Veralyn Warkentin: Cultural anomaly or multicultural Mennonite?

It was the idea of Veralyn Warkentin’s writing that I was initially drawn to: the idea of a feminist Mennonite playwright. Operating from a perspective outside of the Mennonite community, I was aware of the uneasy relationship between Mennonite culture and theatre and amazed at the existence of any Mennonite playwrights.

I knew that many notable Mennonite writers had critiqued and dissected the culture rather than affirming its tenets, often at a distance from the community—from a place of exile. My interest was further piqued by the fact that Warkentin was a writer originating from a community where women were traditionally cast in roles of servitude. I anticipated conflict and resistance in the writing. I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong.

Veralyn-August-2013

Although all of Warkentin’s plays have been produced, only one play (Like the Sun) has been published and is readily accessible. I therefore found myself needing to contact her to borrow copies of the plays, so I met her before reading them. Her presence surprised me. The resolute toughness that I envisioned as necessary to maintain the adversarial position of feminist playwright in the community was completely absent. Warkentin is soft-spoken, self-effacing, and funny. There was something else at play as well: a curiosity, a sparky energy. As I learned through my in-person and email interviews with Warkentin, I was not the only one who was surprised:

Claire Borody: You seemed to be surprised by the descriptor of feminist attached to your writing. Yet a number of your plays feature strong or spunky characters who question the status quo in the world of the play that you create. Were you intentionally setting out to give a voice to female characters in your plays, or was this end product reached through a different intention?

Veralyn Warkentin: Feminist to me smacks of waving placards and bra burning. It likely comes down to definition. I’m a female, I sometimes write, I sometimes produce and direct because I think there are things to say. Getting back to that long-lost acting dream, I’m probably vicariously acting through the female characters I write for the stage. I took theatre at the University of Winnipeg and I ran a theatre program at a Providence College in Otterburne for two years, and there is always a plethora of female students and never enough good roles for girls or women. So I strive to write them. I don’t think of myself as a feminist. On the other hand, I still see “old boys’ clubs” in business, in academia, and I believe that wage disparity between men and women still exists to this day, which is appalling. I think my generation and perhaps the next generation should be aware that we may not have come as far as we thought/need to. . . .

I began to shift direction. I would take a gentler but no less revealing look at that way in which being female and Mennonite informs, inspires, and perhaps even defines Warkentin’s playwriting. I had constructed expectations about the playwright’s feminist stance from a limited view of Mennonite culture and calculated speculations about how a female playwright might have to position herself in the community in order to function. Reality revealed this conjecture to be faulty.

I then drew information from Theatrical Re/enactments of Mennonite Identity (1998), a thesis study by Margaret Van Dyke and the only formal analysis of Warkentin’s writing in circulation. Van Dyke draws attention to Warkentin as a voice for women (39) and observes “her attempt to integrate the Christian faith with her feminist convictions” (41) in her analysis of Chastity Belts (1992) and Mary and Martha (1994). The two plays can readily be described as feminist re-framings of historic events, and both explore relationships between female characters and the complex tensions between organized religion and spirituality. Each emerges from a historical origin—seventeenth-century Holland (Chastity Belts) and 1959 Winnipeg (Mary and Martha)—and portrays women faced with difficult, life-changing decisions in communities ruled by men.

Warkentin is easily defined as both a Mennonite and feminist writer through Van Dyke’s analysis. In reading the entire collection of Warkentin’s plays, however, I found that not all featured similar treatments of content and character. I discovered that Warkentin is both everything and nothing like the female characters who dance—quite literally at times, as Julie does in Chastity Belts—through her plays. She has forged world views for her characters who are at times refreshingly naive and, at the other end of the spectrum, worldly in unique and blatantly quirky ways. Although she consciously sets out to generate stories about women, Warkentin’s Mennonite background is accessed in a more osmotic way.

Warkentin describes herself as a prose and poetry writer who turns to plays, in part, because she recognizes the powerful experience that the embodiment of words makes possible for theatre spectators. She has published articles, poetry, and short stories in Absinthe, Contemporary Verse 2, the Mennonite Mirror, and Zygote, since Carol Shields, then writer in residence at the University of Winnipeg, encouraged her to submit her work for publication in 1988. It was not until 1992, however, that her first play, We’ll Do Lunch, emerged and was selected for inclusion in Short Shots, a festival of new plays sponsored by the Manitoba Association for Playwrights. This was quickly followed by Chastity Belts (1992), Accidental Anarchists (1992), Family Rebellion (1992), Mary and Martha (1994), Like the Sun (1995), and Quite An Undertaking (2009). Mary and Martha appeared in a one-act version in 2011 and in 2012.

