My periods have shaped much of my life, determining what I am able and unable to do each day. They are personal and political, providing a deep insight into beliefs, feelings, medicine and coping mechanisms of the past.
Growing up, I thought TV period dramas would be based on menstruation, and was devastated to discover that periods did not feature on screen. It astounded me that ‘so much embarrassment, awkwardness and shame surround[ed] a natural bodily function’.
Thus, the seed for my recent Edinburgh Fringe show, Period Dramas, a comedy about the history of menstruation, was planted.
Despite recent progress with Rayka Zehtabchi’s Period. End of SENTENCE and Disney’s Turning Red, societal taboo remains, highlighted in the unwillingness to even say ‘period,’ with 5,000 euphemisms for menstruation.
On average, people have 10.5 periods every year. I use this fact in the show, introducing each period (pardon the pun) with a calculation of how many periods we were heading back in time. For the Victorian part of the show, it came to 1,943 periods. It is menstrual maths!
My seemingly odd route from history degree to drama school, has always made sense to me. It is people who I am fascinated by – how they think, feel and interact with one another – and both history and theatre are a study of humanity.
The relationship between history and drama, however, seems to be a tumultuous one, marked by debates on whether entertainment or historical accuracy should take priority. In a world where Hamilton and Six have stormed the box office, the debate between accuracy and entertainment that has ‘really divided the historical community’. 
Terry Deary, of Horrible Histories, sits firmly in the entertainment camp, arguing ‘history is itself a fabrication’. Similarly, Lucy Worsley suggests ‘it’s drama, it’s fiction. It’s not a means of expressing knowledge…but for expressing wisdom, truth about human nature’. Alternatively, historians such as Dr O’Connell argue that ‘dramas do have a responsibility’ to maintain historical accuracy.
I sit with Worsley here, but Period Dramas had precise aims: tell the history of menstruation that all too often gets pushed to the side, bringing menstrual issues into more prominence and critiquing society. Thus, Period Dramas needed to be rooted in the sources and history was the starting point.
Initially lacking form, I was inspired by Bryony Kimmings’ advice that form comes from subject. Approaching historical research before finalizing a structure was almost easier because there was no attached format that I needed to stay true to. I simply started with the research and went from there, examining Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671), along with the Kahun gynaecological papyrus, works from Sara Reid and Patricia Crawford, and The Vagina Museum’s History of Period exhibition.
The challenge came in selecting what to include, a difficulty recognised by historian Carys Brown on discussing Queen Anne at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, who described the need to make ‘definite choices’ about thoughts, feelings and characters, but also about what to include and what to leave out.
My choices were based not only on what information stood out, but also easily recognisable periods of history, or those which saw interesting changes in the handling of menstruation.
I then chose cabaret as the format, allowing me to cover more ground quickly with each act focussed on a specific era. This solved my structure question – as Greg Jenner pointed out ‘history doesn’t fall into three-act structures.’
My first hook was the Boy of Bisley: the theory that Elizabeth I died aged ten from bubonic plague, was buried in Bisley and replaced by a boy – explaining why she remained unmarried and childless. This rumour inspired the first realization of Period Dramas – a drag, rap and lip sync act framing how Elizabeth I dealt with menstruation. As the so-called virgin queen, Elizabeth’s fertility was deemed a matter of state and her menstruation was monitored, leaving a useful historical record of Elizabeth’s menstrual cycles.
It seemed apt to use drag, traditionally posing a challenge to heteronormative constructs of gender and sexuality, for an act centring on Elizabeth I. Her rule was characterised by a binary idea of gender, famously stating at Tilbury, ‘I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king’.
Using cabaret removed the boundaries of ‘traditional’ theatre, whilst its ability to subvert helped to critique society and challenge taboo. It also allows increased access with the MC character guiding and opening up a dialogue with audiences.
Accessibility was incredibly important to me, as I did not want to alienate audiences by assuming any prior historical knowledge. Part of my process involved scratch nights and audience feedback forms to ensure the information and facts were presented clearly and in a non-academic fashion. As Worsley says history should not be an ‘insular conversation between academics’ rather a ‘dialogue with wider society’.
I agree. I firmly believe the history of menstruation is key to understanding and critiquing the taboos that exist in society today.
From a historian’s perspective, periods permeate the political and the personal, providing key insights into the politics of the day and personal choices on how to manage them. In the diary entries of Samuel Pepys to the medical records of royalty and the views of Hippocrates and Aristotle – we can learn much from this history.
But more than that, this historical insight and storytelling is key to eradicating the cycle of shame that currently dominates our society, both for those who menstruate and those who do not. According to Plan UK, 64% of 14–21-year-olds have missed school due to period stigma, shame, pain, and poverty. This needs to change. As Greg Jenner pointed out, half of all 108 billion people who have ever lived, menstruated in some capacity. If that does not make this topic seem critical, then I am not sure what will.
Heather Milsted received her History BA from the University of Warwick in 2018 and now works as an actor and writer. She has recently returned from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she was performing her one-woman show about the history of menstruation, Period Dramas. This is due to tour in 2023. She tweets @HeatherMilsted and @PeriodDramass (Website: https://heathermilsted.wixsite.com/actor)
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