Irish Women’s Drama: questions of response and location

            In 1991 I was commissioned to write an article for The Irish Times inDublin, the heading for which was ‘Readingsfor women playwrights – but why not full performances?’ The question was intriguing then and remains so now, the only difference being that, by and large, rehearsed readings do not occur very much at all nowadays.

That year though, with Garry Hynes as Artistic Director of the National Theatre – the Abbey – there was a sense that things were happening, or about to happen. It is no coincidence that it was also the year in whichIrelandvoted in its first female president,MaryRobinson. It was a buzzy time, and the atmosphere for women was one in which the active pursuit of equality was still at its peak. In diverse areas, the pursuit of legislations regarding the social, work and personal rights of citizens was coming to a head, something which nonetheless extended only slowly to the dramatic arts.

            Regarding rehearsed readings, precedents had already been set for observing a process of artistic development, inGermany,England and the US. InDublin, the forward-looking Project Theatre had had several rehearsed readings of plays by men and women, before the Abbey Theatre, in an attempt to put the question of the work of women playwrights on the agenda, hosted a series of readings in its downstairs ‘studio’ theatre, the Peacock.

            The playwrights whose work was rehearse-read that afternoon were and are names familiar to many in Ireland today, among them Clairr O’Connor, Leland Bardwell, Celia de Freine, Louise C.Callaghan(at that time Hermana) and others. All of these women had published either poetry or fiction before. All of them continue to publish. With the exception of Celia de Freine, who has been writing drama since the nineteen eighties, none are staging work. De Freine’s work that day examined the life of the Irish revolutionary Countess Markievicz from an overtly political perspective. Louise C.Callaghan’s play ‘Find the Lady’ brought us into the life in exile of writer Kate O’Brien, also lifting the lid on O’Brien’s lesbianism and her relationship with an actress. Music from ‘Orpheus’ cut in and out through the dialogue, suggesting an underworld explored by O’Brien in the course of her life and travels in Spain.

            Most of the plays rehearse-read that day were not half-formed attempts at drama which would gradually be further improvised and brought to full performance. Most observers acknowledged, that these were by and large fully-fledged dramatic works in search of a theatre home, a director to take them in, and actors to perform and interpret and ultimately recreate them. They deserved more than what could easily be read as a pacifying sop to women dramatists.

Precedents have long been set within the area of writing by women, whereby new work has too often been regarded as either unformed or not ‘universal’ enough in its concerns, with the canon of tradition invariably drawn on as a last line of defence, that is, the theory that men have always been creators of art, but women have never really tried hard enough or are incapable of creating work of ‘universal’ value. InIreland, ‘universal’ in the world of theatre has tended to involve a strong focus on the question of Irish identity from a male point of view (especially in the plays of Tom Murphy, McPherson, and Martin MacDonagh). Playwrights such as Michael Harding, Dermot Bolger and Billy Roche focus on Ireland in evolution away from its colonial past, carried into a semi-liberal Western, busy world. But quite often in drama, the existing cultural pantheon signalled then and signals now, that male interpreted subject-preoccupations are the norm while female interpreted ones are – if not quite a norm – at best an exception.

            It cannot be argued that plays by Irish women have not been staged and performed however, when the truth is they do emerge from time to time. During the Nineties and since 2000 there have been a number of staged plays by women, among them Eilis Ni Dhuibhne (writing in Irish), Hilary Fannin, Ioanna Anderson, Stella Feehily and Elizabeth Kuti.  But the period has been dominated by canon-directed contributions from Conor McPherson, Billy Roche, Martin MacDonagh, Joe O’Byrne, Dermot Bolger, Jimmy Murphy, Michael Harding, Bernard Farrell and the late Hugh Leonard, not to mention Brien Friel, Frank McGuinness, Tom Kilroy, Tom MacIntyre and Tom Murphy. Their work created the main seam comprising publicly performed dramatic art in Ireland today, some of it valuable, entertaining, interesting and ground-breaking. Having observed much of what is on offer – and regardless of the fact that Dublin now has a Gay Theatre Festival – it  is arguably, quite acceptable to stage a homosexual theatre (a kind of unarticulated and glossed over theatre of homosexual as opposed, (thankfully), to homophobic emphasis in terms of those who create, direct, act and generally calibrate some works) and to have this regarded as a norm, while lesbianism still remains pushed to the outer edges of what is seen to be ‘experiment’. Critics rarely allude to this tendency, and if noted it appears to be accepted as a kind of dramatic norm whereby male dramatists, actors and directors assert the right to explore homosexuality but females rarely do the same.

