Melodrama or Simply Drama: Hope of Women Examined in Ruined

Hannah Jordan

Hannah Jordan, a sophomore from San Antonio, Texas, plans to major in English and minor in music. She plays violin in the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra and is a part of the RUF servant team. In her spare time, she enjoys drinking coffee at Summit, writing letters, and spending time with her hall mates. Hannah’s work was produced for Professor Ann Fox’s English 101: Writing about Drama.

A harsh reality: One out of every three women in Congo has been raped as a result of Congolese wars.1 How should we respond to this horrific truth? One response has been penned by playwright Lynn Nottage in her powerful play, Ruined. Here, she purposefully depicts women suffering during the onset of the Congo War, women who have been physically mutilated by rape, but curiously retain a certain amount of hope. But, is Nottage’s emphasis on such hope realistic or simply a melodramatic excess? A close examination of the play reveals an interesting, if ironic, conclusion: the play’s introduction of hope in the midst of suffering, though melodramatic in effect, allows the audience to identify more deeply and abidingly than a more temperate realism would allow. Hope is not simply tacked onto the end of the play. Instead, Nottage claims that hope is a fundamental stage in the healing cycle for many of these “ruined” women.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, melodrama is “a play, film, or other dramatic piece characterized by exaggerated characters and a sensational plot intended to appeal to the emotions.”2 Clearly, Ruined participates in this genre. It is a work in which Nottage atempts to “bring audiences emotionally closer to the realities of a region where women have been violated and mutilated.”3 Nottage uses an emotional plot line to trigger the emotional identification of her audience. Since it is difficult to fathom the degree of pain and harm that women in Congo have experienced, the translation of such emotion into melodramatic form is quite effective. Its very excess permits the audience to glimpse the intensity of these nearly-unimaginable horrors.

The facts of the Congolese war offer one way to understand Nottage’s choice to base her fiction on real-world accounts. The first Congo War began in 1996, but there have been two wars since then, adding to the destruction of the struggling nation.4 The third Congolese war, which is most likely the one in which Nottage’s story takes place, was dramatically different from the first two, and resulted in “endless violence” in the eastern regions of Congo.pain5-150x150 Melodrama or Simply Drama: Hope of Women Examined in Ruined5 Throughout each of the wars, women have been primary victims of the violent, suffering at the hands of brutal soldiers.  The primary culprits in this violence are genocidaires, men who fled from Rwanda to Congo, Rwandan rebels, and Congo’s army personnel.6  But when it comes to the violence of rape, the damaging effects are the same, regardless of the perpetrator.

Unfortunately for Congolese women, rape involves more than violative penetration; it also involves the  brutal destruction of women’s internal organs. As Stephen Lewis, a former United Nations envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, describes, these women’s “entire reproductive systems are shredded by attacks with guns, branches, or batons” rendering them unable to bear children.7 As a result of their vaginal damage, many women develop vaginal fistula8, an abnormal passage between organs, in this case, the bladder, the colon, and the vagina. In addition to the physically and emotionally traumatic effects, rape in Congo has become a tactic of warfare. Lyn Lusi, program manager for Heal Africa, reports that “Rape is used as terrorism, as an instrument of war, to empty whole communities of people.9 Today, it seems no woman in the eastern regions of Congo is safe from this terror, age playing no role in determining a woman’s safety. Recently, there have been cases of women “as young as eight and as old as seventy-three, and up to eight months pregnant being scarred internally and externally by rape.”10

In addition to the physically and emotionally traumatic effects, rape in Congo has become a tactic of warfare.

Rape is not only physically destructive, but emotionally damaging as well. In some cases, women are raped in one of the most psychologically-damaging ways possible: by their own family members. In these extreme cases, “gunmen force fathers, brothers, and husbands to rape daughters, sisters, and wives.”11 Whatever the identity of the criminal, all rapes lead to some form of social ostracism. Oftentimes, women who have been raped are “rejected by their pain5-150x150 Melodrama or Simply Drama: Hope of Women Examined in Ruinedhusbands and relatives,” and are seen as unworthy to remain part of their former communities.12 As Christian, a traveling salesman in Ruined puts it: “And as you know, the village isn’t a place for a girl who has been. . .ruined. It brings shame, dishonor to the family.13 Nottage portrays the operations of this sentiment though the character of Salima, whose identity has been spoiled by her rape, and whose husband, Fortune, rejects her:

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?

By using Salima as an example, Nottage reinforces the idea that rape is not merely a tactic of war meant to destroy; it is also a deep social sanction, causing disconnection and separation.  Salima is disgraced because she is a victim–a deep irony, given the cause of her condition. In Congo, women often become ostracized for being viewed as “diseased or tainted.”14 Consequently, they must learn to cope with their physical and emotional abuse alone.

