Marina Carr, renowned Irish playwright, visited Concordia University this past November to give a master class and a reading of her work. Carr’s plays, which often involve meditations on violence, Greek mythology, national identity, loss and death, have been consistently produced since the 1990s and have had multiple productions at Ireland’s most famous theatre, the Abbey. Marina Carr is the author of over two dozen plays and this interview came shortly after Carr received the Windham-Campbell Prize given by Yale University. We started off talking about Irish literature.
Marina Carr: They say all our wars are merry and our songs are sad. Have you heard of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh? He wrote loads of beautiful, beautiful poems. But he said at one point, “tragedy is merely underdeveloped comedy.” I think there is something buried in that, do y’know? Anyone can write a tragedy but can you write a comedy? It’s one of the most difficult things…
Phoebe Fregoli: Does humour just kind of stumble out during the writing—
MC: No, I would never attempt to be funny. I can’t tell a joke. And when anyone tells a joke I get really nervous ‘cause I know I’m not going to get it.
[Phoebe and Marina laughter]
PF: Yeah, there is an expected response—
MC: It has to be explained to me and oh, you look really stupid. I just don’t get set humour or comedy. It just doesn’t work. But I think when it comes in unexpected it can be hilarious.
PF: Like the three dresses in By the Bog of Cats at the wedding scene is a pretty hilarious image but it’s not “ha-ha this is funny” humour.
MC: It’s just there—
PF: —yes it’s just there. Funny. Almost like a second thought.
MC: And let it resonate or not. I like understated.
PF: I wanted to ask you about your relationship to motherhood and the expectations of mothers, and women in general, to be nurturing and loving and caring. Portia from Portia Coughlan is an unfit mother; Hester from By The Bog of Cats is obsessed and can’t get past the neglect and abandonment from her mother and in turn is worried about her daughter as well. And I think, in a sense, those characters could be cast as “unfeminine”—or described that way, or as “monsters”—but there is so much humanity in them. Like you were saying in the master class: it is vital to make those characters believable and construct the world of the play so that we understand the motivation behind those actions. And you do that incredibly well. Is it a conscious choice to make characters that challenge those perceived notions of motherhood? Or what is expected of mothers?
MC: That, and what you see. Y’know, our lives are not episodes out of Hello Magazine. They’re not! I’ve never been in a house like out of Country Living: a house that clean or a house that well presented, or—I don’t know anyone who is dressed that well or is that perfect… they’re obviously airbrushed to death. And there’s the way in which sensibility and expectations around men and women are airbrushed to death. Being a woman means being a mother means being a loving mother means giving your life to your children, and having nothing but just beautiful little Walt Disney thoughts in your head. Y’know, that you’ve no life apart from “mother”—that this is what you are. And same for men: you’re a good provider and you’re hetero and you go out and you make loads of money and you wear beautiful suits and you drive your beautiful car and your house is stunning even though there are ten infants. And there’s no smell of dirty nappies, and the kitchen is spotless. And even the dog doesn’t pee! Who are these people!? What is this expectation? Our lives are so messy, we are so messy. The idea that you’ll be defined and squeezed that tightly into a definition so that if the role of your life is “mother”, you can only be a good mother. Which means that 24 hours, 7 days/week you are only good and loving and perfect. It’s kind of a recipe for psychosis. And my experience is of women I know, and things I’ve seen in my home life, and we are far more complex than that. And love takes many shapes and forms. And we are not so PC—thank god. We are far more interesting than that. We’re far messier, we’re far darker, we’re far lighter at times, than the world gives us credit for. And all these rules around status quo and acceptance—I have huge problems with that. I have huge problems with the way women are perceived and meant to be. I have huge problems with the way men are meant to be. I have sons and daughters and so I see both. You see how difficult it is for young boys in the world and you see how difficult it is for young girls in the world. And it’s not like one is better than the other or it is easier for one than the other. I suppose I’m afraid of severe political stance. And I’m very fearful of any kind of fascist notions of who we should be and how we should behave. And that gender should decide this or expectations should cripple us in any way—whether it’s a girl child or a boy child. Or whether it’s me or it’s a man of my age or whatever. I have huge problems with that and I think we all suffer from those expectations. And they limit us. So we’re far more fluid than that.
