Mengele and Gulliver Returns, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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by Laura Kressly

Misogyny is everywhere, even in stories that aren’t about misogyny. A mysterious woman saves a drowning man who treats her like scum, and a beleaguered wife tolerates a torrent of abuse in the name of genius, but these scenarios lie within stories with more dominant narratives. 

Josef Mengele is enjoying a trouble-free life in South America when something goes wrong during his morning swim. A cloaked woman drags him from the sea, which instigates a largely one-sided discussion on the merits of eugenics, racial purity and medicine. He regularly insults his female companion’s appearance, age, education and social class, though this is not the crux of his evilness. These comments are thrown away, lost amongst his advocacy for the aryan race. 

The Mengele script doesn’t wholly paint him as a villain; there are moments where he reflects on the children at the concentration camp where he seems to genuinely care for them. He also has some upstanding attitudes towards medicine, even if these are quickly countered by his experimentations on Jewish people and his designating them as sub-human. It’s still troubling to consider his racism co-habits with intelligence, education and power, and that this combination is present in so many of Britain’s current leaders. The casual hatred for women is very much present in them, too.

When couple Lem and Lil suffer a tragedy that neither can even speak about directly, Lem retreats inside himself and his favourite book, Gulliver’s Travels. He develops the belief that he is Gulliver and the human race, dubbed yahoos, are inferior to the horse-like Houyhnhnms. He is disgusted by the human race’s foibles, including those of his wife. This manifests as horrendous abuse of Lil, which the script largely excuses due to his mental illness. The story is fundamentally about coping with grief and whilst Lil lashes back she also apologises to us. She hopes his retelling of Gulliver’s Travels will help him, but ultimately it is her patience and emotional labour that has more power. 

Though women fundamentally prop up both of these narratives, they suffer for it at the hands of the men they share it with. This isn’t commented on at all in Mengele, and barely so in Gulliver Returns. Instead, the male characters they share billing with are excused or other offences are deemed more serious.

Gulliver Returns runs through 27 August.
Mengele runs through 26 August.

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