Rough Magic: Tracing a creative female corporeality in the archive and the Irish theatre tradition

Photograph by Conor Horgan

As a feminist performance scholar, I am keenly aware of the challenges in uncovering women’s theatrical contributions and gathering a legacy of their traces. Without doubt this motivated me to find a way to assemble a tradition of women in modern Irish theatre in my book, Women and Embodied Mythmaking in Irish Theatre. My research is concerned with women’s disruption of the perpetuation of mythic narratives and myths of femininity through their own theatrical mythmaking. Rough Magic productions, including Paula Meehan’s Mrs Sweeney and Olwen Fouéré’s Sodome, my Love, shape the tradition proposed by my book. This is unsurprising given the statistics: The Gender Counts Report: An Analysis of Gender in Irish Theatre, 2006–2015, highlights Rough Magic’s strong track record in working with women theatre makers in contrast to the woeful underrepresentation of women artists in the theatre organisations in receipt of the most public subsidy. The company’s archive is a valuable resource for Irish theatre scholarship enabling us to further engage with the work and legacies of the independent theatre sector. Moreover, Rough Magic’s archive assists in the project of deconstructing the male-dominated literary canon of Irish theatre through analysis of the work of women theatre makers in a variety of roles.

The canon of Irish theatre has served to marginalise women’s contributions, a process of erasure that is perpetuated through its retelling. So how might we engage with performance archives in order to build an alternative framework to the canon? In Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment, Rebecca Schneider warns against the binary logic which opposes archive and performance, aligning the latter with ephemerality, and describes the archive as an embodied encounter: ‘a set of live practices of access, given to take place in a house (the literal archive) built for live encounter with privileged remains’ (108). Through the process of writing my book I am performing an archive; I am engaged in the act of retrieving and preserving performances in order to house their remains. I acknowledge, as Schneider describes, ‘the archive [as] a live performance space, and the performance space [as] an archive for the revenant’ (110), and thus the tradition of women’s theatre in Ireland which I interlace is one shaped by resurfacing and remains.

The role of the body in the transmission of memory is central to my argument and it is the female writing body which facilitates the reappearance and reassertion of the archive’s remains; fleshing out a rich and unmined vein of creativity and resistance in Irish theatre.

Shifting the emphasis from discursively documented history to focus on how history and memory are enacted on and remembered through the body, is an essential step in the process of addressing how women’s bodies bear the consequences of the imposition of myths of femininity. Moreover, the erasure of the realities and lived experiences of women’s bodies from public discourse in Ireland makes this all the more vital. Bodies expose the gaps and neglected spaces of official histories to form the connective tissue that assembles a body of women’s work in Irish theatre.

Photograph by Conor Horgan

The Rough Magic archive was a crucial resource in researching the final chapter of my book which focuses on the performer Olwen Fouéré. Through analysis of her work I propose a creative female corporeality, or writing body, and trace the connections back to the earliest performances discussed in my book: the tableaux vivants performed by the Inghinidhe na hÉireann in 1901. Fouéré’s Sodome, my Love (2010) was produced by Rough Magic and directed by the artistic director Lynne Parker.

Photograph by Conor Horgan

This poetic monologue written by Laurent Gaudé, translated and performed by Fouéré, details the experiences of the last surviving woman of Sodome who has been buried under salt. The salt marks the anxiety of this retelling: it both preserves and denies life, connoting the possibilities for, and limits placed on, female bodily expression. My initial encounter was as an audience member at the Project Arts Centre in 2010, and I later viewed a DVD recording held in Rough Magic’s archive.

Furthermore, the archive granted me access to a recording of a special performance of the play in Macedonia on 31 July 2010, staged on the ancient site of the Church of St Sophia. All of these embodied encounters shaped my close analysis of the performance, and persistently forced me to engage with the tangled relationship between performance, memory and history. This between space is where performance remains as we engage with embodied history and challenge conventional notions of the archive. It is through this challenge that women’s contributions to theatre history resist what Derrida describes as the ‘house arrest’ of the archive and, I would add, the canon of modern Irish theatre.

Shonagh Hill

Women and Embodied Mythmaking in Irish Theatre is now available from Cambridge University Press:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/women-and-embodied-mythmaking-in-irish-theatre/E82515BA56B7120E90EA19626CDCE162

Rediscovering the voice of poet Ethna MacCarthy

Portrait of MacCarthy by Séan O’Sullivan RHA used as the cover of her published poetry.

Ethna MacCarthy’s name is well-known in Irish literary circles but mostly in that way which infuriates those of us energised by the #WTF revolution – as a ‘friend’ and muse of a Great Man.

MacCarthy (1903-1959) was an undergraduate in Trinity in the  twenties; one of her circle was future Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett who promptly fell in love with her. He was to immortalise her as Alba in Dream of Fair to Middling Women and it was MacCarthy’s association with Beckett, along with her beauty and the recorded comments of men such as playwright Denis Johnston, which seemed destined to be all that survived of her biography.

MacCarthy was among the brightest of her undergraduate cohort; she won Scholarship, was a First Class Moderator, and went on to lecture in modern languages. She was a feminist before the word was invented, ‘prodigiously’ witty in French as well as English, outspoken, intellectually fearless and independent. Not content with her academic career she retrained as a medical doctor, as had her father, and became a pediatrician. And all the while she wrote poetry; a small number of her works appeared in literary journals and newspapers.

Ireland professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin at the launch.

After the death in 1979 of her husband, theatre critic Con Leventhal, his private papers came into the hands of his friend Eoin O’Brien. Among them was discovered the single notebook which represents all that remains of MacCarthy’s poetry. Professor O’Brien began the work of preparing them for publication and, when he showed them to poet Gerald Dawe, this plan grew wings.

The result is a beautiful production by Lilliput Press of MacCarthy’s first and only collection which was launched in the Long Room by Ireland Professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin. The event, which was attended by members of Con Leventhal’s family, was enhanced by readings from the poetry by actress Cathy Belton.

‘Barcelona’ by Ethna MacCarthy (From MS 11602)

Gerald Dawe, who with Eoin O’Brien is an editor of the new collection, outlines in his introduction the many influences on MacCarthy which are revealed in her poetry; her literary and scientific professional experiences, the city of Dublin itself (which inspired some of her best work) and, as Dawe perceptively points out, the tension between the ‘performative’ and conventional elements of her life.

He goes on: ‘It was in the mid- to late 1940s that MacCarthy hit her stride as a poet with several very moving and self-confident poems. The decade sees the writing of ‘Lullaby’, a truly remarkable poem, which foreshadows the exposed lunar and death-haunted landscapes of Sylvia Plath’s poetry by well over a decade:

Each night the dragnets of the tide

take the shattered moon

beyond the harbour bar

but she reluctant suicide

nibbles her freedom and returns

to climb beside the nearest star.

One clear night endures her pain

to plunge to baptism again.’

Given what is known of MacCarthy’s personality, it cannot be doubted that, had she lived she herself would have ensured that her poetic voice was heard. Her death in her mid-fifties threatened this voice with being silenced. The editors of this wonderful collection are greatly to be thanked for the act of genuine friendship which secures MacCarthy’s place in the history of modernism in Ireland.

 

Dr Jane Maxwell