Marina Carr interview: ‘There is an affinity between the Russian soul and the Irish soul’
‘I wouldn’t try and convey a big idea in my work, as ideas are incredibly abstract and people are not. We are not terribly rational creatures, we feel everything first’
Marina Carr: “This terrible fear of women, the societal need to control and marginalise them, still persists.” Photograph: Sara Freund
Adrienne Leavy: Can you briefly describe your background?
Marina Carr: I grew up in Co Offaly, which is the Irish Midlands. I had quite a country upbringing I suppose, a country childhood in rural Ireland; it couldn’t get much better. I went to school in Gortnamona (which means “field of the bog”), and later attended boarding school in Mountmellick. I then went up to University College Dublin where I studied English and philosophy.
The landscape of the Irish Midlands plays a significant role in some of your early work. For example The Mai (1994) is set by Owl Lake, Portia Coughlan (1996) is set by the Belmont River, and By the Bog of Cats (1998) is set near a bog. How important is the idea of “place” to your work?
I think I’ve moved away from the midlands a good while ago, to be honest. It doesn’t mean I won’t come back to it, but I kind of wrote what I needed to. The work takes you elsewhere and you just follow that, it’s not like there is any great plan or anything. Certainly place was a very powerful influence on me; obviously where you are from, the sounds of childhood, they stay with you, whatever that sound is, the way people talk, their particular phrasing, that sort of thing stays with you for good really. It’s a well you can draw on. And then the landscape of Offaly is quite beautiful; I grew up on a beautiful lake called Pallas Lake, and I remember in the summer all the beautiful lanes and the bogs, all of that.
Although every movement on stage is significant, the verbal aspect of your theatre dominates, with conversations simultaneously suggesting violence and black comedy. How difficult is it to achieve this multi-layered tone?
It’s great you are picking up on the humour because you want the comedy to be there also. I think it’s a very Irish characteristic. We have a very black sense of humour and we are very conversant with the grotesque and the violent and also the comedy of the human predicament. It’s part of our nature I think.
When you begin a new play do you work out the structure in advance or does that evolve during the writing process?
When I was a younger playwright I would have had some sort of structure and wouldn’t always stick to it. But now I tend not to at all. I tend to spend more time thinking about it before I start writing. I don’t necessarily want to nail down the structure in advance. A lot of the plays I draw on would come with elements of a plot which I might not use, but I would have a fair idea of how these elements might translate into something else or how I might riff on them.
An overriding theme in your work seems to be the conviction that humanity keeps repeating destructive patters of behaviour despite our attempts to the contrary. Would you agree with this assessment?
Yes, I suppose so. We do seem to have to learn the same lesson over and over again. We are still asking the big questions without really answering them; how to live really, trying to find out what’s virtue, what’s truth, what’s civilisation, what’s law.
As a follow on to the above question, are you consciously trying to put a social message across in your plays?
I don’t know if I am. I often think that the writer’s job is to write and then other people come along and find whatever it is in the work. So if there is a message, it wouldn’t be deliberate; if it’s there it’s there. I’d prefer for things to be more open. We don’t really need to know all the answers. My plays are about people and how they are behaving and what they are doing and how that shapes the way they live or don’t live. Character would always be my theme, so I wouldn’t try and convey a big message idea in my work, or what I consider to be an idea, as ideas are incredibly abstract, and people are not abstract. We are flesh and bone and not terribly rational creatures, we are sentient creatures, we feel everything first. I find the older I get it’s the language that pulls me along, and if I find a particular metaphor or image and start chasing it down, that becomes plot as much as anything else.
Brian Friel once said that he had “a strong belief in racial memory”. This idea is also present in some of Thomas Kinsella’s poetry where he incorporates material from Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland or The Book of Invasions). Would you agree with this idea?
