Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 12: Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats… (1998)
Waking the Nation, the Abbey Theatre, Dublin’s 2016 season (marking the centenary of the Easter Rising) includes 18 men and only 2 women in a list of writers and directors involved. The male-centric season possibly reflects the general marginalisation of female voices in Irish theatre, a point that Sara Keating argues here.
By the Bog of Cats… by Marina Carr, considered to be one of Ireland’s leading playwrights, premiered at the Abbey in October 1998. It’s a poetic re-working of Medea, steeped in Irish myth.
The play (which has a largely female cast) focuses on Hester Swane, some sort of gypsy – or Tinker – who lives in a caravan on the bog of cats. A troubled woman to say the least, she is being forced to move out of her cottage and back into her caravan by the father of her daughter because he’s getting married to a younger, wealthier woman. Furthermore, she spends the nights wandering the bog pining for her mother who walked out on her during childhood. It’s on one of these night time walks that we first meet Hester in what is a striking opening scene: Hester walking across snow dragging a dead black swan behind her, its blood smearing the white snow red. It’s here that we are also introduced to myth and the uncanny in the play. Hester was once told by her mother that she’d live not a day longer than the black swan that she’s just found dead the previous night. Across three acts, we see her life spiral to its end, as she drunkenly breaks off relationships with her neighbours and Kilbride (her former lover), and destroys her home and farm. At the end of the play, as her story starts to mirror Medea’s, it’s not out of a hatred that she kills her daughter, but more because she doesn’t want her to live pining for her mum in the same way that she did.
There’s another play which By the Bog of Cats… reminds me of: Jerusalem. Both plays are set outside in an ‘edgeland’ area. Both have protagonists refusing eviction and who live in a caravan. And both have myths and folklore running right through them which make them so fascinating. In By the Bog of Cats…, like Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, the land has a mythic supremacy over the people living on it. One character, only known as Catwoman, lives in a turf house on the bog and says she can predict things. She claims to ‘know everythin’ that happens on this bog. I’m the keeper of the Bog of Cats… I own this bog’ (Carr, p.271). It’s implied that because she’s “of the land”, she has a power that other people don’t possess, not caring for meretricious things such as land and wealth which the farmer Xavier treasures. Furthermore, Hester claims to be magical herself: ‘things go through my veins besides blood’.
Tonally, the play feels uneven. The second act is set after Kilbride’s wedding and it almost could be from a different play. That doesn’t mean it’s not as good as the other acts; in fact it is a hilarious scene which includes the mother of the groom, dressed in a bridal gown, giving a self-indulgent speech; a priest who doesn’t know who he’s just married; and a penny-pinching father of the bride. A sense of myth and mystery in Irish theatre (such as that in The Weir), I feel, can often be more powerful when it is subtle. In By the Bog of Cats…, by contrast, Irish folklore, Greek myth, ghosts and ghost watchers make for an overwhelming sense of the mythical. This would perhaps be more effective if there was higher specificity of place grounded in the play. In Jerusalem, and maybe the issue is that I keep referring to this very different play despite its similarities, references to nearby (real and fictional) places and allusions to popular culture make the intangible and mythical all the more uncanny and strangely believable. In Carr’s play, although there is a strong sense of place, it is never quite clear where (or indeed when) it is set.
But overall, By the Bog of Cats… is a play brimming with warm humour, memorable female characters, theatrical and poetic images, and an enduring myth at its centre.