Some critics have praised Marina Carr for her surreal depictions of Irish family life, describing her as one of the voices in the forefront of Irish dramatic literature. Some critics have noted Carr’s adherence to the ancient form of tragedy and her reliance on sources of tragedy both ancient ( Euripides) and modern ( Eugene O’Neill). Still others have praised her use of colloquial dialect, claiming it to be both authentic and moving. The fact that all these critics have found something unique to laud in Carr’s work indicates the power and strength of her writing. As one of the most celebrated women writers in Ireland, Carr has made a lasting mark on the theater both inside and outside the British Isles for her unflinching examinations of dysfunctional family life, her modern reinterpretations of such classics as Euripides’ Mdeia (431 b.c.e.; Medea, 1781), and her presentation of life in Ireland’s Midlands, an area of Ireland hitherto ignored by Irish writers. In all Carr’s dramas, women squarely face off against familial and personal weakness despite overwhelmingly negative consequences.
Carr began her dramatic writing career while studying English and philosophy at the University College of Dublin. She was particularly drawn to the works of Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams. Her absurdist comedy Ullaloo (Gaelic for “death song”) has the same appeal as Beckett’s Fin de partie (pr., pb. 1957; Endgame: A Play in One Act, 1958). It presents the audience with two characters seeking laughably strange goals: a man trying to grow the longest toenails in the world and a woman trying to “achieve nothingness.”
Although Beckett’s influence is prominent in the works of most modern Irish writers, Carr sought out other spiritual ancestors in later years. She acknowledges the connection between her play The Mai and its literary forerunner, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944). Millie, the narrator of Carr’s moving familial drama, seeks, like Tom Wingfield, to free herself from her suffocating family and her mother (christened “Mary,” but nicknamed “the Mai”), who has abandoned much of her good sense in favor of unattainable fantasy.
From the beginning of the play, the audience is informed of the difficulties the narrator and her family face. Millie tells the viewers that her parents’ marriage is a sham because Robert, the Mai’s husband, although only newly returned to his estranged wife after a separation of five years, has already begun another affair. The Mai, her name suggesting an impersonal title rather than a familiar name and a connection, familiar to Irish audiences, to the Virgin Mary (herself a distant, sad figure lacking a husband), has apparently been unable to defy the personal implications of her name (that she is, herself, distant and impersonal) and establish warm, intimate relationships. Although the Mai has had a house built in the countryside to entice her wandering husband home again, the attraction of the house ultimately cannot keep him home in the absence of personal feelings.
By the Bog of Cats
In a panel discussion held as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, Carr suggested that Medea was the literary antecedent for her seventh play, By the Bog of Cats. Like Medea, Carr’s protagonist is a woman who not only has been discarded by her former lover (to whom she had taught the ways of love) in favor of a more socially acceptable “fiancée” but also has been threatened with the loss of their child. Hester Swane, the female outsider, kills her young daughter rather than surrender the girl to her father and his new, younger bride. Although Carr draws on the ancient Euripidean tragedy for the perusal of an audience that is presumed to know the story, Carr adds details and imagery that are strictly modern Irish.
By the Bog of Cats opens with Hester dragging the corpse of a black swan behind her....
(The entire section is 1667 words.)