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Hannah Moscovitch on What a Young Wife Ought to Know

In her Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated play What a Young Wife Ought to Know, Hannah Moscovitch seeks to shed light on a seldom talked about topic. 

Set in 1920s Ottawa, Young Wife explores the lives of women as they navigate reproductive rights and the lack of sex education available to them. Moscovitch was commissioned to write the play by the 2b theatre company in Halifax. It premiered at the Neptune Theatre in January of 2015. 

Behind the story 

Moscovitch’s journey with Young Wife began long before 2b theatre commissioned her to write it. In 2003, she found a book of letters from the 1920s at a garage sale in Ottawa. The letters, addressed to pioneering British birth control advocate Marie Stopes, were from young wives and mothers seeking information about contraception. 

“The letters were unlike anything I had ever read,” Moscovitch says. 

The women wrote frankly to Stopes about their feelings surrounding sexuality, sex, incest, their husbands, birth control and adultery — topics that were usually not openly spoken about at the time. 

“The letters are unreal … these women would often start their letters saying things like, ‘I’m 30 and I’ve had eight children. Five have lived and three have died. I’ve also had two stillborns and one miscarriage. I’m looking for how to stop having children. I’m desperate. My body is broken. I have five children and I’m trying to live on this small amount of money that my husband gives me each month.’ These are women who are just like us, but their lives are fucking nothing like ours,” says Moscovitch.  

The women in these letters ended up being the basis for Moscovitch’s main character in Young Wife, a woman named Sophie who struggles to meet the demands of being a wife and mother in her era. 

Long walk to success 

Moscovitch began her career as an acting student at the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal but switched to playwriting in her second year at the encouragement of her instructors. Twenty years later, her plays have earned her renown across Canada and have received positive reviews from Toronto Life magazine, CBC Radio and Toronto Star, among other publications. In addition to playwriting, Moscovitch has also written episodes for TV shows like X Company on CBC. 

Young Wife is not Moscovitch’s only play to have been nominated for awards. In the span of her career, she has written 15 shows. According to Moscovitch, her most successful work is the musical Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which is playing at Neptune until Nov. 23. Created in collaboration with Christian Barry and Ben Caplan, Old Stock has toured worldwide, was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, and was nominated for six 2018 Drama Desk Awards (Moscovitch lost Best Book of a Musical to Tina Fey for Mean Girls). 

Despite her success, it hasn’t always been easy for Moscovitch.  

“I think it’s useful for people to know how long I tried. How hard I tried, how long, how much I got rejected. I spent the first five years of my career waitressing,” she says. “I sometimes get written about as if I was an overnight success, which is so stupid, because I wasn’t at all.” 

Changing times 

One of the challenges Moscovitch faces in her career is being taken seriously in a male-dominated industry. When she first wrote Young Wife, many of the male art directors and critics she worked with failed to see the relevance of her piece. However, in the following years she has noticed a difference in perception of her show.  

“I think there has been a change between 2015 and 2019. There’s been a significant enough change in the world, and in perception and consciousness, that the question that was asked to me most often in 2015, which is, ‘How is this relevant?’ has turned into people saying to me, ‘This is so relevant.’”  

Moscovitch says pursuing a career in writing isn’t easy and stresses that it requires relentlessness, especially when being critiqued by the public. She says a person must have more faith than doubt in their abilities and be able to move on from criticism or rejection.  

“If you’re a woman writer, don’t let those bastards get you down!” Moscovitch says with a laugh.   

Image: What a Young Wife Ought to Know by Hannah Moscovitch. The book cover shows an illustration of a pensive woman with short, wavy hair.
The cover of Moscovitch’s book What a Young Wife Ought to Know.

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