As with the Bertrolt Brecht play that inspired it (Mother Courage and her Children), Lynn Nottage’s script for Ruined is a passionately-told anti-war theme that emphasizes the toll taken on its most innocent and helpless victims, women and children. Whereas Brecht’s script used The Thirty Years War as an allegory for the rise of Nazi Germany, however, Nottage’s updated and modified script focuses on the horrors that have befallen the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the eastern regions of which have witnessed some of the most brutal and protracted conflict in modern history. The play’s title, Ruined, can, on the surface, appear as reference to the country itself, having graduated from the autocratic and corrupt rule of the late President Mobutu to the chaotic and endless fighting that continues to rage over that region’s enormous wealth in natural resources, mainly minerals. Nottage, however, is more concerned, appropriately, with the fate of that region’s women, hundreds of thousands of whom have endured gang rape by both government soldiers and anti-government guerrillas. As the play progresses, it is revealed that the title refers to the social stigma attached to rape victims in eastern Congo (and many other places) and to the physical damage done to these victims’ genitalia. Not only are these rape victims stigmatized, but many are rendered incapable of reproducing, so violent are the acts to which they are repeatedly subjected.
The irony in Ruined emanates in part from the expectation of security these women expected from the government soldiers who violated them rather than protecting them. In Act I, Salima, one of the main characters and a rape victim taken “refuge” as a prostitute in a brothel run by Mama Nadi, relates the moment that destroyed life as she had known it by describing her rape by government soldiers:
But they still took me from my home. They took me through the bush, raiding thieves. Fucking demons! "She is for everyone, soup to be had before dinner," that is what someone said. They tied me to a tree by my foot, and the men came whenever they wanted soup. I make fires, I cook food, I listen to their stupid songs, I carry bullets, I clean wounds, I wash blood from their clothing, and, and, and...I lay there as they tore me to pieces, until I was raw...five months. Five months. Chained like a goat. These men fighting...fighting for our liberation. Still I close my eyes and I see such terrible things. Things, I can not stand to have in my head. How can men be this way?
Not the irony in this lament by a rape victim who would die as a result of continued sexual abuse: “These fighting men . . . fighting for our liberation.” The women of eastern Congo have nowhere to go to be safe from the horrific fate that awaits them no matter which side to the conflict enters their villages or towns. As Salima continues her conversation with Sophie, another rape victim also “working” now in Mama Nadi’s brothel, she again illuminates the irony in her situation, following her release from captivity and return to her village:
I walked into the family compound expecting wide open arms. An embrace. Five months, suffering. I suffered every single second of it. And my family gave me the back of their heads. And he, the man I loved since I was fourteen, chased me away with a green switch. He beat my ankles raw. And I dishonored him? I dishonored him?! Where was he? Buying a pot? He was too proud to bear my shame...but not proud enough to protect me from it.
Much about Nottage’s play employs the dramatic tool of irony, including the notion that a brothel, the ultimate symbol of female objectification, could represent any kind of sanctuary from the violence that existed outside its doors. The women are not safe there, though, as Salima’s death illustrates; they are merely consolidated for the benefit of both guerrillas and soldiers, even though Mama harbors the slimmest of hopes that her business can exist as a refuge from the war. The ultimate irony in Ruined lies in its final scene, with Christian and Mama dancing in a symbol of hope for a better future. There has been precious little about Nottage’s story that implies a reasonable prospect of such a future, but she leaves it out there anyway.