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COMPARATIVE 9V9ÎÎ19 Volume 40 · No. 2 · Summer 2006 Talking with Ghosts of Irish Playwrights Past: Marina Carr's By the Bog ofCats ... Richard Russell In 1998, Marina Carrs playBytheBogofCats . .. premiered at Ireland's famous Abbey Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Carrs play was the first written by a female dramatist to be produced on the main stage ofthe national theater for decades, a testimony to a new moment in Irish theater,rife with potential for women dramatists, as well as a testament to this extraordinary playwright's great talent. On 31 May 2001, the play premiered at the Victory Gardens Theatre, presented by the Irish Repertory ofChicago,but the 14 September 2001 production at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, with Holly Hunter in the lead role of Hester Swane—just three days after the terrorist attacks of September 11—catapulted Carr to fame in the United States.Melissa Sihrahas noted that"the show ran for a month resulting in an overall attendance ofeighteen thousand people."1 The play's violence was apparently appropriate to the somber national mood: Sihra argues that "in retrospect By the 150Comparative Drama Bog of Cats ... offered a sense of comfort and catharsis to audiences, where a lighter drama or comedywould certainlyhave been inappropriate at this time."2 Perhaps in these times ofwar and terrorist bombings, this dark play remains appropriate to our situation. By the Bog ofCats ... is a revenant drama, featuring a series ofpersistently questioning apparitions. These include the Ghost Fancier, who appears at the beginning ofthe playfor Hester Swanebut who has gotten there too soon; the ghost ofJoseph Swane, the brother ofHester Swane; andthe ghostlymemories offigures from thepast such asHester's mother, Josie, who disappeared thirty-three years ago, and Xavier Cassidys son, who was poisoned by strychnine. While these ghosts figure in the specific argument that will follow, another array of spectral presences—the ghostly presences of Irish dramatists from the past, whose work Carr has heavily drawn on, yet modified—suggests how best to understand the comparative dramatic context of the play. In her 1998 essay, "Dealing with the Dead," Carr casts the question of literary influence in ghostly terms. Discussing Odysseus's conversations with the dead in chapter 1 1 of the Odyssey, "The Book of the Dead," she suggests that these discussions exemplify "Homer talking about writing and how to gain access to hidden knowledge , to the past, to the dead, to that other world. And what he seems to be saying is you must give blood,blood being the sacrifice demanded for the tongues or the ear of the dead."3 Carr further observes that these passages from Homer demonstrate "incredible bravery on the part of the writer. It's about the courage to sit down and face the ghosts and have a conversation with them. It's about going over to the other side and coming back with something, new, hopefully; gold, possibly."4 Carr, too, has had the courage to face the ghosts and have conversations with them. As her fellow Irish playwright Frank McGuinness observed in his program note to theAbbeyTheatre production ofBythe Bog ofCats ... in 1998,"Death is a big country. And hers is a big imagination , crossing the border always between the living and the dead."5 Contemporary Irish playwrights are much in debt to their predecessors W. B.Yeats, John Synge, and Samuel Beckett—three ofthe greatest playwrights ofthe twentieth century. Carr has managed to learn from these ghosts of Irish playwrights past, borrowing from them and ultimately concocting her own inimitable theater. Richard Russell151 Although Euripides' Medea clearly influenced Carr's play, this essay will focus on the specific ways in which Carr's play proves Christopher Murray's thesis that "in modern Irish dramatic history ... each successive writer rewrites his/her predecessors."6 Apprehending the spectral presence of these earlier Irish playwrights will enable us to gain some appreciation for the continuing emphasis on language in Irish drama, from its beginnings in the Abbey Theatre of Yeats, Gregory, and John Synge to its experimental apogee, the theater of Samuel Beckett. Carr's dramatic philosophy coheres with this long-running tendency in Irish drama. She affirmed in...