Marina Carr profile: Beckett’s heir and Synge’s song

As the leading playwright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina opens at the Abbey Theatre, TCD academic Melissa Sihra assesses her career

A feeling for place lies at the heart of the theatre of Marina Carr. Hovering between memory and imagination, between literary allusion and topographic realism her plays incorporate spaces that are never fully real and never purely fictional where “every barrow and rivulet and bog hole” resonates with visceral energy.

From Pullagh and Mucklagh, to Belmont, Lilliput Lake and Mohia Lane in the Midlands, Carr’s childhood terrain is one of the most formative aspects of her dramatic vision. Within this rich symbolic realm of otherness cultural notions of femininity, motherhood and the family are explored. The Mai (Abbey 1994) is inspired by Pallas Lake where Carr grew up and is set on the banks of fictional Owl Lake. Portia Coughlan (Abbey 1996), with its genesis in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, is located in the Offaly village of Belmont while By the Bog of Cats… (Abbey 1998) takes place upon the shape-shifting seams of the dark Bog of Allen. Bodies of water occur with frequency in Carr’s plays and offer alternative realms of expression and refuge beyond the confines of the home for the central female characters.

Owl Lake is a source of myth, renewal and death while the Belmont River is a literal and figurative counter-agent to the oppressive forces within land-locked Offaly in Portia Coughlan as it erodes the boundaries of the male-owned farmlands, breaking fences and powerfully redefining the contours of patriarchy.

Like the work of earlier Irish playwrights of the 20th century such as Margaret O’Leary and Teresa Deevy, Carr explores female disaffection in terms of motherhood, the family and society, where the oppressiveness of patriarchy is set against questions of women’s agency. Self-exile is one of the key themes of Carr’s theatre where the domestic sphere fails to offer the refuge and regeneration that each woman attains in the outside world.


In The Mai, Carr explores 100 years of Irish women’s history through the four generations of seven female characters ranging in age from 100-year-old Grandma Fraochlan to 16-year-old Millie. Addressing topics such as divorce, abortion and women’s sexuality, lyrical memories intersect with social histories in a play that was ground-breaking for the time when, as Carr notes, “there were not many plays with women characters”.

Portia Coughlan (1996) focuses on the life and death of 30-year-old Portia and her alienation from the socially prescribed roles of wife and mother. Nature and the outdoors are set in contrast to the insufferable enclosure of the home. Portia Coughlan was commissioned by Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital and ironically radically challenges culturally ingrained notions of the “maternal instinct” and oppressive patriarchy within the home and society at large.

Portia connects to realms of inner creativity in her association with the beauty of the natural world. Her plea for spaces of possibility beyond the “livin’ hell” of “her life within the home” is expressed in her intimate connection with the landscape. Identifying with the cyclical rhythms of the birds, animals, fish, trees, and the Belmont River, Portia attains a sense of fulfilment unavailable elsewhere. Nature and the outdoors signify freedom and expression unlike the living-death of domesticity – “all these wooden duurs and floors, sometimes I feel I’m being buried alive”.

Portia has never left the Belmont Valley and lives vicariously through the flight and return of the creatures around her as well as the constant ebb and swell of the river: “Oh I’m sure I’d live through what other folks calls holidays, but me mind’d be turnin’ on the Belmont River. Be wonderin’ was it flowin’ rough or smooth, was the bank mucky nor dry, was the salmon beginnin’ their rowin’ for the sea, was the frogs spawnin’ the waterlillies, had the heron returned, be wonderin’ all of these and a thousand other wonderins’ that the river washes over me.”

Portia’s heightened sensibility manifests when she is addressing nature, where the birds, animals and river are extensions of her identity. Reflecting upon the cyclical journey of the salmon in the Belmont River, we can hear how her speech, with its stress upon the letter “s” and repeated “sh” sounds, onomatopoeically expresses the fishes’ very motion, conveying meaning through sound and symbolising the transformation and renewal that she seeks through the expressions of their mobility:

“Ya chan hear tha salmon goin’ up river if ya listen well enough, strugglin’ for tha Shannon, an’ up inta tha mouh a’ tha sae an’ from there a slow cruise home ta tha spawnin’ gounds a’ th’Indian Ocean.”

