My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Like many a literary work of the so-called postmodern period, Marina Carr’s famous 1998 play By the Bog of Cats is a critical echo chamber of prior texts, whether near or far in space and time from its setting in the Irish midlands in the late 20th century. The literature of prior eras lacked neither for influences nor allusions, but postmodern writers call on precursors neither to buttress their own intellectual authority (à la Dante or Milton) nor to stabilize their otherwise unwieldy subject matter (à la Joyce or Eliot). The postmodern writer, especially if she also construes herself as a postcolonial or a feminist writer, echoes earlier texts with an attitude of critical scrutiny—to discover what went wrong, allusion as (per Adrienne Rich) “diving into the wreck.”
As in all the best plays, By the Bog of Cats begins as late as possible in the action and leaves us to assemble the complex background from hints and clues. Our protagonist is 40-year-old Hester Swane, an Irish Traveller who lives in the desolate environs of the the eponymous bog, “[a] bleak white landscape of ice and snow,” and who has never gotten over her abandonment by her legendarily grand and grotesque mother, Josie (“a big rancorous hulk” but “gentle…in her way,” her children judge). Hester has a daughter, also named Josie, with the decade-younger Carthage Kilbride. She has had a passionate affair, now ended, with Carthage since his late teens, as she unceremoniously informs his new fiancée: “It was in my bed he slowly turned from a slavish pup to a man…”
As the play opens, Carthage is about to be married to Caroline, daughter of a local landowning family headed by Xavier Cassidy. Xavier predictably despises Hester for her Traveller background and wants her run out of town, even as he hypocritically denies his own past longing for her wild mother.
The play’s three-act structure centers on Carthage and Caroline’s wedding, with the first act as prelude establishing the characters and conflicts, the second act dramatizing the chaotic wedding feast disrupted by Hester, and the third act showing the destructive aftermath that culminates in the horrific act that has led audiences and critics to see By the Bog of Cats as a latter-day Medea. Through the explosive vernacular dialogue of the central characters, the violence in everyone’s past comes to light, from Hester’s fratricide to the death of Caroline’s brother from embracing the corpse of his strychnine-poisoned dog, maliciously killed and dumped in the bog by Xavier.
Around these over-the-top central revelations orbits a company of raucously eccentric side characters. We meet the aged, addled, and randy priest, Father Willow; Carthage’s outrageously conceited mother, Mrs. Kilbride, who wears white to his wedding and protests, “How was I supposed to know the bride’d be wearin’ white as well”; the Catwoman, a blind seer who laps wine from a saucer at the wedding feast and talks to the spirits of the dead characters (she has one of the play’s best deadpan lines: “Ah Christ, not another ghost”); and the confused Ghost Fancier, who comes to claim Hester’s spirit at the beginning of the play, too early for her appointed time.
Hester’s indomitable assertion of her individuality and right to her own family and territory against the encroachments of respectable capitalist society is the play’s chief charm, along with its delirious tone. She cries:
I was born on the Bog of Cats and on the Bog of Cats I’ll end me days. I’ve as much right to this place as any of yees, more, for it holds me to it in ways it has never held yees. And as for me tinker blood, I’m proud of it. It gives me an edge over all of yees around here, allows me see yees for the inbred, underbred, bog-brained shower yees are.
In this speech. she articulates another characteristic trope of postmodern writers who consider themselves postcolonialist and feminist, derided by some as merely the Noble Savage redux: the social margin as place of superior vision. Considering herself essentially native to the bog despite not possessing it as property in a way Xavier can understand, she knows “where the best bog rosemary grows and the sweetest wild bog rue” and enters the play dragging a dead swan, Black Wing, in whose nest her mother laid her as a child, because “Swane means swan.” We don’t have to wonder long if she put on its knowledge with its power.
