- Dead Center:Tragedy and the Reanimated Body in Marina Carr’s The Mai and Portia Coughlan
If, as Martin Esslin argues, the actor's body is the "iconic sign par excellence: a real human being who has become a sign for a human being" (56), what happens to an audience's experience of the theatrical event when the central such sign of the drama, the body of the hero, "dies" in the middle of the play? "A corpse on stage" quite obviously "demands attention" (Swander 139), much more so when the corpse in question is that of the title character. Yet a dead body on stage, which is, after all, not in fact dead, can be reanimated, and doing so, either through a disruption of linearity or through the dramatic presentation of an afterlife, testifies to the vitality and malleability of the theatrical experience. In attempting to represent "death," the bodily sign implies a chronological endpoint, a culminating stillness that provokes analytical engagement: like the conclusion of any motion, "the stillness thus draws […] the attention of the spectator […] and calls for some effort either of aesthetic appreciation or interpretation" (McAuley 106–07). Stillness and motion define one another, and later motions of the "revived" body must always be read though the audience's remembrance of the character's ultimate conclusion, as if the theatrically animated figure becomes a trace of its own imaginatively extinguished self.
It is precisely this approach that the Irish dramatist Marina Carr makes use of in her early tragedies. Both of the plays that solidified her reputation – The Mai (1994) and Portia Coughlan (1996) – display their heroines' corpses at the midpoint of the action, only to break with linearity in the latter portion of the play by retracing the steps that led to that demise. Carr's goal in crafting these plays was to "write a classical tragedy [imbued with] the Greek idea of destiny and fate and little escape" (Clarity), and, while displaying the body mid-action certainly forecloses escape as an option, it also circumvents traditional tragic structure by defining the nature of the disaster, not as prophecy or potentiality but as a given, before we have a clear understanding of the [End Page 41] motives and circumstances that generate that catastrophic event. Carr's resistance in these plays to making death a literal endpoint prevents both pieces from providing the emotional release that generally accompanies our witnessing of the hero's final downfall and his commemoration by the community: heroic destruction, followed by communal lament, traditionally provides the resolution of an "absolute close" (Langer 351), a wholeness that is muddied here by the refusal of the body to stay "dead."
Carr's strategy not only forces the audience to contend more directly with the heroine's efforts to stave off her own catastrophe, "undo[ing] suspense," as Clare Wallace puts it, and "focus[ing] attention on the factors contributing to the characters' destinies" (88), but, by so doing, also throws into focus the imaginative divergence in an audience's perception of male and female tragic figures. Aware of the potentially melodramatic reading of emotionally driven, selfdestructive women, Carr argues that her decision to break with linearity is an effort to avoid the lesser dramatic label: "If you had the ending of Portia Coughlan at the end, it wouldn't work. It would be too melodramatic" (qtd. in Murphy 53). Understanding the process of the central figure's demise is essential to reading the significance of that event, for as Fiona Macintosh notes, tragedy, unique among the genres in dealing with questions of human mortality, places its emphasis on the essential "ante mortem stages" of the hero's movement into death (39, 42–43), an idea echoed in Carr's own thinking: "I have always thought that death is just a moment, like two seconds," she argues, explaining that what "is so important [is] how one dies" (qtd. in Sihra 57, 56). While Carr's later plays return to a seemingly more traditional linear model, the meaning of these earlier pieces radiates from the sign of the dead female body, forcing the audience to reorient itself in relation to the event...