CB: What draws you to write plays rather than spinning the words into the forms of prose or poetry that you also write?

VW: To be honest, I’m probably a better fiction writer. I always struggle with structure and I put in waaaaaaayyyy too many stage directions because I’m a bit of a control freak director-wise. I think my childhood dream of treading the boards just won’t die!

When I took a writing course many years ago with W. D. Valgardson, he really encouraged creative affirmations and had us write our own. A couple of mine were “My characters speak the truth” and “I learn from my characters.” While I think this applies to characters in fiction, too, when we’re suspending our disbelief communally, what a character says can resonate right into the heart. At least—that’s what I’ve experienced through theatre. I directed Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary almost solely because the grandmother in the play says, “We all need forgiveness,” and in the context and in the staging—I knew that line would ricochet into hearts and minds.

Warkentin’s seven-play collection includes dramatic historicizations, comedic social and cultural commentaries, and both solo and multiple-character pieces. Beyond Mary and Martha and Chastity Belts, the content of the plays ranges from the stresses of contemporary dating to the Irish Famine of the mid-1840s, to the adventures of Canada’s first female undertaker, to Mennonite family gatherings and an infatuation with British culture. Van Dyke positions Warkentin as both a Mennonite and feminist writer whose “path is to redeem those elements of her ethnic religious heritage that validate her identity as an artist and as a woman” (39). As it turns out, however, Warkentin is uncomfortable and even suspicious of labels.

CB: I am curious to know how much of your self-identity is defined by being Mennonite and your relationship to the Mennonite community.

VW: I behave like a bit of a cultural chameleon. My surname would identify me as a Menno, but part of me still rebels against that. My favourite email is one from Maki Van Dyke, whom you quote, who addressed it: “To my Irish, Jewish, Mennonite Friend”—I love that. I note that all of these cultures share a history of faith-based persecution.

I tend to only use my first name (because it’s unique, I can). In fact, when I did a stand-up routine last year at an “Evening of Mennonite Humour” (is that an oxymoron?), I noted that “I simply go by VERALYN—kind of like Cher . . . Madonna . . . Lassie . . .” Kidding aside, this is not because I’m a superstar wannabe, it’s because I don’t want to be limited by my surname; does this name come with all kinds of associations? I think so, and I don’t like labels and pre-conceived notions. Of course, what I’m doing is assuming that I will be labelled.

Twenty years ago, there were almost no Mennonite writers, let alone playwrights. Now we have Governor General Award winners like Vern Thiessen (yes, he is a distant cousin if you are playing “the Mennonite game”), Patrick Friesen, Armin Wiebe; and lauded writers starting with Rudy Wiebe and building with David Bergen, Miriam Toews, and more.

Unlike many other writers self-identifying as Mennonite, there is no compelling evidence in her plays that Warkentin is engaged in acts of resisting and critiquing Mennonite practices and beliefs. At the core of each play is a question. Through the writing Warkentin attempts to provide insight and explanation. The questions are, at times, expansive or rarified. In Chastity Belts she asks, “Why would a woman choose to sacrifice her life and shut herself away from the world?” At the opposite end of the spectrum, the solo play We’ll Do Lunch attempts to answer the question “Why would a man say he will call and then not bother?” Family Rebellion questions the validity of the notion that the cultural grass is greener on the other side of the ocean and in a lighthearted way examines Warkentin’s long-standing infatuation with British culture, in line with her own heritage. Quite The Undertaking explores the decision of a privileged young British woman to leave England for an unpredictable life in the wilds of pioneer prairie Canada with her adventure-seeking husband. The only exception to this question-as-source-of-play patterning is Accidental Anarchists, a collaborative venture between Warkentin and Richard Smolinski.

Although Mennonite content and feminist views were not the identified sources for any of the plays, it is clear that in the course of exploring her questions, the playwright borrowed consciously and unconsciously from her cultural background and gender perspective. As she and countless other writers maintain, you write best what you know. While others have positioned themselves, or been positioned, as adversaries of their culture of origin, Warkentin’s handling of material relating to Mennonite culture is gentle, respectful, and at times playful. She is the insider who points out both the value and the shortcomings of the culture, while being mindful of reasonable boundaries of revelation. She does not present scathing inequities in the power between genders or lace her perspective on the Mennonite faith with anger and accusation. Her approach is a highlighting of cultural detail, rather than an exposé. I agree with Van Dyke, who suggests that Warkentin works from a place of “forgiveness and reconciliation” (41).

