Disrupting Metanarratives: Anne Devlin, Christina Reid, Marina Carr, and the Irish Dramatic Repertory

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This essay asks: what is it that women's dramatic literature exposes and interrogates? It proposes that drama by women disrupts hegemonic narratives, resulting in a popular and critical perception that such work exists outside of the mainstream dramatic tradition. The near total absence of plays by women from Dublin's main stages, the construction of the national repertory around a body of work by male authors, and the critical response to work by women when it is performed, suggest difficulties in producing critical responses to women's writing, and in situating that writing within the national tradition. This essay examines the question of the interrogatory power of women's drama, through an exploration of work by three professional playwrights--Marina Carr, Anne Devlin, and Christina Reid--with an emphasis on their stylistic and textual engagement with dominant tropes and conventions of the Irish theatre. The main focus here is on their interventions into dominant identity narratives of postcoloniality, nationalism, and loyalism.

Although the playwrights come from the Republic, and the Northern Irish nationalist and loyalist communities respectively, it is not the intention to designate any of them as the 'voice' of her community, or to suggest that the cultures of this island be unproblematically subsumed under one label. The works are chosen to illustrate the formal and thematic range of late twentieth-century women's dramatic writing, and to examine their engagement with dominant cultural narratives, as they seek to incorporate previously invisible and inaudible female experience. Anne Devlin confronts the figure of Cathleen Ni Houlihan in After Easter, having presented a terrible maimed effigy of the woman-nation in Ourselves Alone. Christina Reid explores the dynamic between cultural and political frameworks in loyalism, and the exclusion of women from positions of power, in plays that assert the primary importance of family and domestic life. In the process, she creates new symbols of identity and community from the domestic world, as does Marina Carr in By the Bog of Cats ... In both their dramatic inventions, china cups and white dresses take on new layers of meaning and significance.

These works challenge critical approaches that persist, despite some decades of feminist literary studies and a considerable body of scholarship in the field, in defining women's dramatic writing as, at worst, a footnote in Irish theatre history; and at best as a secondary accompaniment to the main business of the male repertory. More than a decade ago, Steve Wilmer reported on the problems women encountered in having their work accepted for production, (1) and the issue was again apparent in the programming for the Abbey Theatre's centenary celebrations. In 2004, as the National Theatre celebrated a century of Irish drama, there was not a single female playwright or director on the main stage. Although the first months of 2005 saw Lynne Parker's production Improbable Frequencies transfer from the independent sector to the main stage, and Shelagh Stephenson's Enlightenment premiere at the Peacock, in terms of writers and directors the programme from May to December for both stages was again entirely male.

The situation on the stage is reflected in the published histories of Irish theatre and the anthologies of Irish dramatic writing: the overall narrative is predominantly male. (2) Thus the dramatic tropes and conventions, shaped by a largely male authorship, continue to reinforce a male-focused tradition through the interpretive framework that has developed around them. When publications have focused mainly on women writers and theatre artists, they have generally articulated this as a qualification in the title or subtitle. For example, the immensely valuable Field Day Anthology of Women's Writing and Traditions foregrounds in its title the continuing need to assert the presence of women in the history and literature of the country. …