Parallel with the highly dramatic interpretation of real events in Ruined is the dramatization of hope, which is vital in retaining a level of balance between highs and lows in the plot line. Despite all of their struggles and oppression, Congolese rape victims maintain hope. One way in which the women retain their dignity is through protests they have initiated, which bring attention to their situation and demand health care for their psychic and bodily wounds.15 As Peuchguirbal reminds us, “women were not mere victims as they fought for their survival.”16 By making raped women the principal characters of Ruined, Nottage suggests their status as survivors. She gives the women of Congo their own voices, and emphasizes that since her play is “written from a woman’s point of view,” it has “more optimism and more passion.”17 This alone gives women an incredible basis for hope; since they tell their own stories, their message is that much more powerful.

Another source of hope for women in Congo is found in their efforts to achieve economic and societal independence. Congolese women attempt to make profits and, consequently, have greatly “increase[d] in independence and self-confidence”18 In Ruined, Nottage gives the women a great deal of power.  Bar-owner Mama Nadi, for example, represents a woman who holds a great deal of economic independence. She takes pride in this fact: “Since I was young, people have found reasons to push me out of my home, men have laid claim to my possessions, but I am not running now. This is my place. Mama Nadi’s.”19 In this moment as well, Mama Nadi defies male dominance. By designating rules on her own property, she exerts her own control in a quiet way each and every day: “I must ask you to leave your bullets at the bar, otherwise you don’t come in.”20 Mama Nadi is a strong figure who, as Nottage herself puts it, “is an extremely articulate and passionate advocate for her community.” (Quoted in Gener, “Mama, 21.)) In the same way that Mama Nadi holds significant social power, so does Salima demonstrate power through her defiance of Fortune: “You will not fight your battles on my body anymore,” she proclaims before she dies.21 Salima regains the dignity she lost when she was taken from her family. However, with her proclamation comes her death.  Nottage creates a powerful contrast at this moment  in the play because she allows Salima to keep her humanity, but at the cost of life itself.

The idea of maintaining humanity in Ruined mirrors the truth that Congolese war has not taken away the humanity of its women. Rather, the war has given women a chance to prove just how resourceful and intelligent they are in a male-dominated society. At Nottage articulates, “Mama lives in a man’s world, and yet she’s able to transcend her circumstances and keep the community of women safe.”22 Though in an ironic way, Mama Nadi does what she must in order to protect the lives of the omen who live in the bar. She keeps the girls safe in the only way she knows how: by using them to intimately please the soldiers who otherwise have no use for them.

Through the horrific events that occur in Congo and in Ruined, we see that allowing the women to reclaim their dignity in a world that has been ever so harsh to them is nearly the only thing keeping them alive. Women have been beaten and raped, and subsequently ruined beyond imagination. We see the brutal products of a war fought in Congo, where women who come to the brothel seek shelter and asylum in a time of war. Not only do the women seek refuge there, but the brothel also serves as a place where the soldiers generating most of the conflict can come “to leave behind whatever mess they’ve made out there,” in the war-torn Congo.23 It is ironic that the only place Nottage shows the women finding shelter is in a place where they are confronted by the culprits of war: military leader Commander Osembenga, rebel leader Jerome Kismembe, and other soldiers who serve both the government and the rebel armies.

Here, in the heart of the conflict, we again see women who sell their bodies in the only safe place they can find. However, this is a testament to just how convoluted the situation in Congo actually is. The women do what it seems they must and take refuge in Mama Nadi’s “refugee camp overrun with suffering” where they are fed when “half the country’s starving.”24 Yet, despite all the hurt and pain they undergo, the play’s female characters retain their dignity through their ability to cope with one another’s support. And through this powerful example, it becomes clear that the concept of hope–though melodramatic is its excess–is purposeful.

