Staging Histories in Marina Carr's Midlands Plays

By Murphy, Paula | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Autumn-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Staging Histories in Marina Carr's Midlands Plays


Murphy, Paula, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


Marina Carr is one of Ireland's foremost contemporary playwrights. Still at a relatively early stage in her career, she already has an impressive list of plays to her credit and has received critical acclaim not only in Ireland but internationally, particularly in the US where she won the E.M. Forster Award for Literary Achievement in 2001, (1) and the AIF Literary Award in 2004. Her first plays, Low in the Dark, The Deer's Surrender, Ullaloo, and This Love Thing, performed between 1989 and 1991, are characterized by a distinctively Beckettian style of writing. These plays are influenced by the theatre of the absurd and contain a strong feminist orthodoxy. 1994 saw the beginning of a new phase in Carr's writing with the performance of The Mai, which marked a complete change from the absurdism of her earlier plays. Those works, including The Mai, have formed a phase of writing known as the midlands plays. Carr's change of direction at this point in her career has not been adequately explained, but what is certain is that it moved her firmly into the mainstream, where she began to attract more critical attention. This is illustrated by a quick glance at where her plays have been performed over the years. The absurdist plays were staged in the Project Arts Centre and the Peacock; The Mai was also performed in the Peacock and subsequently ran in Paris. Its positive reception won her the Dublin Theatre Festival best new playwright award and resulted in Carr's appointment to the post of writer-in-residence at the Abbey in 1995. Portia Coughlan premiered at the Peacock in 1996; in 1998 By the Bog of Cats was first performed in the Abbey as was Ariel in 2002. Carr has achieved an international reputation in this time too. Her plays have been put on in the Royal Court in London and in Toronto; she was the Trinity College writer-in-residence in 1999, and in 2004 By the Bog of Cats was performed in Wyndham's Theatre in the West End with Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter playing the lead role. Her plays have had several US productions and there have already been translations into Russian and German. More recently, her newest play Woman and Scarecrow premiered in London's Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in June 2006. This play has marked a move away from the thematic direction of the midlands plays and a further distancing from their realist dimension.

Despite the growing success of Carr's career, some critics have cautiously registered their disappointment at what may be perceived as her surrender of artistic integrity. Claire Wallace states that '[f]rom the perspective of positive, politically aggressive feminism, Carr's work might be said to have developed in a negative sense veering from a playful satirical feminism to grim patriarchal tragedy.' (2) It does seem more than a little strange that the first female Irish playwright in decades with a relatively high profile, in a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, should choose to set her plays in antiquated rural communities. The paucity of female playwrights in Irish theatre is well known, but the low profile of those that do exist suggests that the critical reluctance to engage with women writers is exacerbating the problem. Of the current group of female playwrights including Mary-Elizabeth Burke Kennedy, Marie Jones, and Emma Donoghue, Carr is the one who has received the most sustained critical attention. Until the last decade, the only woman playwright to be in the forefront of Irish theatre was Lady Augusta Gregory, and in her case, this was at least partially because of her influence in the formation of the Abbey. Because of this lack of an established tradition, it is inevitable that much of the writing on Carr has examined her as an Irish female voice rather than an Irish voice. This viewpoint is not necessarily helpful, however, as the female characters in Carr's drama bear little relation to their counterparts in contemporary Ireland.

Carr's plays both affirm and deny any easy definition as distinctively 'Irish', and to suggest that she represents modern Irish identity is even more problematic.

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