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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Arts & Letters

Medea of the Bogs

By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr, directed by Dominic Cooke. With Holly Hunter, Gordon MacDonald, Sorcha Cusack, Brid Brennan, Trevor Cooper, Barbara Brennan, and Denise Gough. Stage design by Hildegard Bechtler; costumes by Nicky Gillibrand; choreography by Liz Ranken; sound design by Gareth Fry; lighting design by Jean Kalman; Wyndham Theater, London.


First performed at the Abbey Theater in 1998 and fitted out with the American film actress Holly Hunter as the principal playing against another American as her love interest when I saw it last winter, this play looked to be in preproduction for Broadway. The drama is so deeply and self-consciously Irish that it is otherwise hard to fathom why the producers cast Americans in these parts. Still, while London critics faulted the Irish accents of the two, this American could hear nothing off, although perhaps I should have been suspicious. It was the same dialect coach, Joan Washington, who two years ago in Mourning Becomes Electra at the National coached Helen Mirren and Eve Best into extraordinary—and ludicrous—Southern-belle accents although the characters were New England ladies, so who knows? Washington is probably on safer territory with Ireland.

The Ireland of this play is one that is rapidly turning into myth. That is to say, it does not represent the world of all those young things out at the pubs on Dublin’s swinging Grafton Street, nor the folk in the cottages watching international telly resolutely ignoring their village church and priest, nor the international set who drive to work in the computer industries that are dramatically changing the nation’s incomes and mores. This is the Ireland of the magical countryside, a bog, where the insistent fog mirrors the depression, repression, and anger of its inhabitants that have fueled the action of most of the recent successful dramas to come from that country. One thinks of The Beauty Queen of Leenane or The Steward of Christendom, where the burden of history, self-pity, and martyrdom has so deformed the characters that they have lost their autonomy. Certainly, there has been a reaction to this stereotype. A couple of years ago, London audiences were treated to a marvelous antidote to the self-pitying Irish play in Martin McDonagh’s immensely funny The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which was a hilarious take on the pretensions of the Irish Republican movement by the author of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, while the Galway drama festival of 2002 featured a refreshing play, The Good Father, in which a young Irish couple who have personal problems without a historical context and drink without becoming insensate, get on with life, too busy to remember the past or their inherited misery, real or imagined. By the Bog of Cats, however, is lodged resolutely in the older tradition.

Hester Swane, the Holly Hunter character, lives in a van on the edge of a bog, dressed in rags. We see her first dragging the corpse of an immense swan across the stage, which she proceeds to bury, keening over the great bird, whose end, she senses, is a presentiment of her own death. In the course of the play, she is visited by the Ghost Fancier, a kind of psychopomp, as the ancient Greeks called it, the spirit who comes for the newly dead to lead them to the underworld, and the ghost of her murdered brother, not to mention the considerably more corporeal Catwoman who lives in the bog, a blind old crone with the powers of a seer, a kind of fearful, eccentric Teiresias, who appears frequently to cast her prognostications at all who cross her path. The setting of magic, enchantment, and infernal powers is meant to give tragic dimension to a story that might otherwise be no more than a lurid account of domestic violence found in every morning tabloid. It is not clear to me, however, that this dramatic narrative is indeed tragic.

Marina Carr, the author, has based her drama on details from the ancient Greek legend of Medea. The murderous confrontation with her husband Jason, so brilliantly realized in the tragic drama of Euripides, has captured the imagination of audiences over the centuries as well as spawning innumerable retellings. But the legend also tells of the love-sick young princess of Colchis who uses her magic to help the stranger Jason win the Golden Fleece away from her father, then flees with him to live in Greece. The most extraordinary detail of the myth for contemporaries is the murder of her brother: having brought the infant aboard ship, Medea hinders her father’s pursuit of the two lovers by cutting up the child and dropping bits overboard, which the grief-stricken father stops to retrieve. This is one of those details of myth (lurid, if not ridiculous) that works as symbol—here, the ancient Greek bride’s complete rupture with her biological family on the day of her marriage—but is hard to translate into narrative action. In retelling the story, Apollonius of Rhodes made the brother into an adult in pursuit of the couple who is murdered by Jason at Medea’s suggestion to save her from being taken back to her father for certain punishment and perhaps death. Euripides, in a curious way, almost at the end of the play and in what is really a throwaway line, has Jason remark on the murdered baby brother. It is difficult to know what to make of it; it introduces an ingredient of the legend into the drama when it is too late to matter. Any real attention to that murdered baby would skew the balance of the tragic dilemma in the play. If noticed, it would also remind a knowing audience that Medea’s murderous instincts began early.

Like Euripides, Carr takes for the dramatic action of her play Medea’s betrayal by her husband and her revenge in killing the children she has borne him. Sensibly enough, Carr omits Medea’s murder of Jason’s intended bride, which, in a contemporary play, would have taken the focus away from the couple’s essential dilemma because of the inevitable intrusion of agents of the state (specifically, the police). What makes this play particularly interesting is the introduction of the murdered brother as a major element, which considerably alters the fundamental conflict between the couple. Because it is an event in past time, the murder is talked about, not acted out. Yet Carr asks the audience to suspend its disbelief at this point since it is hard to understand how either the corpse or the disappearance of one of its significant members would go unnoticed in a small village.