            Yet the gap between male dramatic output and performance and its female corollary remains. Equality of endeavour with a matching result does not seem to be an option.

The female playwright by now canonical for most theatre commentators is Marina Carr. Other successful female playwrights include Marie Jones, whose play A Night in November galvanized thousands in audiences wherever this play travelled. Poet Paula Meehan has had a number of successes in theatre also, especially her Mrs. Sweeney, which picks up the thread of legend from a female perspective. But it is as if there is a trap door through which only one or at most two female playwrights may escape into the open arena of public theatre art on a regular basis. The active nourishment and mentoring integral to the building of a playwright’s career seems largely absent in relation to women.

            Marina Carr’s play Marble played at the Abbey for a number of weeks in early 2009. Reviews were mixed and audience responses equally so. This intriguing work of drama (which some viewers found menacing, and an unpleasant distortion of reality) did however receive the nurturing and rigorous working that any solid drama might expect to receive in the national theatre. The critics came from England (something highly valued in Ireland, where, it seems, the only imprimatur is an English one), because over the years Carr’s oeuvre has included several London productions. She is, after all, part of the Irish canon, from the inside out and the outside in. Yet when Marina Carr’s early works were staged in the late Eighties, it was to the Project Arts Theatre that she turned. Works like Ullaloo and Low in the Dark were given the space and treatment needed to foster new talent. Interestingly also at the time, reviews were at best muted and at worst patiently derisory (the late Gerry Colgan in the Irish Times reviewed her work with little interest). But Marina Carr’s artistic vision and persistent output – persistency of output is significant for bridging the gender divide – has secured her a place in literary history. Within years, her outstanding play Portia Coughlan had critics, audiences and directors looking for more, thus ushering in an unusually early peak for this writer consisting of plays such as By the Bog of Cats, Ariel, and The Mai.

            That her work has been treated seriously is now taken for granted. That it engages audiences at least until recently was quite apparent. But questions arise when it comes to other women playwrights. Strikingly, when a relative newcomer such as Fiona Looney, who has worked her way into theatre via journalism and regular comic exposure on a morning radio chat-show, (rather than the traditionally anonymous beaten track) comes to the stage it is to the Olympia Theatre, an obviously commercial, bums-on-seats venue which likes to pack audiences in and entertain them. One does not associate theOlympiawith the canonical and neither do critics. However, having attended two of Looney’s plays the whole question of venues and women’s plays raises its head interestingly. Why is the Abbey suitable for a playwright likeCarrand theOlympiafor Looney?

Looney’s most recent play October – a black comedy with pathos, depth of character, striking contemporaneity – was a superbly structured work which utilised its stage space to the full and applied mixed media techniques to handle such things as the passing of time in the play’s narrative. The plot revolves around a stay-at-home modern Mum in southDublin who is about to return to work now that her children are reared. Supportive husband, pleasant academic young daughter, nice home, unpretentious yet educated, realistic protagonist. But WHAM! her younger sister arrives home fromLondon – the one whose freedom, beauty, wardrobe and money she has quietly envied all these years – only to break the news that she has Multiple Sclerosis.