It’s a fabulous idea really, racial memory, and I think we all have it. You don’t realise what you know and what’s in there, what’s in the hard wiring in all of us. We all speak English here, so the idea of the vanished language of Ireland would be one aspect of racial memory. It’s part of what we are carrying down in our blood, absolutely. If you look at physically, genetically, what’s passed down in families and then there are all the things you can’t see. There are all the behavioural patterns, the familial and the racial behaviours. That whole Platonic idea of the form and its representation, and it’s all mimesis and replication and we are all constantly looking for the original. We look for it in our lives; we look for it in theatre, we look for it in poetry and art, in beauty. Think of the old Irish laments and how they affect you; often you don’t understand why something affects you the way it does, but it is like the past calling you.
In Portia Coughlan a course of action set in motion in the distant past works its way through to the present with tragic consequences. Portia’s suicide in act two seems inevitable, and makes perfect sense in the context of her obsession with her dead twin Gabriel, who drowned when he was 15. Did you have this in mind when you began working on the play or did Portia’s fate evolve as you were writing?
That was actually a quite formal exercise. I wanted to see what would happen if I put the end of the play in the middle, how that would inform the actual end of the play. I had the beginning, the end, and the middle, in three acts and I found that it worked for me very effectively. I learned a lot of things. That collapsing of time, the way of playing with the past and the present, I found that just lovely, it just made it much richer. That ending would not have worked at the end of this play as it would have been too much; the fact of bringing her back alive in act three knowing that she is dead just added layers of resonance to the play.
In The Mai, Portia Coughlan, By the Bog of Cats, and more recently Hecuba (2015), the dramatic representation of female characters is characterised not only by passion, but also by anger and rage over their cultural and political marginalisation. Is this theme necessarily present when you begin writing a new play?
A little bit; however, I have to say that the way I write, I have never written one line that I considered being from the margins, and yet in all of the commentary around women’s writing, the assumption is that you are writing from the margins, and I absolutely reject that. The whole ghettoisation of women; the idea that there is “literature” and then there is “women’s literature” is offensive. It’s very difficult in this climate because it’s so condescending. You are left with no recourse; it’s out there and that is the way you are judged. The insinuation is that you are something less than a playwright, which again is something I absolutely reject. You just realise it won’t be sorted out in my lifetime or in my daughter’s lifetime. Perhaps in 500 years or so.
Do you think that the violent acts that permeate many of your plays, ie, infanticide, suicide, incest and attempted rape, are less controversial from the perspective of the audience if the play has a basis in mythology, such as By the Bog of Cats and Ariel (2002), as opposed to the contemporary Irish world of Portia Coughlin and On Raftery’s Hill (2000)?
No, I don’t think a mythic distance provides a lot more comfort actually. It might soften the rage, but generally I find not, because the stories are so powerful and so immediate. There is a Medea, a Hecuba, and a Clytemnestra in many of us so their emotions resonate with audiences.
In Euripides’ Hecuba, the Trojan Queen is represented as blinding King Polymester and killing his two sons after he fails to protect Hecuba’s young son from the victorious Agamemnon. In your version you do not follow this story line, and Hecuba is portrayed more sympathetically, with her grief over the death of her son Polydorus and daughter Polyxena eventually driving her mad. What was the impetus behind your re-working of this myth?
I just thought she got bad press. The idea of her killing her grandchildren; I actually can’t see how she would have done it. When the Greeks were writing these plays in 500BC they were trying to invent themselves. They were trying to sort out what is the ideal state, which included what was the function of women. And Hecuba and the other Greek women had to be corralled. It is a conversation that persists down through the centuries. I love Euripides, he is a wonderful writer, and because it’s a wonderful play it’s sort of set in stone. But he was writing his version of a myth, and what do you do with just one version? Yet somehow all these archetypes of females are in western consciousness; they are types of women to be feared, they are kind of monsters at the outer reach of femininity and they are all terrifying. This terrible fear of women, the societal need to control and marginalise them, still persists.
