FRONTRUNNER Meets Irish Playwright Marina Carr

Marina Carr is an established and vital voice in Irish theatre whose playwriting has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize (2017). By the Bog of Cats (1998) is loosely based on Euripides’ Medea but stands strong as its own story set in the Irish midlands of the modern era. In 2019, Hecuba (2015) enjoyed a successful Irish premiere as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Carr pulls no punches in this powerful and passionate reimagining in which the titular lead is left devastated in the aftermath of the Trojan War. That’s not to pigeonhole Carr, who draws from anything that takes her interest, be it fragments of insight into the life of Chekhov in 16 Possible Glimpses (2009) or a persuasive adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding (2016) re-envisioned in rural Ireland. Carr’s plays ultimately urge us to evaluate those aspects of ourselves that make us human.

FRONTRUNNER spoke to Carr about the role of the playwright, managing the discourse around one’s work and the obstacle the pandemic poses to the symbiotic communication at the heart of theatre.

Photo credit: Yousef Khanfar

How did you keep busy in lockdown?

I’ve done a bit of everything. I’ve been reading into the small hours, I’ve been drinking into the small hours. I got sick of that. I binged online for a while.  I’m sick of that now. I’ve done the whole loop so I’m back to just reading into the small hours. And writing during the day. I’ve been writing, editing final drafts of two plays. I have no idea if they’re going to go on. 

I know there was going to be a revival production of The Mai (a breakthrough play of yours that was first put on in 1994) at the Gaiety Theatre. It’s a real shame theatres had to close.

Yes, they had to cancel it. They had put it on in 2018 and were going to bring it to the Gaiety, then take it around the country. They were very excited about it. They were all quite upset actually. It’s very upsetting when you put in all the work and you can’t quite believe [it’s not going to go on]. While I was very disappointed, it wasn’t a new play for me so I hadn’t invested in the work immediately but for the actors, the director and the design team, it’s a huge disappointment. When you’ve been in all this, you’ve been eating it and living it for months and then suddenly it just stops. Not to talk about the waste of money. A waste of a creative endeavour. It’s difficult.

How do you think theatre culture can adapt to this?

I don’t think we can. I wouldn’t watch theatre online. It would be the last thing I would do. I’d watch a good movie. I’d watch a documentary, a TV series. I wouldn’t watch a play. That is the whole point, it’s live, it’s communal. You’re sitting shoulder to shoulder, coughing and sneezing all over everybody, they’re coughing and sneezing over you! (Laughs) You’re all in it together! Communal laughter, communal grief. These are the great draws of theatre, that it’s live and that you are implicated in it…’s not like it’s on screen, it’s not there forever on celluloid. An actor will always adjust their performance to their audience because they will feel that there’s a communication. It’s symbiotic. So, I don’t see theatre moving online successfully. I don’t know where that leads us. I know they’ve successfully streamed performances together. I’ve seen a few of them and I have to say, while they’re technically very good, it’s not the same. It’s not as good as a film because it’s not a film, it’s not meant to be a film. I think we’ve all trained our eye if we’re watching something on screen, we want that perfection.

How do you think the pandemic will influence theatrical storytelling?

Well, the obvious thought would be, “Are we going to have a slew of COVID-19 plays?” I hope not! We have all been levelled in a way and we all know what this isolation experience is. I frankly don’t think it would be of much theatrical use because it would just be more of the same. We’ve all become very same in this. Our lives have become very same, very small, very limited. I can’t imagine people running to the theatre to see a COVID-19 dystopian version of themselves on stage. It’s too soon. You have to let these things settle and then you have to find the metaphor for what this is.

Your own work has often looked at what goes on behind closed doors in Irish society. There has been some talk of the lockdown putting strain on people’s marriages and relationships, ranging from lighthearted jokes to some very serious concerns for victims of domestic abuse stuck at home. What draws you to the domestic realm in your writing, these frank depictions of violence and neglect within the family home?