Contemporary productions of this play tend to make Jason into an unfeeling, selfish monster while casting Medea as a victim forced into mayhem by her grief. The ancient Greeks would probably have had a different take on this. When the king of Corinth offers Jason his daughter, the audience would have understood that neither man considered marriage to a foreigner—and a witch to boot!—entirely legitimate. And, as it was made up of chauvinist Athenians, the audience would probably have agreed. It would also know from the repository of its legends that when a traveling prince arrives in a new locale, he marries the daughter of the local king. Thus, its instinct would tell this ancient audience that Jason was doing the right thing in taking as his wife the princess-daughter of the king. However dubious this may strike contemporary audiences, it is basic to the tragic premise of the play: Jason and Medea, as male and female, have different agendas, and while each is legitimate, their collision will destroy them both. Jason must move on and create new dynasties, while Medea must suffer in the spell of her sexual longing for Jason, which initially caused her to help him succeed with the Fleece but now makes her incapable of separating herself from him. From his perspective, a new marriage will allow Jason to succeed while maintaining Medea and the children on the side (what else can he do for a career move but be a princely groom?); from her perspective, the loss of status—of wife and, hence, of mother of Jason’s children—as well as of conjugal sex, makes her into a non-person. In her rage, she can only kill the obstacle to her self-realization, the princess bride, and then, when that backfires, murder her own children—an ironic and tragic destruction of her self-identity in the effort to establish her identity in Jason’s consciousness. Without question, Euripides’ Medea is the great statement about marriage, up there on the shelf next to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Carr has done some wonderful things to maintain the equilibrium between the needs and actions of her two protagonists. Hester Swane is from a family of “travelers,” as they are called in Ireland, an indigenous group of people who live in vans, having no fixed plot of land and making their living often from tinwork, which is why they are also called “tinkers.” As such, they are marginal, usually viewed with suspicion, often despised. Their children, minimally educated and without land, are incapable of moving up as freeholders. Older and smarter than Carthage Kilbride, whose baby she bore out of wedlock when he was very young, Hester is also dirty, moody, with some supernatural relation to the bog in which she lives. Now seven years on, Carthage (who, in the person of Gordon MacDonald, is a very good-looking young man, indeed) has the chance to marry the pretty, innocuous daughter of the rich local farmer. The audience can certainly sense his dilemma, and understand as well why the rich farmer pays no mind to the baby Carthage conceived with the strange woman in the bog. The hilarious appearances of Carthage’s revolting, vulgar, upwardly mobile mother underscore the social grid into which the participants are locked.

For some reason, the playwright is not satisfied with this premise, but instead introduces so many complications that the tragic arc of the action is obscured. One such development is Hester’s often-repeated lament that she was abandoned by her parents as a small child; this, we are made to feel, is the source of her outsized anger and expressions of wrath. It turns out that Hester had given Carthage his first leg up in life with a gift of money several years earlier (the modern equivalent of Medea helping Jason to get the Golden Fleece); it further turns out that she had murdered her brother for this money. The audience will have trouble hearing Hester justify her action by claiming jealousy over her father’s greater love for the brother. Psychological explanations and justifications tend to particularize archetypal acts. In this instance, Hester may have been an abused, abandoned child, but she is also unquestionably a dangerous psychopath, and it is clear why Carthage needs to abandon her and get on with his life.

Caroline Cassidy, the new bride, is played by Denise Gough as kind and generous, ready to offer Hester, her old babysitter, anything to get her to desist in her resistance to the wedding. Her good fortune, the privilege of her life, has made her naïve, if not obtuse. She matches perfectly her prospective groom, well-played by MacDonald as a big, handsome dummy just as much now as when he got Hester pregnant. Like most boys, he proceeded without thinking to an act that has so little consequence for males.

Hester, who was seduced by his great good looks, seems to think that their daughter is an enactment of marriage. Carthage will not be locked into his mistake, however, and he is terrified by the angry, threatening nature of the abandoned mother, whose tinker status makes her enough of a non-person that he can conveniently ignore her. Caroline’s father’s proposal of a wedding for his daughter offers Carthage adult male status. The wedding table, the priest among the company, the bride’s white gown all spell legitimacy, outside of which Hester lives her life. It is a rich scene presided over by Carthage’s mother at her most vulgar; the old crone-seer Catwoman, an unlikely guest at this fancy event, whose prophecies make everyone at the table uncomfortable; the old priest, who seems not to blink at the prospect of presiding over the marriage of a man who has fathered a bastard in the village; and all of them suddenly interrupted by Hester, improbably enough glamorously gowned as befits a Hollywood actress, whose blistering, threatening tirade would convince anyone to get as far away from her as possible. She will not be bribed: of course, she spurns the offer of money. As in the Euripidean play, Carthage doesn’t understand that Hester does not need a man for material sustenance. Freud may have asked, “What do women want?,” but the male in this play, like Jason before him, provokes the alternative question: What do men want? This seems to me to be a very intelligent reading of the Medea, and one not usually encountered, even if, again, Carr occasionally complicates things by having Carthage and Caroline allude to the former’s passion for Hester. I just did not believe it.

The child who will be killed by the mother is given a much greater role by Carr. The daughter interacts with her mother throughout the play, and acts as an intermediary between her mother and father. Her entrances into the action seem sometimes too mechanical, too much a motive for a shift of mood; this is not helped by a certain wooden reading of the lines by the child actor. This expansion of the child’s character makes her murder that much more difficult since the exposition of her plight as someone to be fought over by the two adults can only increase the audience’s sympathy for her. At the end, before she is murdered, her mother rehearses all the issues of her childhood abandonment before committing the act, then killing herself.

Hester’s psychologizing in defense of her deeds again makes her seem all the more deranged and bloodthirsty. Holly Hunter is unrelenting in her passion throughout the evening, but she never allows the character to become melodramatic. There is something monumentally demonic about Hester that Hunter projects. Athenian audiences would have sensed that in Medea as well. It is an aspect of her character that is not usually explored in contemporary versions, which makes this play interesting. Whether Carr has created a compelling drama seems less clear. The justifications and rationalizations go on long enough to make one yearn for a shorter play. Cutting a half hour of them might make for the sparseness one associates with the original Euripidean tragedy.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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