It gets so quiet when Marina Carr talks, I’ve noticed. She speaks close into the microphone, her words crafting worlds in improvised sentences and we all lean forward just a little. We breathe, but we don’t murmur. We listen. Listen because we want to hear, we need to hear; she’s talking and it’s poetry, writing lines like those from her plays into the air before us. “I don’t think there’s a mother’s son or daughter born who isn’t suffering,” she muses in response to a student’s question, and my heart leaps up into my throat. She’s mapping humanity right here in Miller Forum, reminding us all of who we are.
This was just one of many events that took place on campus from Sept. 18 to 20 as part of the 2018 Living Writers series, a semester-long occasion that takes place every three years during which working writers spanning various genres come to campus, give readings and answer questions. This semester, renowned Irish playwright Marina Carr was the second Living Writers author to appear at ‘Berg (after poet Ada Limόn visited earlier this month). Carr, perhaps best known for her 1998 play By the Bog of Cats… and other so-called “Midland Tragedies” named for the rural region of Ireland where they take place, has been an artist-in-residence at Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre, a professor at Trinity College, Princeton University and Villanova University and the recipient of many awards, including the Dublin Theatre Festival Best New Irish Play award and the Windham-Campbell prize. Carr currently lectures at Dublin City University and is a member of Aosdána, a prestigious Irish arts council.
For some students, including Emily Casey ’19, the Living Writers course was not their first introduction to Carr and her work.
“I first encountered Carr in Contemporary Irish Drama with Dr. Rosenwasser,” Casey said. “We read By the Bog of Cats…, which was featured in an anthology of Irish plays (including those by McPherson, McDonagh, O’Casey, Synge and Lady Gregory), and I was enamored with her. Her writing is haunting, as she creates jarring and sometimes violent images that remain in your head still for weeks to come … I thought and still think that she is one of the best contemporary playwrights we have (and I think many people think the same). It was wild to have her come after reading her plays, to get to ask her questions about her work, to even just see her walking around campus.”
The night of Sept. 18 marked Carr’s first appearance at ‘Berg, when she attended a staged reading of her 1996 play Portia Coughlan, which centers around the fate of an Irishwoman, Portia, and those who surround her as she attempts to wade through her thirtieth birthday without the company of her dead twin brother, Gabriel, facing the pressures of motherhood and small-town drama along the way. Ashley Campbell ’19 brought this titular role to life, though she and the rest of the cast had a very limited amount of time to actually work together with the text.
“I was contacted over the summer by Matt Moore, whom I had previously worked with, to read for Portia. I was excited to be asked and thought it was an especially cool opportunity to be able to read it for the actual playwright,” said Campbell. “The process was really quick, only being about two rehearsals, but even in that time we seemed to have accomplished a lot. The play has so much depth, and Portia is a really complex woman that requires far more work than what two rehearsals grants. However, we spent a lot of time discussing character relationships, intentions, and answering the myriad of questions the play leaves the audience hanging onto. It was also really wonderful to work with some students I’ve worked with before but also members of the Allentown community, as well as Muhlenberg professors, who I’ve had the chance to work with in other capacities, but not as fellow actors.”
Despite the limited rehearsal time, the performance of Portia Coughlan was heart-wrenching, hilarious and filled with surprises – even though I had read several of Carr’s plays before this reading, I can say that I loudly gasped more than once, frantically tapping the knee of my friend sitting next to me as I watched the plays’ events unfold with horror and fascination. That’s Carr’s gift, you see: she puts shocking revelations in the mouths of characters we’ve been trained to see as unreliable, uses language as a weapon you can feel in your gut. “Nothing is what you think it is. Nothing,” Carr assured her audience at the end of her final question and answer session. This could not ring more true within her own work.
Beyond this performance of Portia Coughlan, Carr’s few days on campus included events centered around the Living Writers program. Laura Santo ’20, a student in the Living Writers course, was ecstatic when she learned of the opportunities she would have to interact with Carr.
“[Carr] is by far one of the most famous Irish playwrights in the world, and on top of that, she is one of the few women who claim this title. Oftentimes in her work her female characters are working against the world that binds them. There’s something quite satisfying reading about a woman fighting against the laws and the patriarchy, because even if she fails, at least she fought,” Santo said. “In the course of the two days she was here, I tried to get as many experiences with Carr as possible. I first went to the staged reading of her play Portia Coughlan, which I had never read before, and found incredibly interesting and enjoyable. I was also fortunate enough to participate the next day at a small lunch with Carr, in which myself, a few other students and a few faculty members had the opportunity to ask specific questions about her work and her writings. It was incredibly illuminating to meet with her in such a small setting. Then, through the Living Writers course, I went to a Q&A for her play Hecuba (which is the play the Living Writers students had read) as well as a reading of her plays by herself.”
I was also fortunate enough to attend a lunch with Carr in addition to the Living Writers events. As a great admirer of her work, I was blown away by just how genuine she is. Her mind works quickly, crafting complex answers to even the simplest of questions and she’s eager to give thought to almost any inquiry, from opinions about theatre cultures to her family’s reaction to her work. She speaks softly but confidently, and her lilting accent lands every so often on a distinctly and delightfully Irish phrase.
She’s a genius, a revolutionary, and an awe-inspiring presence – but she’s also human, profoundly real and funny and reflective like the content of her plays. As Santo puts it, “She’s digging into questions most of us don’t face in our daily lives: what makes us human and what makes us alive? Furthermore, she writes with a feministic edge that’s just exciting. But ultimately, she’s a writer who is writing for the present. Her work is all relevant to issues that are happening now, and she is using her art form to break rules, experiment and to try new things. Living Writers is an important class because these writers, who are all currently writing, remind us that creating art isn’t just possible but achievable: if these people are creating every day, why can’t we?”
Don’t miss the rest of the Living Writers series, which continues on Oct. 10 with author Ben Lerner.