PF: Gender, specifically, is extremely rigid. An extremely rigid way to look at people. And a disservice.
MC: A complete disservice. We’re more alike than we are dissimilar, actually. When you break it down. We’re all just kind of loping around the place looking for a bit of affection.
[Phoebe and Marina laughing]
MC: We’re like my dog! “Are you gonna talk to me now?” “Do you think I’m okay?” Y’know, it’s ridiculous, it’s pathetic, but at base—it’s, y’know, we’re animals. We’re from the animal kingdom. We feel everything first. Ideas come later. We’re not rational creatures. No one assumed we were until the Enlightenment. And I don’t know how that happened, it was a complete mistake—we are not rational. We’re emotion-driven. They say we make decisions about people before they even open their mouth. Because we’ve got all that animal stuff going on—we read. We read bodies. We read eyes. We read language. We read the way a person presents themselves and we make decisions before they’ve even opened their mouth. And one of the things is to try and not do that. But sometimes you realize—actually, my instinct was absolutely right here. Do you know?
MC: You need to trust that animal part of you as well.
PF: It seems like you value that a lot—that instinct.
MC: I do. I also value thought and idea and… the idea of something greater than yourself—mystery. I value all of that, of course I do. But I think we can get stuck in very rigid and not very interesting ideas, and it suits the powers that be, the ones who rule the world, it suits them to simplify it all and have little cogs. And sort us and tell each of us how much we’re worth. “Off you go, don’t be annoying while we destroy the world.” ‘Cause we’re fat and we’re seventy and we’re gonna die soon and why would we preserve anything? ‘Cause it’s all about us.
PF: [Phoebe laughing] So it seems like the way you depict your characters is driven by wanting to create roles that are far more realistic than what—
MC: Passions interest me. What drives someone interests me. And what drives someone is very complex. And what drives someone when their back is to the wall is incredibly complex. And none of us know what that is until our backs are to the wall. I always think it’s fascinating to put yourself in a situation where you see something you really disapprove of, but then you think: “Well, who would I be in that room? When such and such happened? Who would I be? Would I be the one who slunk away, would I be the one who stands up and gets shot for my beliefs? Would I be the one who goes with the status quo?” It’s very easy to judge in hindsight. Yeah. I think it’s very… we’re very conservative by nature. And people who call themselves “liberals,” I have huge problems with.
PF: I wanted to talk as well about the re-imaginings you’ve done of Greek plays and Greek myths. I read in an interview that you said that Hecuba just had bad press. I thought that was really funny. How Euripides wrote his version of that story. And I guess I wondered what inspires you to write your version or, I guess, in this case, Hecuba’s version of those stories?
MC: Well, you read the stuff and it’s as simple as thinking that just doesn’t ring true to me. I don’t agree with that. Or—y’know, history is written by the winners, we all know that. Myths then, are written by winners, too. These myths are very very old. At the time that Euripides wrote his Hecuba, 700 years had passed since the Trojan war. So Hecuba was 700 years dead. He himself was dealing with a myth. He was making it up just from a few facts. She was the wife of Priam. He made up that she blinded Polymestor and killed the kids. And I thought, well, that’s your version. And you’re trying to found the Greek state and one of the things you begin with in founding a state is sorting the women out. So all these Greeks plays are cautionary tales on how not to be women. Hecuba included. And she’s an outsider, she’s the enemy. The play is all about how wonderful we are, despite the fact that we’ve enslaved all our women and they are just in the kitchens and they have no rights and, I mean, democracy, my eye. Democracy?
