This quote is from an interview with one of Ireland’s most prominent playwrights Marina Carr whose 2 brilliant plays Portia Coughlan and By The Bog of Cats I read this month. There’s definitely something magical about these pieces and if I didn’t need to move on to another playwright for this blog series I could’ve happily continued reading her complete oeuvre. They both read like séances with the otherworldly and are masterclasses in how to write about the darker side of human nature.
Here are some of the tips I picked up:
- How to keep long dialogue active to reveal backstory and keep the play in the present
Something I find challenging when working on a play is how to reveal backstory through action and the more I write the leaner the backstory becomes. I was surprised and impressed in both Carr’s plays by how long the chunks of dialogue are (there are very few snappy exchanges) and nearly everything references backstory that still haunts the characters today. I’d be interested to see how this works onstage (please comment below if you’ve seen either of these pieces staged and can tell me how it felt to be in the audience) but I expect, as on the page, the tension between the characters is active, as instead of being lost in their past, the characters are actively revealing their backstory by tackling how this past affects them now. Even when *spoiler alert* in Portia Coughlan Portia admits to killing her brother 15 years ago she’s lost in the memory and the guilt she still feels about her crime, but this admission also reveals what’s driven her to drink and we understand how the reality she rails against throughout the play has been created. In both plays Carr deals with strong women, each with a murderous secret that lies at the heart of their present predicament that reach boiling point, but instead of editing it out, she steeps both Portia (in Portia Coughlan) and Hester (in By The Bog of Cats) in a backstory and makes this propels the play on.
- How to keep the audience guessing even when the end is inevitable
Frank McGuinness has commented in The Guardian here as saying
‘Tragedy is so often the consequence of a fatal lack of self-knowledge. Marina Carr rewrites that rule. Her characters die from a fatal excess of self-knowledge. Their truth kills them. And they have always known it would.’
This is true of both plays and something very interesting about Carr’s work, but in Portia Coughlan Carr goes further and ruptures the chronology to give the audience a different view on tragedy completely: after act 1 which is played in the present (on Portia’s 30th birthday), Carr goes forward in time to the end of the day for the 2nd act when she’s found dead, and then backward in time for act 3 to show what happened for the rest of her birthday before she’s found dead. Is act 2 a dream in the middle? Or is it a clever way to disarm the audience and present something that feels inevitable in a less emotional way? Her suicide is a sum of guilt and family secrets and this rupture to the chronology definitely gives you a less emotional view of the play. It also gives a rich view of depression, which isn’t often picked out so well within this kind of piece and is a great reminder about how a play isn’t just about the story you tell but how you tell it: you can present both an emotional tragedy and a richly filled complex piece that gives new insights into difficult subjects.
- Go as far as you like with using fantastical / unusual characters, you’ll create your own original landscape
I’ve never read an opening scene like the one in By The Bog of Cats. It includes a Ghost Fancier who mistakenly thinks he’s come to collect Hester’s soul because she’s died but then discusses this mistake with Hester who is still alive, while she drags a black swan (who was a well known local animal on the bog) that she’s found dead. This sets up a murky foreboding atmosphere which Carr goes onto expand on throughout the play and the omen on Hester the Ghost Fancier sets up comes true by the end. It also features a character called Catwoman, a sort of local mad woman who only drinks out of saucers and accentuates the otherworldly sense of the play with her speeches, and by the time Hester is talking to the ghost of her dead brother the audience are totally inside the story and don’t doubt this original world Carr creates. This play is actually based on the Greek play Medea but by infusing it with her own brand of tragedy (see the Frank McGuinness quote above) and her own strange mythology, Carr’s version attains it’s own mythic status and adds originality to the story.
I always question my work asking whether I’ve gone too far with some elements of fantastical story (particularly with The Debra Project), but reading Carr’s work has made me realise that the further you can go imaginatively and create your own original world, rooting your characters there, the better the play can be.
I’ll definitely be returning to Marina Carr for more inspiration but June’s playwright is Martin McDonagh. I’ve seen his great film In Bruges and studied some of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, but I’ve never read a complete play by him. The Pillowman has been mentioned to me a few times as one to read so this will be June’s feature.