Chastity Belts and Mary and Martha are the two plays in her collection that can be identified most directly as feminist in perspective and as inspired by the Mennonite faith: the central characters struggle with their faith, spirituality, and values in a male-dominated world. Yet, the question at the core of Mary and Martha—How might traumatic events in childhood impact the rest of an individual’s life?—emerged from the retelling of a horrific experience that had happened to a male family member. While broad and sweeping in its scope, Warkentin concretizes the question in a base of family stories and relayed experiences that personalize and define the writer’s presence.

CB: The family story that inspired Mary and Martha occurred in a Mennonite community in Russia. Did you hear the story from your grandfather, or was that a third-party telling? What struck you most about that story?

VW: I actually did hear the story first-hand. My grandfather was just a boy when all of the men and teenage boys in the Mennonite village of Molotschna were slaughtered by bandits. He had to bury the bodies, and he later found the bodies of five missionaries who had tent meetings in the area at that fateful time. My Opa (this was my dad’s dad) never talked about what had happened until he was in his eighties. He was very emotional when he told the story at a family gathering; he only told us so the stories wouldn’t be lost. He and the other survivors shared because they didn’t want the history to be lost. Because they spoke in Low German, I did need some translating.

Her grandfather’s experience serves as the inspiration for a story of sisterly love, responsibility, and sacrifice. The effect of witnessing horror in early life is explored through the story of Marta Epp and her younger sister Emma, who run a Maedchenheim (girls’ home), in North End Winnipeg (circa 1959), for young Mennonite women from rural communities who come to the city to serve as domestics. Maedchenheim were intended as “a meeting place and a social, spiritual and psychological support structure where the girls could spend their day off, speak their own language, practice their faith, and share their common experiences” (Mary and Martha iv). Details of Bible studies in the play are informed by the memories of Warkentin’s grandmother, who attended such events at one of these homes.

In setting Mary and Martha in a Maedchenheim shortly before the church closed these institutions, Warkentin highlights the struggle of Mennonites to retain beliefs and practices in the context of an outside world that presented conflicting values and placed less worth on religious servitude. In an example of Warkentin’s common themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, the multiple characters represent differing points of view and respectfully highlight the important contributions made by women, through practical service, in the Mennonite culture. At the same time they suggest that Mennonite ideology might be out of step with the socio-political constructs of the surrounding world.

Chastity Belts is a solo piece that begins in fourteenth-century Norwich (UK) after the first wave of the Black Death. The central figure, Ermentrude/Julie, is a bright, young survivor who encounters the self-supporting female order of Beguines. Active in spiritual practice and community service without demanding seclusion, the Beguines provide Julie with a meaningful life of service, spirituality, and expanded knowledge. In the end, the Beguines are punished by papal power for their self-sufficiency and forced to institutionalize. Julie must choose a formal spiritual life as a nun or an arranged marriage and secular life. She chooses the former.

CB: The Beguines “sought to fill a spiritual void without putting their lives entirely under the control of a religious order” (Snell). Do you see any connections between the Beguines and contemporary Mennonites? What about your own perspective from where you stand now and the effect that being a Mennonite has had on your life?

VW: I think the Beguines were ahead of their time in that sense: pre-Reformation believers who lived as Christian servants, but not within a controlled religious setting. The one thing Mennonites do brilliantly is service. We have only to cite three letters: MCC (the Mennonite Central Committee). Christian service without borders or a proselytizing agenda.

Spirituality has always been a part of me. My Oma (who is now only ninety-three) recently told me that I’d prayed all the time as a child. I can honestly say, I would not be alive today save for belief in God (or Spirit, Creator, or Higher Power if we want to be more politically correct). I do believe, I always have, I have had numinous experiences, and I don’t think you can argue with personal experience. But spirituality is distinct from religion, which is made up of people. So religion becomes fraught with hierarchy, power struggles, greed, and the thousand other shocks that mortal flesh is heir to. And it is largely patriarchal—the kind of religion that quashed the Beguines to take the wealth and power away from the women, despite their good works.