MC: It’s just for men and boys. No democracy for women, no democracy for slaves, men or women. And we’re living out a version of this still. And it’s absolute farce. All of that stuff fascinates me. The birth of law circa 2500 BC fascinates me. We’re still dealing with that feckin first law court and that first judgement handed down, which decides to not avenge the killing of a woman, by the way. Small little detail—that’s where the law begins!
MC: The myths and the plays are full of mystery. Mystery is kind of something that’s been given bad press as well, y’know this age of reason, trying to explain everything? And anything that’s not immediately understandable or believable is just trash and pushed aside. That’s a very recent thing. And it’s very arrogant. It’s very interesting when that last appeared in 2500 BC with the fountain of the Polus, when they decided that man was the measure of all things, not the Gods. A time when they absolutely valued reason, they valued oratory, they valued rationale. They valued bravery and courage and swiftness of thought and argument. And it seems like… everything is going in cycles, we’re back to that again. This absolute denial of mystery, of anything outside of oneself, anything greater than ourselves. It seems that we are in that swill again. And then you can’t help but think of Oedipus. And the blindness of that. Because the fact is—it’s all mystery. Y’know, that we’re here is mysterious. Where we’re going is mysterious.
PF: I really like what you said about how mystery isn’t valued, and things that you can’t concretely say happened aren’t valued. That makes me think of memory as well. And personal memory, which is a huge theme in a lot of your plays. Especially, again, I was thinking about Hester’s memory of her mother in By The Bog of Cats, and in particular how hers is almost the opposite from every other account of who Big Josie was. How much do you think memory and identity influence one another?
MC: Well, I mean, it’s why we’re here. Validation of the self is probably the most difficult thing to do. To validate oneself—we’re in the world, here, one time—it’s an extraordinary thing. And then, particularly, to validate things that you are convinced have happened, and define you, and are you. They’re part of your narrative and what you are and how you are in the world, how at ease or uneasy you are in the world. And it almost feels like you’re going to be put on trial for these memories. When in fact, they’re a thing that’s so integral to you. If you’re going to deny someone’s memories, you might as well slit their throat. ‘Cause that is who they are. For the writer then, or the artist in the world, I think it’s a constant navigation between the attempt at creation on the one hand and validation of oneself as a writer, as an artist, on the other. If it’s painting or music or writing— whatever. It’s a very, very difficult thing to do. You need a really strong sense of self to persevere with that. To keep exploring. And to keep that sense of self intact. And not allow it to be interfered with. It’s very difficult. And not allow it to be contaminated.
PF: And you said in your master class that having a sense of self is very important but also knowing where your words are coming from. And your lineage—tracing. Do you think generational memory exists as well?
PF: And that you can trace memory as well. How do you think that comes out?
MC: I think the body carries a lot—the hard-wiring, the gene pool. I think there’s racial memory, there’s familial memory, there’s griefs and there’s repetitions within families—things being worked out through generations. Going back to the Greeks, it’s fascinating to watch those plays because you see the curse happening through the generations. And it’s fascinating to see that, imagine if we could see our own lives through the generations — what’s been passed down, hidden and unhidden, like we see physical characteristics. You say, “Oh, that child is the image of the grandmother,” you look at photographs, whatever. So we can see that, and we trust that. Why don’t we trust what’s going on with memory and soul and mind? Which is what’s inside us and is just as important as our physical appearance and what we’re carrying physically down the line. I suppose because it’s invisible, and as you say with proof and validation, these are difficult things to prove.
PF: Do you think re-adaptations like yours of Hecuba reshapes the memory of Hecuba?
MC: I would hope. It depends on the appetite of the public. Most people wouldn’t have read Euripides’ Hecuba, not to my mind. Those who do take the trouble to read both may absolutely disagree with my interpretation, but that’s fine. At least they’re taking the trouble and they know what they’re talking about and they’ve done the work. It’s a waiting game.
Hear Marina Carr read from her Hecuba during Writers Read in November 2017 co-sponsored with The School of Canadian Irish Studies: