Talking with Ghosts of Irish Playwrights Past: Marina Carr's by the Bog of Cats
Russell, Richard, Comparative Drama
In 1998, Marina Carr's play By the Bog of Cats ... premiered at Ireland's famous Abbey Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Carr's play was the first written by a female dramatist to be produced on the main stage of the national theater for decades, a testimony to a new moment in Irish theater, rife with potential for women dramatists, as well as a testament to this extraordinary playwright's great talent. On 31 May 2001, the play premiered at the Victory Gardens Theatre, presented by the Irish Repertory of Chicago, but the 14 September 2001 production at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, with Holly Hunter in the lead role of Hester Swane--just three days after the terrorist attacks of September 11--catapulted Carr to fame in the United States. Melissa Sihra has noted that "the show ran for a month resulting in an overall attendance of eighteen thousand people" (1) The play's violence was apparently appropriate to the somber national mood: Sihra argues that "in retrospect By the Bog of Cats ... offered a sense of comfort and catharsis to audiences, where a lighter drama or comedy would certainly have been inappropriate at this time" (2) Perhaps in these times of war and terrorist bombings, this dark play remains appropriate to our situation.
By the Bog of Cats ... is a revenant drama, featuring a series of persistently questioning apparitions. These include the Ghost Fancier, who appears at the beginning of the play for Hester Swane but who has gotten there too soon; the ghost of Joseph Swane, the brother of Hester Swane; and the ghostly memories of figures from the past such as Hester's mother, Josie, who disappeared thirty-three years ago, and Xavier Cassidy's son, who was poisoned by strychnine.
While these ghosts figure in the specific argument that will follow, another array of spectral presences--the ghostly presences of Irish dramatists from the past, whose work Cart has heavily drawn on, yet modified--suggests how best to understand the comparative dramatic context of the play. In her 1998 essay, "Dealing with the Dead," Carr casts the question of literary influence in ghostly terms. Discussing Odysseus's conversations with the dead in chapter 11 of the Odyssey, "The Book of the Dead," she suggests that these discussions exemplify "Homer talking about writing and how to gain access to hidden knowledge, to the past, to the dead, to that other world. And what he seems to be saying is you must give blood, blood being the sacrifice demanded for the tongues or the ear of the dead." (3) Carr further observes that these passages from Homer demonstrate "incredible bravery on the part of the writer. 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." (4)
Carr, too, has had the courage to face the ghosts and have conversations with them. As her fellow Irish playwright Frank McGuinness observed in his program note to the Abbey Theatre production of By the Bog of Cats ... in 1998, "Death is a big country. And hers is a big imagination, crossing the border always between the living and the dead." (5) Contemporary Irish playwrights are much in debt to their predecessors W. B. Yeats, John Synge, and Samuel Beckett--three of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century. Carr has managed to learn from these ghosts of Irish playwrights past, borrowing from them and ultimately concocting her own inimitable theater.
Although Euripides' Medea clearly influenced Carr's play, this essay will focus on the specific ways in which Carr's play proves Christopher Murray's thesis that "in modern Irish dramatic history ... each successive writer rewrites his/her predecessors." (6) Apprehending the spectral presence of these earlier Irish playwrights will enable us to gain some appreciation for the continuing emphasis on language in Irish drama, from its beginnings in the Abbey Theatre of Yeats, Gregory, and John Synge to its experimental apogee, the theater of Samuel Beckett. …