Well, I write about people. I don’t necessarily have an agenda. This may sound a little strange but I don’t think you can be in the business of interpretation while you’re writing. There are things that come after that others say about your work. I don’t think it’s the role of the playwright to critique their own work. I’m not trying to dodge the issue either because I know there are plays of mine [that deal with dark subject matters] but I just wrote out what I saw around me and made things up. I suppose I’m an Irish writer. Historically, how we perceive ourselves and how we have been perceived, there’s a natural repression, or there was, of better aspects of ourselves. I’m talking about the role of church and state which includes the modus operandi of people’s lives and that comes through in my writing, which people say it does, but I’m only writing out of detail, what I feel or what I see, just snippets of stories I’ve heard. If that somehow gets positioned within the paradigm of the Irish narrative, that’s fine, I have no problem with that. For me, [my characters are] always just people who are articulating what’s going on with them and what’s wrong with the world. I don’t see it as one specific theme running through my work.

Patrick O’Kane and Gary Lilburn
The Abbey Theatre World Premiere of 16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES, written by Marina Carr
Director: Wayne Jordan
The Peacock Stage, 30 September 2011 to 29 October 2011 as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Photo credit: Ros Kavanagh

Particularly with women’s writing, it’s very easy to pigeonhole. You have no control over the commentary or the narrative around what you’ve written but it happens to not be the way I see it. Very often I don’t know what I’m at. I write a play and then I think afterwards, Oh, that’s what that was about. You’re just feeling your way along. You’re like a spider scuttling across the floor, chasing things down and hopefully that adds up to something.

You often reinterpret Greek plays and myths in your work. What is it about the Greek tragedies, particularly the work of Euripides, which allows for such precise commentary on contemporary Ireland?

They’re great old stories. The Greeks asked all the big questions and we haven’t really answered them yet. The other thing I love about them is the breadth of the characters and the hugeness of passion. I also love the fact that they’re unafraid to discuss ideas. They love debating, the women particularly. I’m thinking of Medea, Clytemnestra, Antigone. They had an answer for everything. You couldn’t talk them down. I like that. I like that they weren’t quietened down because I think, historically, there has been a silence or lack of articulation around women’s thought processes. The Greek women have none of that. They’re there with their double-sided axes and they’re raging, weeping, grieving, sacrificing everyone around them, sacrificing themselves. It’s all very heavy stuff. So, if you take those as a blueprint, there’s an awful lot to draw from there. It’s very palpable. It’s like a bedrock; all starts there.

Your characters challenge preconceived expectations of how a woman should be as a wife, as a mother. Is breaking down gender barriers to give way to realistic representations of both women and men a motivation in your writing?

I grew up with generations of raging women who were so angry because nobody would let them do what they wanted to do. One of the things you don’t realise about this kind of lockdown is that, for some of our grandparents or great grandparents, this was the norm. You were in the house with 12-15 children, morning to night in the house. Once a week you might go out to the shops. I’m talking mainly about rural Ireland, where there was the whole De Valera conception of the woman in the home, the Great Mother, all that. That was ferocious pressure on women. That has been one of the big changes I think in the last hundred years, that that pressure has shifted slightly, that women have viable lives now outside the home. I still think we’ve a long way to go on that. I still think there’s a lot of sidelining. You’re sort of allowed into the club but you’re allowed in on certain terms. I still think there’s work to be done.

Yes, we’re five years on from Waking the Feminists [a movement that was started to advocate for gender equality in Irish theatre] now. How has the position of women in theatre changed since you started working in the industry?

There’s been an awful lot of struggle. There’s been a lot of judgment. You just learn to live with that and it toughens you up. I don’t want to make too much of that either because I think every writer has to get used to the fact that the judgment out there is ferocious. Gender comes into it slightly but judgment is judgment. A lot of people find that criticism too much and just bow out. You have to take it on the chin, somehow forge ahead and hopefully, the world will resolve. 