In the play On Raftery’s Hill the central character is Red Raftery, a much more dominant and dangerous personality than either Robert in The Mai or Carthage Kilbride and Xavier Cassidy in By the Bog of Cats. Was it a different experience to create such a strong male character in light of the fact that your earlier plays focused on strong female characters?
Yes, it was lovely to do that. The older I get the more I like writing really strong male characters; they are fairly complex individuals.
You write at a high intellectual level, yet your audience may not necessarily be as well versed in the source material for many of your plays. Does the problem of communication with your audience worry you as a playwright?
A lot of the time you do worry, but the play should work anyway. I raid sources from everywhere, but it has to translate here and now, it has to be understandable, it has to be played by actors and it has to be felt. So the play should work regardless. It would worry me if I ever got too far away from that, unless it was a deliberate strategy on my part.
By the Bog of Cats was first produced by the Abbey Theatre in 1998 and was revived last year. Was there any discernible difference in the way the play was produced in 2015? Was the audience reaction different and if so why do you think that was?
Yes, there were huge differences in the production right across the board, and the audience reaction was also very different. I think the reason for that is because the play has been around for quite some time now, a lot of people had read the play and had been taught it, but hadn’t seen it, so there was quite a bit of anticipation. And the reception was ecstatic; the audience for the most recent production just adored it, which was lovely to see. It takes a long time for a play to land, and some never land, just simply fade away quietly. I was so grateful, and relieved to be honest, that it had managed to survive after 17 or 18 years. The fact that it still seems to work for audiences was lovely to have affirmed for me as a writer.
The main character in By the Bog of Cats is Hester Swane, an itinerant living on a bog, who at the age of seven is abandoned by her mother Big Josie. The play exposes the undercurrent of discrimination for the travelling community in Ireland, and parallels could be drawn with the current worldwide migrant crisis. Would you agree, and if so, do you think the audience at the recent Abbey revival would have drawn this parallel?
Well, no matter what age we are in you will always have people displaced out of their lives, their homes, and we are all capable as communities of doing this, through badness but mainly by indifference. It’s terrifying to watch, and then you have to ask yourself the question, if I were there, which person would I be? It’s very hard to be different from those around you. We are tribal and deeply conservative by nature; we like to keep people in their place, we don’t like difference, so we take it very hard when we have to open up to people. But again, you have to ask yourself, which one would I be?
Tom MacIntyre sees a connection between your work and that of William Faulkner, and I see an affinity with the Southern Gothic of Flannery O’Connor in that many of your plays are characterised by the juxtaposition of fierce black comedy, elements of the grotesque and a tenderness untainted by sentimentality. Can you comment?
Well, I love all the Southern writers, and the gothic, almost demented aspect of their work. Faulkner I adore, and then there is O’Connor and Capote, and also Eudora Welty, who was a little more restrained and classical than the others but still a beautiful writer. Yeah, those Southerners……
You have described Sixteen Possible Glimpses (2011) as being inspired by your reading of the life and work of Anton Chekhov, whom you describe as “an enormous influence” on you. Brian Friel often spoke of his affinity with the Russian playwrights and I am wondering if you ever saw his “Chekhovian” plays, Living Quarters (1977), and Aristocrats (1979), or Friel’s translations of Three Sisters (1981) and Uncle Vanya (1988)? If so, what was your reaction? Also, did you ever have the opportunity to discuss Chekhov’s legacy with Friel?
We never actually spoke about Chekhov but I did see some of Friel’s adaptations and I love his work. Thomas Kilroy and Frank McGuinness would be other Irish playwrights influenced by Chekhov. I think there is an affinity between the Russian soul and the Irish soul. The thing about Irish playwrights is that we get Chekhov, you know, the big mad family being stuck in the country. There is something about the Irish way of looking at the world and the Russian way of looking at the world that is similar.
