The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield
Dorra, played by Danielle Scott, and Kate, played by Anika Harden, in Expat Theatre’s The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield; Credit Teresa Castracane

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As the audience finds their seats for Expat Theatre’s latest drama, their eyes settle on the set, dominated by a large number of scrims on mobile frames, evoking the temporary curtains used to create a modicum of privacy on hospital wards. Projected on these scrims are blown-up details of a popular subject for 17th-century artists: the Rape of the Sabine Women. The classical elegance that artists such as Peter Paul Rubens applied to this foundational myth of Rome serve as an unsettling prelude to Matei Vișniec’s 1996 play about mass rape as an instrument of the Bosnian genocide, here translated from French by Alison Sinclair. The revised title, The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield, allows for some ambiguity; the original French title, On the Sex of a Woman as a Battlefield in the War in Bosnia, is even more on the nose.

The first voice we hear is that of Kate McNoil (Anika Harden), a clinical psychologist, reading a diary entry from 1994, one of many entries she wrote as raw material for an academic paper. She starts to toy with Freudian terminology, trying to find the phrase that will inspire her interpretive lens.

Following the collapse of communism, Yugoslavia, with each of its constituent republics having a different ethnic majority, no longer had a unifying ideology. Political parties arose seeking self-determination. Serbia, under Slobodan Miloševic, aimed to create a “Greater Serbia” based on the idea of ethnic purity. To this end, Serbia backed the emergence of the Republika Srpska, whose objective was to create an ethnically pure proto-state within the legal borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Serbia was already employing a similar strategy in Croatia—backing the Republic of Serbian Krajina, after the country declared independence in 1991.) 

While the Bosnian War was not the first time rape was widespread during warfare, it is perhaps the first war in which there was a clear body of evidence showing that mass genocidal rape was deliberately organized by commanding officers as part of a larger strategy. Women and girls were abducted and held in rape camps, often imprisoned until they were confirmed to be pregnant or had already given birth in an attempt to terrorize the survivors, destroy their sense of ethnic and family identity, and discourage them from returning to their homes. This appears to be the situation of Dorra (Danielle Scott), a patient at a NATO hospital in Germany and the woman referred to in the title of Vișniec’s play.

From the outset, Vișniec has given us reason to question Kate’s attempt to dictate the narrative, in musing over such concepts as “infantile ethnic sadism,” “narcissistic neurosis of the ethnic majority,” “obsessive neurosis of the ethnic minority,” and “ethnic neurosis of abandonment”—pathologies Kate assigns to the “Balkan Man” who only appears in the aforementioned projections with his face deliberately obscured. 

Students of French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault might recognize Kate’s discourse as a type of  “scientific racism” with the biology and phrenology of Nazism traded out for psychoanalytic terminology. Kate’s analysis falters at the simple fact that the vast majority of (though by no means all) wartime rapes were committed by Serbian forces, and the vast majority of victims were Bosnian Muslims. It was not the acting out of primal urges by an archetypical Balkan Man, but a deliberate chosen strategy by political and military leaders to subject specific populations with sexual violence. Kate, though she often talks about her Irish American heritage, seems to not regard herself as an ethnic minority to which these concepts apply. 

In the 27 years since Vișniec wrote Body of a Woman as a Battlefield, the Bosnian War has proven to not be the last war in which genocidal rape was used. Against Kate’s thesis, it is not even unique to her proposed perpetrator; instead it’s a part of genocidal regimes. During the Islamic State’s 2014–2017 genocidal campaign against the Yazidi, men were murdered and rape and sexual enslavement was deployed against of Yazidi women, and today Russian forces are accused of using a similar strategy in Ukraine. 

Dorra, for the first several scenes, is silent, staring angrily into the abyss, or contemptuously at Kate. Once she begins to speak, however, she provides almost no details of her assault, never allowing it to become spectacle. Instead she reveals her sardonic wit. She kneels and recites a blasphemous inversion of the Lord’s Prayer. (That she’s parodying a Christian prayer is the only hint she gives of her identity; she does not identify which forces assaulted her.) 

In a monologue, Dorra satirizes a day-in-the-life of the toxic masculinity, functional alcoholism, and resentments in the prewar Balkans that, after communism collapsed, left many open to a new national purpose. Finally, Dorra enlists Kate as her straight man in a brilliant routine in about the “Balkan but …” each time naming an ethnic or national group of the region—Albanians, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Croats, Greeks, Hungarians, Roma, Serbs, Turks—insisting that her character “really likes them” only to follow with a “but, let’s face it …”  She displays a type of doublethink in which people from the former Yugoslavia and other neighboring communist regimes could parrot back the love they were expected to feel for their neighbors, yet still hold deep-seated ethnic hatreds. (Vișniec was born in Romania and, in 1987, with several of his plays censored by the government, requested political asylum from France, where he now lives; though the country of his birth was not a belligerent in the Yugoslav Wars, he does not spare them the “Balkan but …”)

While Scott is eminently theatrical as Dorra, Harden has the more nuanced role. Kate came to Europe to monitor the mental health of war-crimes investigators excavating mass graves in both Bosnia and Croatia. Eventually, she admits that the experience broke her. Only then did she start her work at the NATO hospital, reluctant to return to her family and her practice in Boston. Does she realize she has simply translated Milošević’s racism into the psychoanalytic terms with which she is most comfortable? Most importantly, Kate speaks like the sort of protagonist the university-educated theatergoer is expected to trust, identify with, or aspire to be like. But when Dorra requests an abortion, Kate does everything to prevent her, using language reminiscent of our country’s most extreme anti-abortion demagogues who claim that making babies redeems rape: “I came to your country to learn how to excavate mass graves. And every time I excavated one, I had the insane hope that I’d find just one survivor … This child is a survivor, Dorra. And it has to be saved, it has to be pulled out.”

Kate came to heal, but now she adds to Dorra’s abuse. Vișniec is no doubt aware that former Republika Srpska President and convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić started his career as a psychiatrist and acclaimed poet.

Director Karin Rosnizeck has developed a signature visual style with ExPats: Any white or near white surface (such as the hospital ward designed by John Jones) can become a screen for images created by media designer Nitsan Scharf, be they photo montages that illustrate Kate’s diaries or animations that accompany Dorra’s comic routines. Dorra’s humor is perhaps not enough to ameliorate the disturbing nature of the play, but it is perhaps the most important play I have seen on ExPats stage of the four I’ve attended since their formation in 2019.

The last show of theirs I saw was Einstein’s Wife by Serbian playwright Snežana Gnjidić. Even this play about science took on a political dimension in its presentation. Staff from the Serbian Embassy attended, providing brochures touting the country’s cultural offerings. Ten years prior, after a handful of my poems had been translated into Albanian, the Writers Union of Kosovo invited me as a guest at their annual poetry festival. But Serbia does not officially recognize the independent Republic of Kosovo, so cities like Pristina and Prizren, where I spent most of my time, were portrayed in the brochures as still being part of Serbia even though not one of the museums or archeological sites I visited appear on the maps. If Serbia’s leaders failed in their objective to cleanse Kosovo of Albanians during the 1998–1999 Kosovo War, their successors have chosen to write Albanians out of their cartography. Likewise, despite successful prosecutions in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, nationalist politicians, to this day in both Serbia and Republika Srpska, along with foreign apologists, continue to deny war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield remains relevant 27 years after it was written, not just because the crimes continue to be denied.

ExPats Theatre’s The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield, written by Matei Vișniec and directed by Karin Rosnizeck runs through May 21 at Atlas Performing Arts Center. $20–$40.