I’m very interested in the younger generation because they’re more open than my contemporary and the generation ahead of me. They’ve grown up in a very different world than I did. I think they’re more articulate than we were with each other. They’re more aware and less prejudiced than Ireland has been in the past. There are many interesting young voices to come up. So, I think we have lots to be hopeful about here. It’s not all bad. I came up when it was still the old order. I was called a female playwright until very recently. I wasn’t just a playwright. It took decades for that to change. It’s interesting the way it’s so embedded in your gender. You’re so defined by it, how you’re perceived, how you perceive yourself, how much you have to fight that. My only defense is just to keep writing and hopefully, the rest of it shifts. (Laughs) Keep writing and say as little as possible!

By the Bog of Cats (1998)
Written by Marina Carr
Director: Finola Eustace
The Abbey Theatre Premiere on 7 October 1998
Photo credit: Abbey Theatre, Dublin

You often work with young people, having taught at Trinity College Dublin, Princeton and now at the School of English in Dublin City University. What is it like working with young writers?

The students are great. Some really gifted writers coming through, both at undergraduate level and at masters. All of that keeps me going. Their struggles are my struggles. We all struggle along together, there’s no easy way to do it. It’s just hard to rewrite, shape, go back…there’s stuff that goes in the bin and there’s stuff that’s salvageable. Just because you’ve written 20 plays it doesn’t mean when you sit down to write your 21st play that it’s going to be any good. You’re still back to the drawing board and the fear is incredible every time. So, I understand where my students are coming from. It’s hard to release that doubt in yourself so you can write freely and realise the judgment is going to be ferocious, yet be able to write to the best of your ability. That takes a lot of training and a lot of energy and courage. So, I love working with the younger writers, I try to hammer all that into them.

How can theatre fans support the theatre during this time? What can we do to keep alive the deeply-rooted tradition of Irish theatre when all theatres have unfortunately had to close with productions cancelled or postponed?

Read plays! Go back and read all the plays you ever saw and read new ones. Book sales of plays are always dreadful unless you’ve a production on or you’re on some syllabus. But you know, plays used to be read like novels and poetry and I’d love to see that coming back. That’s something very simple that everyone can do. Read plays. Read my plays! (Laughs) And when this is all over, you can all put them on!

You’re right, people don’t think to read plays.

It’s marvellous! This is an awful admission but I nearly prefer reading plays than going to see them a lot of the time. Having the play published is always as important to me than a production because then it’s there for record. Also, I grew up reading plays. I didn’t differentiate between reading a novel and reading a play so I don’t know why that’s come in. We’ve been relegated to the scum-end of publishing! (Laughs) It all started with drama, the novel came out of the Greek plays, so did poetry. It’s interesting that it has been sidelined in its literary form. It’s more of a spectacle now.

Patrick O’Kane and Deidre Mullins
The Abbey Theatre World Premiere of 16 POSSIBLE GLIMPSES, written by Marina Carr
Director: Wayne Jordan
The Peacock Stage, 30 September 2011 to 29 October 2011 as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Photo credit: Ros Kavanagh

Have you ever been frustrated with the differences between a production of one of your plays and your own vision?

Oh yes, absolutely. It’s part of the course. I mean, I love actors, I love directors and I love working in the theatre, but occasionally, there’ll be a clash of ideas. There will always be differences. It’s never going to be the way you imagined it. It’s about getting it as close to the way you imagined it as possible. A great director will automatically be able to do that. Some actors and directors will astound you, they will excavate in ways that you didn’t think of and transform it in a beautiful way. But frustration is part of it as well. There will be clashing; there will be people who won’t want much to do with you. You can either fight that or just about embrace it. I’ve done both and I’ve learned over the decades that shouting and roaring doesn’t really get you anywhere in those situations. You’re at the mercy of your actor and your director. They usually want to speak to you to be fair to them and it’s all well and good. It’s one of the reasons it’s very hard for a play to work. Everything has to be perfect and the world’s not perfect. It’s rare for everything to come together.

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