In Portia Coughlan landscape and language reflect the emotions of the female protagonist through the setting and phonetic Midlands dialect. Language both shapes, and is shaped by, place and landscape and we can hear this in Carr’s lyrical re-writing of Standard English into a strongly-expressed Midlands dialect. Carr is the first playwright since John Millington Synge to ascribe a particular kind of dialect so closely with landscape on the Irish stage. The dialect of the first edition of Portia Coughlan mirrors the flat, rough, watery topography of its origin. Carr reflects how, “The early plays were absurdist; they were Standard English. The dialect came in with Portia Coughlan. It is an element of the way that people in the midlands speak… it is a created world we are finally talking about. It is inspired, certainly, by where I grew up.” Carr explains that the Offaly accent is characteristically “slow, flat, with no Ts”, where the lack of standard punctuation creates a fluid monotone that mirrors both the river and the meandering state of Portia’s existence.

There are many influences on Carr’s writing from Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and Brian Friel to perhaps most notably Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov. Carr’s early plays are “a homage to Beckett” particularly in terms of form, whilst her mature works engage on a deeper experiential level with the inner recesses of Beckett’s vision. Carr’s plays are connected by the Midlands landscape and also by the Beckettian theme of ontological repetition and “inactive action” or waiting – for someone or “somethin’ momentous to happen”.

In Beckett and Carr the tragedy of the human condition lies in the implosive circularity of arrested development and the inherent need for transformation. With their emphasis on waiting as a through-line, all three 1990s Midlands plays can be regarded as variations on Waiting for Godot. The Mai spends her time waiting for her lover Robert by the window, Portia seeks the ghost of her dead brother by the banks of the Belmont River and Hester Swane in By the Bog of Cats… (1998) spends her nights and days roaming the bog, “waitin’ a lifetime for someone to return”. For Carr and Beckett the deferral of self-fulfilment is the greatest tragedy of humankind where senseless repetition indicates a death of self. Low in the Dark (1989) humorously focuses upon inane repetition in order to highlight the absurdity of gendered behaviour in everyday life, while Grandma Fraochlan in The Mai articulates a key concern of Carr’s vision, “we can’t help repeatin’ Robert, we repeat and we repeat, the orchestration may be different but the tune is always the same”.

By the Bog of Cats… (Abbey Theatre 1998) is a loose adaptation of Euripides’s Medea relocated to 1990s Celtic Tiger rural Ireland. Here Traveller Hester Swane waits endlessly for the mother who abandoned her at the age of seven and the association of woman and landscape is strongly manifest in Hester’s connection with the ungovernable bog. Shifting between house, caravan and “night-roaming on the bog”, Hester challenges conservative notions of Irish womanhood, illuminating the judgemental moral myopia of the settled community.

While Beckett’s plays are replete with male tramp-like characters in search of ontological accommodation and reprieve from the stasis of non-transformation, Hester lives on the margins and is similarly exilic. Landscape is central to the meaning of the play, expressing a fecund doubleness that is at once mundane and supernatural. The duality of visceral place and radical otherness that characterises the bog is a metaphor for Carr’s dramaturgy as a whole where the profound unknowability of the bog mirrors the ways in which Carr observes “we are as much not of this world, as we are of it”. “Always ‘shiftin’ and changin’ and coddin’ the eye”, the bog is a potent purveyor of history, one vast porous grave of dead leaves reverberating with the palpable energies of “All the dead voices. / They make a noise like wings. Like leaves./ Like sand./ Like leaves.”

In Carr’s 1990s trilogy each of the female protagonists dies by suicide. While some critics have pointed out the need for “positive resolutions” for women in the plays, Carr shows a contemporary society where processes of female oppression have only begun to be seriously acknowledged in the social, political and academic fora of the last decade or so, making the point that painful narratives need to be addressed before so-called “positive” resolutions can be staged. Death should not be regarded literally in Carr’s work but rather, as a poetics of transition and becoming rather than closure.

While it might seem more apposite to offer positive resolution, passing over the less appealing hidden histories of domestic violence and sexual abuse, paedophilia, prostitution, inequity and emotional isolation in favour of vibrancy and reconciliation, such deaths are the necessary symbolic articulations of disaffection on the pathway to accommodating female subjectivity in Irish theatre and culture.

Carr’s emergence as a playwright in the late 1980s coincided with a sense of increasing presence and visibility for Irish women – Mna na hÉireann, in Irish culture and politics. Newly elected President Mary Robinson made a speech at the premiere of Carr’s This Love Thing in 1991, identifying the significance of a new play by a woman at this time.

For the first time in the history of the State protest and reform was taking place with regard to divorce, abortion, homosexuality, contraception and the oppressive constitutional definitions of woman as wife and mother in the home. Carr observes that, “With the founding of the State, the imagination vanished and there began huge resistance to deep feeling and complexity”. While Robinson was contesting restrictive legislation regarding gender and sexuality in the political forum, Carr’s plays were articulating female disaffection and redressing conservative moral values on the Irish stage.