The topical question of being a care-giver is often to the fore in terms of media analysis today, equally so the question of responsibility, guilt and support. It is not, however, one of those topics which one imagines today’s Ibsens, Lorcas or Jean Genets writing about, because it is, after all, a ‘female’ subject, is it not? In this play – which contains some lyrical moments despite its savagery and bleak humour – the playwright doesn’t compromise or obfuscate. The disingenuous, prettified solution is simply not available to her writing. But it begs a speculation: that certain subjects are disregarded by theatres as being too ‘soft’, too ‘womany’, or even too realistic/naturalistic and therefore against current accepted dramatic practice. Others are safer bets provided the female characters are vaguely bohemian or comically suburban, or play a weary, used-up girlfriend, or an unloved, misunderstood daughter. In other words, provided they are the object of the writer’s attention, objectified within a play, and never the subject and first creator of both play and, as an actor, the vivid recreator of a viably universal female role.

The Looney play, by the way, doubled its run and had full houses (a ninety-percent female audience throughout), whereas the Carrwork – a recognisably artistic work – closed on schedule. If artistic directors and critics reflect on the art that lies fundamentally embedded in the gritty ordinary themes that structure women’s lives and allowed women playwrights to get on with illuminating aspects of these, so-called ‘art’ theatres they might not find themselves in the financially compromised and Arts Council dependent state in which they exist. What is so unacceptable about menopause as a dramatic subject – Women on the Verge of HRT by Marie Jones played to full houses at the Olympia and at another commercial theatre, Andrew’s Lane, before moving to London’s West End – that pushes it beyond the Pale in terms of serious critical reception?

Some recognition of what appeals to women audiences might go a long way to redress the constant dilemma faced by theatres, of how to fill seats and secure funding. But yet other questions arise: do critics themselves need to be re-educated? Why are they not trained in clear thinking that allows them to understand their role in the process of mediating, informing and analysing just what is at stake whenever a playwright brings a work to full performance? They are not merely journalists, yet frequently they ‘review’ without supplying a necessary layer of critique, and even then it is clear that those who write for the better print outlets are moving comfortably enough within theatre circles. In other words, everybody knows everybody else rather too well.

As it happened, the Looney and Jones plays filled up by word of mouth rather than critical votes, whereas the Carr work played out competently to the end of its run, having been thoroughly and seriously mulled over by frequently unenthusiastic critics that one suspected were reluctant to be too harsh on the woman who is apparently the ‘chosen’ female of her generation. This is not good forMarinaCarr. A brilliant playwright such as she deserves to be critiqued in an open field in which consciousness of gender and her virtually solitary position in this matter, is not a consideration.

One can only speculate on the paradox that if the Irish National Theatre were to reconsider its idea of what art is, and make of it a dramatic process which truly has the capacity to engage, illuminate and transform the onlooker/participator, it would have to forego some of its safer artistic bets, its postmodern love-affair with predictable themes, and have the imaginative courage to bring on board the better women playwrights, actively pushing them into the critical light.

            The question of encouraging women playwrights has faded as a subject for discussion in Irelandas we approach the end of the first decade of the twenty-first millennium. There are hotter agendas now: it is sometimes thought that Irelandis what many refer to as a multi-cultural society. In fact, it is a multi-ethnic society which expects its non-national population to adapt to a homogeneous norm. But the theatre world too has its sights set on that society of migrants, and their problems. It is no longer set on women, and the critics do not care. What may be overlooked in the matter of women playwrights and migrants, and in the enthusiasm for ethnicities, is that both groups – with their knot of sub-groups – are more complex, richer, more worth investing dramatic energy in that the orthodoxies of the Irish theatre world have as yet recognised. The richness of other cultural groupings has always enhanced our Irish world – thinking especially of the Jewish immigrants from the turn of the nineteenth century – and there is no reason to believe this should not happen again. It is a dream of mine, that the ethnicities, and the women of our society, would be absorbed and worked with, that their light is allowed to shine.

Eighteen years after that afternoon of rehearsed readings at the Abbey Theatre, which the critics were invited to attend, and which were greeted with excitement by some of us, it is a given today, that most Irish theatres feel no obligation to work deliberately with women who write drama, believing they have something to contribute to the evolving history of theatre. The subject-matter of men – white, Irish men at that – remains more relevant than that of women. 

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