Women writers finally take centre stage

 

I grew to love theatre watching an Abbey stage which had no place for women. It had women on it, of course - they were in no shortage in Friel's Lughnasa, for instance - but it was a symbolic space which had no place for the symbolism of women. In Marina Carr's By The Bog of Cats, which opened at the Abbey last week, I saw women's rituals and psychological dynamics sketched for the first time on the national stage, on such a scale that I could see them as being significant at a national level.

As a play, the work has flaws, threads which just don't sink into the weave. But when you see the whole symbolic system of wedding dresses and communion dresses, and mother-daughter relationships, on the Abbey stage for the first time, it is hard to understand why they took so long to get there. Irish theatre has relied heavily on the fact that the audience was cohesive enough to identify en masse with the characters playwrights created; it has relied heavily, indeed, on the ability of these characters to symbolise different areas of Irish life. Particularly during the 1980s, there was a real sense of our playwrights being the shamans of the tribe.

A huge part of the peculiar power of Irish theatre during this period was the ability of the stage of the National Theatre to be a national arena. Within this area, Frank McGuinness could question the whole nature of the southern relationship with Ulster Protestantism in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1984); Tom MacIntyre, with Patrick Mason and Tom Hickey, could seem to reopen a terrible void of understanding between men and women in this country in their version of Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger (1983).

Off the stage of the National Theatre, other national theatres were playing parallel, as new theatre everywhere, which in those days nearly always meant new writing, struggled to forge the soul of the nation. Field Day's work seemed to take this responsibility seriously, and a play like Brian Friel's Translations (1980) actually succeeded in articulating a kind of national grief for the loss of the Irish language.

While at Druid, Tom Murphy could evoke the nature of our national failure to grow up on our own turf and claim it, rather than emigrating desperately from any confrontation with ourselves, in Conversations on a Homecoming (1985).

Despite the liveliness of the theatre, however, the dearth of women writers for the stage was remarked on again and again. In 1992, for instance, a preview of Garry Hynes's programme for that year was described on this newspaper's arts page as "pretty much like a who's who of contemporary Irish drama", and contained the name of not a single woman: "Friel, McGuinness, Roche, Keane, MacMahon, Harding and Kennelly for starters, mostly with new work, and a still unspecified classic from Tom Murphy. Throw in Shakespeare and Gorky, and it would be very churlish indeed to regret the omission (so far at least) of names like Hugh Leonard, Declan Hughes and Jim Nolan. You can't have everyone, at least not at once."

It seemed to me at the time, as a young woman theatre-goer, that the theatre's obsession with great national themes played against women, because they had no history of national power and they could not find the voice to make their psychological journeys symbolise those of the tribe. I think I had read and seen so many accounts of the father-son relationship that I thought I had had one myself.

In fact, Irish theatre has begun to change, not because women have come forward to claim that symbolic space, but because the audience has become so diffuse it found it hard to cod itself into being a tribe, even for a couple of hours. And theatre has absorbed more and more of the influences of the age of information, sometimes growing into forms which make it unrecognisable.

However, later in that 1992 preview of the Abbey's year, there is a mention that Garry Hynes is to direct Marina Carr's The Mai herself, something which didn't happen, in fact, until 1994. Four years later, in By The Bog of Cats, she has recreated the Abbey stage as a national space, and fearlessly put women at the centre of it.

The play hinges on Hester Swane's longing for her mother, who left her when she was seven years old. It is not hard to see that longing as more than personal in a world in which feminism has driven a wedge between generations of women; in which, as Susie Orbach has written in her studies of anorexia, mothers actually hold their female infants less than they do male infants, as if trying to pass on to them the message that their needs will not be satisfied; and in which there are few powerful female archetypes.

The desperation of the search for a mother figure comes into focus when you read that a computer analysis of Marian apparitions reveals they nearly always occur to girls before puberty, who have lost a mother figure within the preceding eight weeks. At seven, Hester makes her Communion in a snow-white dress, becomes initiated into a society in which she will have no power, and loses her mother. At seven, her daughter Josie does the same. There are three white dresses around the wedding table of Josie's father, that of his wife, daddy's girl, Caroline Kennedy, that of his son-adoring mother, and his daughter's Communion dress - a chilling sight. There are still very few Irish women, and almost no little girls, who don't love white dresses. It is heart-breaking and true when little Josie runs forward to touch her father's bride's dress, ignorant of the tortured jealousy of her mother.

But Carr spares no feelings in her evocation of the freedom which is sometimes taken away in return for the joy of being a princess for a day. And seeing those terrible rituals being acted out on the national stage has all the "shock of the new".