By the Bog of Cats… concludes the cycle of female suicide. In On Raftery’s Hill 2000 the characters are incarcerated in a horrific cycle of repetition which Carr says “is worse than death”. In this distillation of Beckettian inactive-action, incest denotes a dehumanising arrested development where “no-body comes, no-body goes, it’s awful”.

The land, farming and mutilated nature and animal-imagery run through On Raftery’s Hill as metaphors for the tragic plight of the family within the home. Confined to the kitchen, form and content are reflexive where the characters’ lack of movement to the outdoors conveys the violating incarceration of the women within the home.

While the kitchen in Irish drama has come to signify an enduring association and conflation of family and nation, Carr’s inversion of Augusta Gregory’s and WB Yeats’s Kathleen ni Houlihan (1902) radically de-idealises hearth and home here where generational cycles of sexual abuse continue without intervention by Church or State.

Set on a remote hill, the exegetic landscape poignantly expresses the detachment of the family from social structures, where sexual abuse is mediated through images of nature and animal cruelty. Forty-year-old Dinah processes her ongoing sexual relationship with her father through a metaphor of the surrounding pastures: “Ud’s just like children playing in a field at some awful game before laws was made”. Self-preservatory notions of an idyllic childhood jar with the reality that Dinah was raped by her father with her mother’s knowledge from the age of 12: “He used take me up the fields wud him, up on hees shoulders, thought I was a giant. I went everywhere wud him, he’d be mendin fences and I’d be playin wud me dolls beside him, or savin the hay, he’d throw me up on the haycocks and I’d roll down and he’d ketch me, taught me to fish…”

Nature offers a distancing narrative as she remembers how he “Taught me all the names a the trees, ash behind the house, sycamore in the Church Field, yew and oak in the Calla, sycamore, elder, blackthorn, the River Field, beech the Lower Field, beech the Haggard, beech the Fairyfort… I remember the names a trees like no wan…” On Raftery’s Hill presents a complex web of collusion and delusion where each character negotiates the suffering with which they are implicated behind closed doors, whether as perpetrator, victim or complicit bystander. In a rewriting of the ending of Waiting for Godot we see how Carr’s motif of infinite repetition is rendered painfully real as the characters remain seated in the kitchen and, like the tramps, “They do not move”.

Psychic landscapes of the inner world manifest in Carr’s “dream plays” – Marble (2009, Abbey Theatre), The Cordelia Dream (2009, Royal Shakespeare Company) and The Giant Blue Hand (2009, The Ark, Dublin) where the unconscious life powerfully determines the everyday world. In 16 Possible Glimpses (Abbey Theatre, 2011), Carr explores her major theme of conscious-living through imagined “glimpses” into the life of Anton Chekhov, while Phaedra Backwards (McCarter Theatre Princeton, 2011) is a return to the Greek world in a non-geographically specific re-imagining of the Phaedra/Hippolytus myth, which offers a powerful feminist renegotiation of the Aristotelian form and content of classical tragedy.

Characteristic of Carr’s dramaturgy is the organic congruence of multiple realms of imaginative “otherness” with the everyday world. A powerful materiality of alterity can be identified in the presence of dreams, ghost-figures, echoes of death, landscapes of bogs, fields, ring-forts, folk-tales and sites of water. In Phaedra Backwards the Minotaur-figure is a compelling embodiment of the core of Carr’s work – the unknowable otherness that is plumbed within the depths of us all. Stage directions indicate that there are “two scores” – Phaedra’s and the Minotaur’s, and their dual planes shift and slide about one another throughout the drama. Half man, half beast, the Minotaur embodies intrinsic otherness and is one of many such unquantifiable figures in her work. “Yes,” he says, “this is how I was sent into the world. All the nobility of the white bull. But unfortunately too in my mix, all the shadowy faculties of your race.”

Carr has spoken throughout her career about the tragedy of the death of the non-rational and of our need for mystery, “No one talks about the soul anymore.” For Carr humanity and dignity depend upon the acceptance of difference within ourselves and others. Carr’s Minotaur is the soul-figure and imagination itself. Feared and desired, he is finally destroyed by patriarchal authority and while Theseus’s slaying of the Minotaur has conventionally been regarded as the birth of Western civilisation, for Carr, it is “the beginning of the end”.

Operating upon multiple layers of meaning which serve to challenge monological ideologies of gender, place and identity, Carr’s plays offer new ways to process the past and transform the future in Irish theatre and culture.