Nottage works to portray the very real courage of Congolese women who she found on her trips to refugee camps in Uganda and Rwanda.25 One way in which she achieves this is through the persona of Mama Nadi, a prime example of a courageous Congolese woman. One aspect of Mama Nadi’s courage is her single-minded approach to life. She is very assertive and stands on her own two feet. She attempts to do this primarily through the relationships she forms. In resisting Christian, a traveling salesman, who attempt to woo her, she reinforces her ability to live as a individual. Yet, the reason for her denial of his affections is not clear. It appears that part of the reason she didn’t want to pursue a relationship with him is because she herself has been “ruined.” Also, Mama Nadi is an individual in the sense that the girls both love and fear her. They know that they will be safe from the gunfire by staying inside the brothel, but their safety comes at the expense of not having control over their bodies.  They are, “at every moment. . .determined to survive.”26

The metaphor of dance, which is carried throughout Ruined, symbolizes this will to persevere. We first see this connection to the dance in the lyrics of Sophie’s song: “You come here to forget/You say drive away all regret/And dance like it’s the ending/The ending of the war.”27 By introducing the concept of the dance toward the play’s opening, Nottage emphasizes its importance as a form of dealing with pain and sorrow. Later in the play, Christian also refers to dance when talking with Mama Nadi: “I sitll hope one day you will hear the music and dance with me.”28 The dance reflects Christian’s hope that Mama Nadi will come to love him as he loves her. He wants Mama to “go to Kinshasa where there’s no trouble. . .0pen a small place. Serve food, drink, dancing.” (Nottage, Ruined, 57.)) Once again, the concept of dance mirrors hope that Christian wishes for Mama Nadi. This being stated, at the end of the play, when Christian and Mama Nadi dance, it is neither clichéd nor undermining the reality of the grave situation in which they live. Rather, the dance that they share is a physical embodiment of hope–hope that Christian can begin a new life with Mama Nadi, and hope for the brothel’s women, that they too will experience the happiness the Mama Nadi finally embraces.

If the play were to display no sign of hope, such a gap would discredit all that real women in Congo work towards every day: a life filled with meaning and purpose. Nottage captures this idea in her play through the use of powerful characters such as Mama Nadi, characters who grasp the idea of hope as essential to their process of moving forward.  Hope is healing; hope is power; and hope is driven by the relationships that we form in our times of great brokenness.


Carayannis, Tatianna and Herbert F. Weiss, “Reconstructing the Congo.” Journal of International Affairs 58, no. 1 (2004): 115-141.

Davidson, Tish. s.v. “Fistula,” The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Reference Library, 2006: 1484.

“Destruction of the Vagina in Violent Rape: A War Crime in Congo.” Reproductive Health Matters 12, no. 23 (2004): 181-182.

Elahi, Maryam. “War Without End on Congo’s Women.” Japan Times. December 24, 2007.

Gener, Randy. “Mama Nadi and Her Women.” American Theatre 26 no. 3 (2009): 20-32.

Levett, Connie. “Gang Rape Used as a Weapon of War in Congo.” Sydney Morning Hearald. March 3, 2008.

Nottage, Lynn. Ruined. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2009.

Puechguirbal, Nadine. “Women and War in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 4 (2003): 1271-1281.

Whoriskey, Kate. “Introduction.” In Ruined, Lynn Nottage, ix-xiii. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2009.

  1. “Destruction of the Vagina in Violent Rape: A War Crime in Congo,” Reproductive Health Matters 12, no. 23 (2004): 181. []
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Melodrama.” []
  3. Randy Gener, “Mama Nadi and Her Women,” American Theatre 26, no. 3 (2009): 21. []
  4. Tatiana Carayannis and Herbert F. Weiss, “Reconstructing the Congo,” Journal of Inernational Affairs 58, no. 1 (2004): 115. []
  5. Carayannis and Weiss, “Reconstructing,” 128. []
  6. Maryam Elahi, “War Without End on Congo’s Women,” Japan Times, December 24, 2007. []
  7. quoted in Amanda Truscott, “Congo Ceasefire Brings Little Relief for Women,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 179, no. 2 (2007): 133. []
  8. “Destruction,” 181. []
  9. quoted in Connie Levett, “Gang Rape Used as Weapon of War in Congo,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2008. []
  10. “Destruction,” 181. []
  11. Elahi, “War.” []
  12. Peuchguirbal, “Women and War in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 4, 1274. []
  13. Nottage, Ruined, 15. []
  14. Elahi, “War”. []
  15. “Destruction,” 181. []
  16. Peuchguirbal, “Women,” 1274. []
  17. Quoted in Gener, “Mama Nadi,” 21. []
  18. Peuchguirbal, ” Women,” 1274. []
  19. Nottage, Ruined, 91. []
  20. Nottage, Ruined, 42. []
  21. Nottage, Ruined, 94. []
  22. Quoted in Gener, “Mama,” 21. []
  23. Nottage, Ruined, 76. []
  24. Nottage, Ruined, 14. []
  25. Gener “Mama,” 21. []
  26. Whoriskey, Kate. “Introduction,” in Ruined, Lynn Nottage (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2009): xiii. []
  27. Nottage, Ruined, 20. []
  28. Nottage, Ruined, 39. []