Irish playwright Marina Carr grew up in a household full of artistic pursuits and a general love of the arts and literature. Both of her parents were writers. Her mother, also a school teacher, wrote in “Irish,” as she was originally from the west of Ireland where that was the spoken language. Carr’s father, still living, is a produced playwright, novelist, and worked as a civil servant for much of his life. She and five siblings grew up in the midlands countryside in Ireland, in Offaly. When she was a very young child, she enjoyed the numerous books in their home, especially children’s versions of Greek myths.
With a nod to the Greeks, her new play “Phaedra Backwards” is in previews at McCarter Theater, and opening night is Friday, October 21. It runs through Sunday, November 6.
In a phone interview, Carr admits the strong impact that began with those childhood stories, but says that she forgot about them until she was in her mid to late 20s. She graduated in 1987 from Dublin City University, majoring in English and philosophy, and in a short time was gaining attention as a playwright. “As a writer I was always looking for stories, material, characters or character traits. There’s nowhere better than the great myths to find great plots, ideas, characters — and lots of drama.”
McCarter audiences have seen two of Carr’s plays “The Mai” in 1996 (the U.S. debut for the playwright) and “Portia Coughlan” in 1999. Both were set in the Irish countryside and had resonances of classic myths and Irish folk tales, but also centered on women dealing with family tribulations and haunting memories.
“Phaedra Backwards” was commissioned by McCarter and has been workshopped there several times. Some of the cast have been with the play throughout. “This is a fantastic gift,” says Carr, who also has the highest praise for director Emily Mann. “They have been working and investing in the story and have a passion for it.” With the commission, she looked no further for inspiration than her then-current re-reading of Racine’s play, “Phaedra.”
Thinking about the characters, she felt there were lots of unanswered questions. The story of Phaedra — which includes her parents; her sister, Ariadne; the men they loved; and especially the specter of their half-brother, the Minotaur, who was half man, half bull — has inspired many works of art through the ages. But Carr wanted to fill in some of the blanks. As one might guess from the title, she explores Phaedra’s back-story. With “passing reference” to Racine’s “Phaedra,” she has taken another look at other sources. “There are so many theories about Minoan culture and Crete; you could read on about this forever. No one can agree on the story.”
The bare-bones plot of the Phaedra story is that her mother, married to King Minos, becomes enamored of a giant white ox and gives birth to the Minotaur. In addition to her sister Ariadne, Phaedra has a husband, Theseus, and a stepson, Hippolytus. Feelings of lust, love, hate, revenge, passion, deadly legacies, and other craziness abound.
Carr says that her intent with this play is to explore men and women in the context of family. This is a theme that has resonated throughout her previous plays. She says she is considering, “How to feel, how to love, how crimes that are committed affect standards and reason. Destiny versus free will. That is in all our lives.”
She is particularly focused on the character of the Minotaur, who appears as himself younger and older. “What does it mean to be human? He is half human and half animal. Which half is worse? Which half is better? What is the definition of human? There’s room for improvement,” says Carr.
She makes it clear that “Phaedra Backwards” is not an “Irish play,” nor is it a “well-made play.” The setting is contemporary, but she says that she is playing with time and space, with an assist from film elements (filmed on Long Beach Island) that are written into the text. “We move back and forth between then and now — ‘then’ being the past, two generations ago.”
McCarter dramaturge Erica Nagel describes the setting: “It’s a mythic world with modern elements. Or maybe a modern world with mythic elements. Really both of those.
“The setting, according to Marina, is ‘Now and then. Then and now. Always.’ That’s truly the best description of the time,” Nagel continues.
“Time in the play is kind of mixed together. People from the past will also appear now,” says Carr.
In references, she is always described as Ireland’s leading woman playwright — and if it’s a particularly astute characterizer, she’s termed one of Ireland’s leading playwrights. She modestly says, “I would not consider myself a great success, just a working playwright. I’ve no wealth from my work. I don’t know how that’s perceived out in the world. I’m not complaining — I do get my plays on.” She has yet to have a play produced on Broadway. Is this and wealth the judge of success?
Her first plays surfaced when she was around 25, and her breakthrough notice was about five years later with “The Mai.” Since then her plays have been produced, but she admits, “A lot of women writers in Ireland might feel marginalized. But I think it’s changing slowly. If you do the math, there is a bit of discrepancy, not just in the arts, but right across the board.”
Few Irish women playwrights have had lasting, universal attention. Currently, the playwright Teresa Deevy (1894-1963) has had two of her plays unearthed and performed at New York’s Mint Theater, whose mission is to revive worthy “forgotten” plays. They have yet to go further back to Lady Gregory (1842-1932), who helped to found the Abbey Theater and had a number of her plays produced there, but that was that for her output. She is mostly forgotten. Already, Carr’s plays are more widely known then either of these earlier Irish women writers.
She has been writer-in-residence at the Abbey Theater, Trinity College, and Dublin City University and has received a number of awards, including selection for Aosdana, an honorary organization whose members are chosen by their peers. It’s a startling revelation to me that this group is funded by the Irish government and provides a lifetime income to the artists who are members so they can concentrate on their art.
From her earliest plays, Carr has surprised audiences with her passionate, often-violent stories. Someone should write a thesis comparing whose work is bloodier, Carr or Martin McDonagh (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “The Pillowman”).
In person, Carr is the epitome of poise and good-heartedness (I met her a few years ago at a conference in Dublin), and by phone or E-mail, exceedingly charming and polite. Someone in an article about her even described her as “Madonna-like,” and they didn’t mean the singer. When she isn’t traveling to work on a production or to teach or give a seminar, she is at home in County Kerry with her husband, a psychoanalyst, who is head of social work in a Dublin psychiatric hospital, and their four children: boys 11 and 13 and girls four and seven. When we talked, she was preparing to fly back to Ireland to check on her family and would return to Princeton again for the last days of rehearsals, preview performances, and opening night.
When I ask her what in her life prompts the subject matter in her plays, she says, “It’s just what I do, and I don’t see it in any way connected to my biography. Writers write. Plain and simple.” Perhaps the Irish just have more imagination than the rest of us. She explains further: “While you are writing, it is purely instinctive or at least the best writing always is.” If she has secrets from her family’s past, she intends to keep them there. When asked about her parents, her reply is, “They were good people, I think.
“I attempt to explore how one deals with the impossible, the real, the unreal, the things you didn’t expect. I want to examine this on many levels. We spend so much time denying history. I look around; there’s intolerance and impatience. Make it quick. Plays are getting shorter as are attention spans. We get bored quicker. Now we don’t want to spend too much time thinking.” You can be sure that her children are encouraged to read books, including those stories of Greek myths. And she assures me that they do not have iPods, iPads, or anything similar.
“What I learned from my parents was the importance of people, that’s where it’s at. We should be as good as we possibly can to each other. I’d like my children to live and know and feel that. Also, I want to pass on a love of learning, a sense of mystery, connectedness, and above all, courage, courage, courage. That’s what we need more of.”
“Phaedra Backwards,” McCarter Theater (Matthews), 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, October 19 and 20; opening night, Friday, October 21; runs through Sunday, November 6. World premiere of Marina Carr’s new adaptation of the classic myth. Directed by Emily Mann. $20 and up. 609-258-2787 and www.mccarter.org.