In line with my allusion, Melissa Sihra’s essay “A Cautionary Tale: Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats” (in the Norton Critical Edition of Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama), enumerates some of the textual ghosts haunting this already specter-ridden play, beyond even its obvious debt to Euripides. There is, Sihra points out, Lady Gregory’s and Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, modern Irish drama’s most famous evocation of Mother Ireland as spiritual exile calling on her sons to sacrifice themselves for her honor, recast in Carr’s drama as an exile among exiles, an Irish Traveller demonized as a witch by the money- and respectability-minded settled community around her; there is Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, a model of boisterous tragicomedy about the clash between primal and modern ways, here re-written from a female perspective; there is Beckett, artist of abstraction, whose atopic settings Carr relocalizes to a specified Irish community while letting them, in the figure of the bog, retain their status as “place and non-place”; and, crossing the Atlantic, there is Hawthorne, who also dramatized a woman named Hester cast out as a Jezebel by her pious community in The Scarlet Letter. To Sihra’s brilliant list, I would add only that Carr must have been thinking, too, of Beloved, another late work that rewrites the literary tradition from the perspective of maternity in extremis, this to restore the margin to centrality, to call beloved what was not beloved.
The above takes care of theory, but does the play work qua play? While it’s theatrically successful and a widely-taught contemporary classic, reader reviews online suggest its ferocity can be polarizing. I myself first heard of the play at a party where two academics specializing in Irish literature were trying to explain it to the rest of the company: “There’s murder! Incest! Infanticide!” they exclaimed almost in unison—except that one loved the play and the other hated it. Someone pointed out that they were saying the same words in two very different tones of voice.
I have no problem with the subject matter as such, but some of the extreme action felt undermotivated to me. The play’s comedy allows us to suspend disbelief by removing the whole proceeding to a realm of farce or fancy—and a pile-up of extraordinarily violent events in fiction and drama often becomes slapstick—but then this interferes with the more concrete political points being made. I simply couldn’t square Hester’s climactic act of brutality with anything we’d seen of her character before, nor could I justify it with reference to anything that had been done to her by others. She sees herself as fated, unable to act of her own volition. She explains of a shocking murder she committed before the play begins, one that foreshadows her violence at its conclusion: “Somethin’ evil moved in on me blood…” Here the contrast with Beloved is decisive: Sethe doesn’t know if she did the right thing, but she knows—and we know—perfectly well why she did it.
Like Carr, I also sometimes write stories in the heightened manner Hawthorne defended as “romance,” so I know that the reply to this kind of criticism is to charge the critic with an unimaginatively conservative attachment to realism or a touching faith (at this late date!) in human or cosmic rationality. All the same, we can’t totally abandon story and character logic for sensationalism, nor fall back for motivation on the excuse of fate, as if we were the 5th-century Athenians rather than just admiring them. The romantic, the fantastic, the gothic, magical realism—all of these genres should make sense on their own terms and not just be a warrant for anything goes. The latter is what I see at the end of Carr’s drama, no matter how explicable as an homage to the classics.
To be honest, I could criticize Euripides on the same grounds while I’m at it. Medea concludes with the chorus’s provocative assertion that the gods never bring the expected to pass, which is true enough; in Bog, the erotic rivals Hester and Caroline echo this skepticism in a moving moment of commiseration:
CAROLINE. None of it was how it was meant to be, none of it.
HESTER. Nothin’ ever is, Caroline. Nothin’.
But Medea’s murdering her children is so disproportionate to the provocation—and was, some scholars argue, Euripides’s own addition to the myth—that we might legitimately see the tragedy as a decline from the heights of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in whom, as Hegel told us, the tragic protagonists embody live ethical forces. Medea is simply not justified in her action as Orestes or Antigone are.
By the Bog of Cats, then, may be better in theory than in practice. Then again, drama is not simply literature: the proper practice isn’t reading but performance. I could imagine the play staged variously to make the tone, if not the characterization, cohere, from mournful rite to romping farce. The aforementioned Hegel also recommends somewhere that plays should not be printed at all, since their only true life is onstage.