In an interview with Mike Murphy for Reading The Future you spoke about your admiration for Tennessee Williams in particular. You have reworked various Greek myths and plays, for example By the Bog of Cats is your version of Euripides’ tragedy Medea, Ariel (2002) is loosely based on Euripides’ Iphigenia, Phaedra Backwards (2011) retells the Phaedra Myth, and Hecuba is a sympathetic look at the Trojan Queen. Would you ever consider re-telling A Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie in a contemporary Irish context?
God no! I wouldn’t dare. He’s too close and his work is perfect. An adaptation of Williams would be sacrilege. Why would you?
Your most recently published play, Indigo (2015), which was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and came about through a workshop with the director Mikel Murfi, is a dark tale of passion among fairies, mythical creatures and humans. The lyrical quality and rich imagery throughout suggest a prose poem, while the epic narrative and fabulous elements are reminiscent of the Old English poem Beowulf. Were you consciously trying to write a prose poem?
I’m waiting for a production date from the RSC, and it should be produced next year. No, I didn’t have Beowulf in mind; it’s just the way it came out. I started writing and it just kind of unfurled. It kept unfurling and I had my heart in my mouth. You can spend a lot of time as a writer digging, and then sometimes you are given a gift. It sort of came to me with a fabulous ease.
Another work that comes to mind when reading Indigo is WB Yeats’s poem, The Stolen Child, where the supernatural is represented as alluring but also threatening. Was this poem relevant when you were writing the play?
Not necessarily, but I love Yeats. He is just magnificent. In a way everything you ever read is relevant whether you can remember reading it or not.
Your work has been translated and performed in several European countries as well as in the United States. Are there discernible differences in the international productions of your plays?
I don’t have much input because they are translated. I have been invited to a few productions on the continent, and I notice they are a lot more sensual, more physical. I watched a production of Marble in Rome, which sounded beautiful in Italian. Just recently I saw a Spanish production of Marble and again it was completely different, a joy to see and just fabulous to watch, partly I suppose because I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.
Storytelling and language remain the bedrock of the Irish theatrical tradition. What’s interesting about reading through the three volumes of your plays published to date is that one can appreciate and visualise the dramas as though reading a short story. How do you feel about people reading your work as opposed to seeing it performed on stage?
Well I’m so grateful if anyone gives any time to the work, whether it’s reading the play or going to see it. I know myself I read a lot of plays; in my business you tend to read more plays than you would ever see. But it always reminds me of Ibsen, he wrote for the Christmas market, that is to sell, his plays would be bought as Christmas presents, which is just great. There is great mileage to be had from reading plays as much as seeing them, but of course, all the actors and directors disagree with me! And then a lot of people don’t think a play exists until it’s performed, but I’m not sure where I stand on that one.
In your work the dead are often as important as the living, and you have written that the writer must call on “the wisdom and circumspection needed when dealing with the dead or the past, with memory, knowledge”. As you elaborated, “it’s about the courage to sit down and face the ghosts and have a conversation with them. It’s about going over to the other side and coming back with something, new, hopefully; gold, possibly.” Is your representation of the dead and the supernatural influenced in any way by the beliefs of pre-Christian Ireland?
I do think the dead haunt us. Life is a mystery, a complete mystery, and maybe we should bow to that a bit more as we did long ago.
Carr, Marina, Low in the Dark in The Crack in the Emerald: New Irish Plays. David Grant, ed., London: Nick Herne Books, 1994.
Plays 1 (Low in the Dark, The Mai, Portia Coughlan, By the Bog of Cats) London: Faber & Faber, 1999.
Plays 2 (On Raftery’s Hill, Ariel, Woman and Scarecrow, The Cordelia Dream, Marble) London: Faber & Faber, 2009.
Plays 3 (Sixteen Possible Glimpses, Phaedra Backwards, The Map of Argentina, Hecuba, Indigo) London: Faber& Faber, 2015.
This article first appeared in Reading Ireland, founded and edited by Adrienne Leavy. Anna Karenina, adapted by Marina Carr, runs at the Abbey Theatre from December 8th to January 28th