In attempting to answer the question at the core of the play (Why would a woman choose to sacrifice her life and shut herself away from the world?), Warkentin draws upon her personal sense of spirituality and her determination that maintaining a spiritual life is different from participating in organized religion. Warkentin creates perspective through a strategy similar to that of Bertolt Brecht, who reframed socio-political issues of his time through historical or geographical relocation. Through Julie’s engagement with the Beguines, Warkentin presents the possibility of lives forged of service and spirituality, while showing the destructive nature of institutionalization. Still, Julie chooses, at times with difficulty, to forgive the men in her life who control her destiny and to make the best of the choices she has.

CB: Do you still consider yourself a practising Mennonite? Do you identify with grounding faith? There is no railing against the social structure or blame being placed on traditional life and choices for women. There is a sense of a peaceful or at least respectful coexistence between you and the culture. Is this conscious? If so, what choices were made? If not, what is underpinning this relationship? Do you feel that you need to watch what you say and how you say it?

VW: Peaceful coexistence—rather appropriate phrase, pacifist-wise. I grew up in a bilingual (German-English) General Conference Mennonite church in Winnipeg, but even as a child felt apart. Maybe it’s because I did theatre, but I never developed strong bonds with other young people in the church. I love the old German hymns and I love the devotion of the older members of the congregation that I knew growing up. I was also extremely fortunate to have known both sets of grandparents, and my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, who only spoke German. So I learned German at home and knew these remarkable people who had survived famine and war, and trekked from country to country in the most harrowing circumstances. In a culture, just as in any individual, there is light and dark, good and bad; I don’t like everything about my heritage, but I’ve never been willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. And nothing could make me not dance.

In the “write what you know” vein, I penned Family Rebellion—a one-woman play about a girl who grows up in a tiny, Mennonite, rural Manitoba world famous for its cheese. It slays her that “New” precedes the town’s name as it seems positively antiquarian to her. She longs to be English—with that heritage of exquisite literature. Of course, by the end what she learns is the grass isn’t greener, and Mennonites are really very good at growing grass (and everything else agrarian).

In Mary and Martha and Chastity Belts, Warkentin is able to examine conflicts between active spiritual practice and involvement in organized religion in a pointed way by filtering her experience as a Mennonite through the lens of history. With Family Rebellion she playfully exposes her annoyance with the quirks and foibles of her heritage and then a dawning appreciation for the same things when viewed from a distance. Although handled with a light touch, forgiveness and reconciliation are as evident in this play as in her more serious work.

CB: Margaret Van Dyke states that the defence of art is very important to you and goes on record to say “Warkentin . . . feels the need to justify her own existence as a writer in the Mennonite community” (78). Her interviews with you took place in 1994 and 1996. I wonder what your perspective on this statement is at this point in your life/career?

VW: I think the statement was rooted by Mary’s comment in Mary and Martha, “In a Mennonite church you can play and sing publicly, but you cannot write in private” (56). This character is speaking in the context of Winnipeg in 1959, pre-Mennonite fiction’s explosion in the city, which really didn’t happen until the 1990s/2000s with David Bergen, Miriam Toews, Sandra Birdsell. But it’s not entirely intentional fallacy by Margaret Van Dyke, I certainly have felt that way about theatre and playwriting in the past. I remember someone saying to me a few years ago, “Hey—you’re a Mennonite writer—just hop on the bandwagon and get published.” With that comment, I realized that any need (perceived or actual) to justify a writerly existence in the Mennonite community was gone. Fortunately, I don’t think Mennonite writing has been a passing fad—it is grounded in excellence by those who have engaging stories to tell that happen to be Mennonite; the writing as much as the writer.

Veralyn Warkentin is a playwright who understands the importance of writing about what she knows. Steeped in a heritage that nurtures pacifism and community service, she brings a generosity of spirit and the gift of forgiveness and/or reconciliation to all her female characters, even those representing subversive opinions in the worlds they inhabit. There is something to be said about a quiet revolution. Feminist, Mennonite writer? Oh yes.

 

Works Cited

Snell, Melissa. “Beguines.” About.com Medieval History. About.com, n.d. Web. April 2013.

Van Dyke, Margaret. Theatrical Re/enactments of Mennonite Identity in the Plays of Veralyn Warkentin and Vern Thiessen. Diss. U of Alberta, 1998. Print.

Warkentin, Veralyn. Mary and Martha. Diss. U of Manitoba, 1994. Print.