions have propelled her to create a growing body of admired work that’s become part of the contemporary Canadian canon, especially in her hometown. Last season, for example, saw high-profile productions here of Infinity and Old Stock (the latter is heading to New York City for an Off-Broadway run this spring).
GCTC is particularly partial to Moscovitch’s work, and it’s no surprise to see it presenting What a Young Wife Ought to Know, which debuted in 2015.
What is surprising is that, almost a century after the time Moscovitch selected for the play’s setting, politics and birth control are again entwined — just think of the salvos against Planned Parenthood in the United States and the fact that Prince Edward Island only began again providing abortion services in 2016 after a hiatus of almost 35 years.
That entwining wasn’t so prominent while Moscovitch was working on the play, and she says people would often ask her what the play’s relevance was.
“It’s about love and marriage and sexuality and a world before birth control,” she says. “It’s women’s history. Isn’t that enough?”
What a Young Wife Ought to Know is at GCTC Jan. 16-Feb. 4 (previews. Jan. 16 & 17; opening night, Jan. 18). Tickets: gctc.ca