Literature and IT Review

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The working title of my MA thesis thus far remains, ‘”A woman of rock, carved out of the rocks around her”: Marina Carr – A Vehicle for New Modes of Representation’. This research will focus on female representation in several of Carr’s plays, ultimately arguing that her work is hallmarked by its unique means of subverting stereotypes. In each of the plays I intend to examine, female agency is reclaimed in a different way. Currently, the three plays I intend to focus on are Low in the Dark, (Faber and Faber, 1999) Woman and Scarecrow (Gallery Press, 2006) and Portia Coughlan (Faber and Faber, 1999). My aim is to highlight an aspect in each of these texts that I believe helps reclaim female agency. Those are, the uses of hyperbole, magic realism and the River Belmont respectively. As well as these more nuanced narrative elements, I will take a comparative look at motherhood in each of these texts and highlight its impact on female subjectivity.

Beginning with Low in the Dark, Carr offers us some illuminating perspectives on gender. The playwright comically addresses gender stereotypes and immediately undercuts them. Strict gender roles and stereotypes quickly disintegrate as the play progresses. The male characters fall pregnant and the female characters adopt hyper-masculine behaviours.  In light of this absurdity, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque seems a useful theoretical framework to employ. Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack’s Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory  provides an accessible introduction to some of Bakhtin’s ideas (Palgrave, 2002).  In particular, the chapter entitled, ‘Russian Formalism, Mikhail Bakhtin, Heteroglossia and Carnival’ has been advantageous thus far, highlighting that the carnivalesque allows for a ‘diversity of viewpoints’ (49). Its use in Low in the Dark is particularly significant as ‘the carnival celebrates temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and established order’ marking the ‘suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions’ (48). Ancillary to this, the carnivalesque is used to great effect as a means of contrasting the representational binds women have been ossified in by the Catholic Church and the Irish constitution. As Melissa Sihra highlights in her article, ‘“Nature Noble or Ignoble”: Woman, Family and Home in the Theatre of Marina Carr”’, ‘the sanctity of the romantic mother figure’ is subverted through humour and excess (137). This piece published in the Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies provides some important contextual information on the position of women in Ireland, citing Article 41.2.1 and 2.2 which has glorified the domestic sphere and thus reduced female identity to a solely maternal one (2005, Vol.11 No.2). Sihra, in this piece is adamant that Marina Carr’s work defines itself it direct opposition to these reductive ‘monological nationalist, masculinist, colonial, and postcolonial issues of identity’ (134). Sihra supports her argument with references to the carnivalesque, so it is my hope that this essay will complement the afore mentioned use of Davis and Womack’s work (138).

Margaret Llewellyn-Jones’ Contemporary Irish Drama and Cultural Identity, in particular chapter four, ‘Madonna, Magdalen and Matriarch’ also critiques the influence of the Catholic Church and the Irish Constitution for reducing female identity and side-lining women to ‘the shadow of traditional symbols of Irishness and Irish womanhood’ (Intellect Books, 2002, 68). This chapter also establishes a binary opposition, that of ‘virginal Madonna and sexualised Magdalen’ which will be useful when analysing the infidelities in Portia Coughlan and Woman and Scarecrow (67). From research thus far, this idea of doubling, of polarities, has presented itself quite frequently, particularly in relation to the contentious notion of motherhood and its relationship to feminism. In Barrie Thorne and Marilyn Yalom’s, Eds. Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions, Nancy Chodorow and Susan Contratto in their chapter, ‘The Fantasy of the Perfect Mother’ highlight how ‘blame and idealization of mother have become our cultural ideology’ (Longman, 1982, 65). The all-powerful maternal image, ‘spawns a recurrent tendency to blame the mother on the one hand and a tendency of maternal perfectibility on the other’ (55). The chapter ultimately seems to align itself with the Adrienne Rich’s sentiment that a ‘maternal ideal or perfection could emerge with the overthrow of patriarchy’ (58). When examining Woman and Scarecrow for example, Rich’s idea of the dual meaning of motherhood will be a particularly useful framework to employ. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Rich distinguishes between ‘the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children and the intuition [which holds women under male control]’ (W.W. Norton & Company, 1986, 13). This will compliment my argument that motherhood in Woman and Scarecrow does not necessarily erode female agency, but that societal expectations calcify her potential.

More specific to the latter mentioned play, I will be drawing on the idea of magic realism as a means of subverting patriarchal power and to do so will draw heavily from Maggie Ann Bowers’ Magic(al) Realism (Routledge, 2004). In particular the chapter entitled ‘Transgressive Variants of Magical Realism’ has been helpful thus far in supporting the viewpoint that Scarecrow, as a site of imaginative otherness, reclaims female agency. Carr makes great use of the mode and its ‘inherent transgressive and subversive qualities’ which write against a monological narrative (66). I attained a copy of Cathy Leeney’s ‘Character, Writing, and Landscape in Woman and Scarecrow and Other Plays by Marina Carr’ published in Princeton University Library Chronicle through the inter-library loan system and it has been invaluable in underscoring the importance of Scarecrow as a figure who embodies heterogeneity and who ‘contains multitudes’(2006, Vol.68. No. 1-2 ,714).

When interpreting the Belmont River as a symbol of female agency in Portia Coughlan, I have found the article by Melissa Sihra, ‘Renegotiating landscapes of the female: voices topographies and corporealities of alterity in Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan’ published in Australian Drama Studies conducive to such a reading (2003, Vol. 43). Like Portia, the river exhibits potential to rebel and as Sihra notes, ‘Characteristic of water is its excessive drive to overflow, to transgress demarcated boundaries’ (26).

17496336_1689829277700050_1659597211_nMore generally, I have found the following three texts to be of great use. Firstly, Women in Irish Drama: A Century of Authorship and Representation  Ed. Melissa Sihra, particularly Carr’s forward and the chapter entitled ‘The house of woman and the plays of Marina Carr’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Secondly, The theatre of Marina Carr : “before rules was made”  edited by Cathy Leeney and Anna McMullan (Carysfort Press, 2003) and Bloody Living : the loss of selfhood in the plays of Marina Carr by Rhona Trench (Peter Lang, 2010). This is merely the beginning of my reading in preparation for the dissertation as I intend to explore a myriad of other available sources.

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