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  • Flying Babies and Pregnant MenStaging Motherhood in Marina Carr’s Low in the Dark
  • Jennifer Douglas (bio)

One of the most prominent Irish playwrights today, Marina Carr writes about women’s lives in flux: women who have endured abuse, women who struggle in unhappy marriages, and even women who choose to kill themselves or their children. Her plays, spanning from the late 1980s through the present, begin with Beckettian absurdity and transition into the realms of myth and tragedy. Low in the Dark (1989), a play based on short, comedic episodes with mothers and children, introduces an innovative genre-bending style, which draws on Samuel Beckett’s nonlinear form but with attention to the female body and gender identity.

Since Marina Carr wrote Low in the Dark, in 1989, motherhood has become even more complicated, biologically, socially, and technologically. Reproductive technologies have made in vitro fertilization possible at much older maternal ages, making multiple births more common and more extreme: Jon and Kate Plus Eight, the “Octomom,” and 19 Kids and Counting exemplify our cultural obsession with multiples and large families. As a culture, we crave the schadenfreude of watching parents struggle while six preschoolers overwhelm them. The increasing attention to surrogates, gay parents, and celebrity moms creates a dizzying array of pregnancy spectacle that emphasizes the burgeoning body during pregnancy and its rapid shrinking in the frenzy to reach prebaby weight. Even pregnant men have made the news: Oprah made famous the transgender man whose female reproductive system made it possible to [End Page 197] successfully carry and give birth to a baby. Pregnancy has taken on such different significations as to resist definition after the sperm fertilizes the egg: It is viewed simultaneously as a right and a privilege, a sacred bodily responsibility and a physical blight, a way to begin a family and a way to redefine the nuclear family as we have known it. Although women are feted for their own reproductive choices, once pregnancy begins, the pressure to perform pregnancy correctly and to make the right choices can quickly transform education into indoctrination. As Elisabeth Badinter writes, “la mère écologique” (the natural mother) can become an oppressively narrow view of motherhood that calls for strict maternal behaviors, such as breastfeeding for a prescribed length of time.1

Low in the Dark engages with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of beside insofar as motherhood becomes an array of behaviors, roles, discourses, and bodies that cannot be easily contained within a dualistic essentialist or antiessentialist paradigm. The play circles around, teases out, and bounces between radically different depictions of motherhood, from older mothers to young mothers, from female mothers to male mothers, and from dedicated mothers to ambivalent mothers. Each of these representations evokes cultural stereotypes around mothering by displaying maternal bodies prominently, citing gender norms for raising children, and foregrounding the tensions between la femme et la mère (woman and mother). By not focusing on one specific mother character or version, the play becomes literally that—a playful space that allows for critique and affect without linearity or hierarchy.2

Carr’s particular Irish context frames some of the issues in the play, but contraception, abortion, and other reproductive issues transcend Ireland and reflect struggles in other Western countries with similar religious underpinnings. It is worthwhile to remember the specific conflicts around access to birth control, abortion, and sex education that inform Ireland in 1989.3 These conflicts resonate with the return to controversial forms of abstinence education and certain Christian groups’ emphasis on preserving virginity, both issues that have shaped US culture in recent years. That is, Carr’s choice of topics has not faded into the cultural landscape but has become even more pronounced and divisive since the time the play was first performed. Because of the nonlinear, episodic style of the play, multiple versions of motherhood can coexist and interact without privileging one viewpoint, one maternal body, or one maternal role. At the same time, it’s clear that the humor and satire take aim at the divide between “woman” and “mother,” between fertility and femininity, between biological motherhood and maternal acts. All of these dualisms exist, rather, beside [End...


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pp. 197-218
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