A Brief Narrative of an Extraordinary Birth of Rabbits: Coming to Term(s) With the Impossible
Coming to term(s) with the impossible
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 12, 2010
The gestation period for a rabbit is about four weeks. The gestation period for a play about a woman who gives birth to rabbits is about nine years – at least in the case of C. Denby Swanson. It was in 2001 that the author of The Death of a Cat first learned of Mary Toft, an Englishwoman who, in 1726, claimed to have given birth to bunnies and then persuaded several prominent physicians that she'd done it. Now, in 2010, Swanson's dramatic riff on that historical event, A Brief Narrative of an Extraordinary Birth of Rabbits, is receiving its world premiere, with Salvage Vanguard Theater serving as midwife. Here's the playwright describing how her work changed during that exceptional "pregnancy."
C. Denby Swanson: I was trying to apply for a Sloan grant, which supports new plays about science or technology, and I found a book called The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. It's a terrible, terrible book, but looking at the title, I thought: "That's my idea right there. I don't know what my play is, but that's my subject." I was into reproductive technology and what we're able to do with our bodies. We're making body parts out of animal parts. We're creating clones out of animal cells that are implanted into humans. That was where it started.
You know, the thing about science plays is that they become about men. They become about male scientists. A lot of them are biography plays or "here's what this guy discovered." I was really interested in troubling the waters in what science plays feel like, so it felt natural to write one about a woman who wasn't a scientist and find some nugget of a play about that event and rethink what we know about science. Because people at that time believed you could have rabbit babies. There were all kinds of beliefs about reproduction and this odd perspective on women's bodies. People used to think that whatever a woman imagined, she made, like that was how conception and gestation happened: A woman just imagined it, and somehow her body would make a baby. And in the form of whatever she imagined.
[Then] it became a play about infertility in a huge way, following the story of Kitty, the infertile sister [of Mare, who gives birth to rabbits]. She powerfully wants a child, and she's been unable to make one for herself in her own body, so that's where that part of the story landed: the incapability of this one woman to be part of the magic that is the creation of a child. Enlisting her sister, who is so magical that she creates things that have nothing to do with babies at all.
Austin Chronicle: So your Mary Toft is not perpetuating a hoax?
CDS: Mare in this play is not perpetuating a hoax. Mary Toft in the 1700s was, but Mare in this play is not. [Giving birth to rabbits] is actually something she can do.
AC: How did you imagine the rabbits being represented?
CDS: I think they were always puppets. I felt like we had to see them. She has rabbits. We have to see the rabbits! At the first reading at the Playwrights' Center in 2006, my director at the time, Bonnie Schock, came up with the idea that this vaginal puppet theatre would appear, and things would pop out of it. It was a fantastic, impossible image. I thought: "No one will ever do this play if there is a vaginal puppet theatre. That will be a deal breaker for every single production of this play." And, of course, I'm a Swanson, so I think: "No one will do it. That's what I'm gonna do."
A Brief Narrative of an Extraordinary Birth of Rabbits runs Feb. 12-March 6, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, visit www.salvagevanguard.org.