Marina Carr's Ariel
Directed by Conall Morrison
The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Ireland
2 October - 9 November, 2002.
"A Light Angel in a Dark Landscape"
Marina Carr has written another version of a Greek tragedy. Earlier The Mai can be said to be roughly based on Sophocles' Electra, and her Bog of Cats is even more closely aligned with Medea. They are both set in the Irish Midlands, as is her most recent Ariel, a version predominantly based on Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, but with obeisance to Aeschylus' Oresteia and Sophocles' and Euripides' Electras. Many other plays and works have echoes from The Old Testament to Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, Sebastian Barry's Hinterland (produced this year at the Abbey, also telling of a corrupt Irish political leader), Shakespeare's Hamlet (with its appearance of the father's ghost and Elaine's "Alas poor Ariel scene" in which she speaks to Ariel's skull), besides other Shakespearean allusions, not the least of which is the name Ariel to denote a figure of light in a dark landscape (Tempest) in addition to being a fallen angel in the Bible (an echo reinforced where the father refers to the wing-stubs she had when she was born).
This play tells the story of Fermoy (whose name, "Fear Mai" in Irish, in English suggests fer= "for" and Moi = "me," "For myself," which this man certainly is - Sinn Fein's "ourselves alone" has become "myself alone"). Fermoy is politically competing with a man named Hannafin. Our modern Agamemnon, like his original, has political aspirations. We discover that for the sake of becoming Taoiseach, he is willing to kill his own daughter, Ariel, when God demands it in return for his success.
As the play opens, it is Ariel's birthday (she is sixteen years old) and her father's birthday gift is an automobile. As the teenager that she is, she is delighted with her gift. His cruel God has asked for blood, namely the blood of sacrifice, as Fermoy tells his older brother Boniface (well-named, because he tries to put a "good face" on everything), a priest who is celebrating Ariel's birthday with the family. Boniface is a reformed alcoholic. He is a remnant of Calchas in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis who announces that Artemis is demanding the life of Iphigenia if Agamemnon wants favorable winds so that he can sail to and win at Troy. But Boniface, contrary to Calchas, makes no announcement to his brother, and suffers later from a guilty conscience because he did not stop him when he told him about the blood sacrifice that his God had demanded.
Fallen angels and a cruel god populate this universe. Boniface tells us an alternate story about the creation of the earth and human beings, namely that that creation was Lucifer's way to get back at God. And was Fermoy's pact not with God, but with the fallen angel Ariel, thus linking this play with Faust? This is another over-complicating reference in an already overloaded play.
Frances is the long-suffering wife, who had been married before. Her former husband and child died, and she blames Fermoy for these deaths (the death of an earlier child is true to Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis where Clytemnestra's marriage to a Tantalus is mentioned, besides an earlier that Agamemnon killed before Iphigenia). Fermoy had also told her husband, Charlie that he and Frances were lovers. Frances now tells that Charlie is the only man who really loved her and that she really loved.
Frances has been breast-feeding her child Stephen, by Fermoy, for ten years, somewhat out of longing for her lost first child, James. She blames Fermoy for not bringing James on their honeymoon; he died while they were away, presumably in an accident. Elaine (Electra) dutifully hates her mother as she did in the Oresteia. She recounts the family's sordid history of Fermoy's father killing his wife (Fermoy's mother) while Fermoy watched. The mother's sister was having an affair with the father, and ended up marrying the father and raising Fermoy in her sister's place.
Hannafin, the political rival, asks Fermoy to withdraw from the election he is in, threatening to reveal the family scandals. Fermoy threatens to do the same to Hannafin. Frances asks her husband to withdraw from the election. He refuses, and after she exits Fermoy leaves "to go for a drive" with his daughter dressed (you guessed it!) in white for her birth/deathday. There are no witnesses to this exit of father and daughter which makes it possible for the father to say later on he does not know what happened to her.
The second act begins ten years later. Ariel has disappeared. Fermoy is headed to be the next Taoiseach and he has cleared the field of rivals. A television interviewer grills him, and brings up the suicide of his rival Hannafin. Elaine, the Electra stand-in, is her father's political right hand, and after the interview she suggests that his references to power and his view of God be eliminated, but the story of his loss of Ariel emphasized. The director, Conall Morrison cut this after the first performances. The audience at the Abbey remained sparse - less than a quarter of the theatre was filled.
Frances returns to bring Fermoy to the memorial ceremony on the anniversary of Ariel's disappearance, The drunken Boniface shows up carrying lilies. Frances and Fermoy begin to fight (one sees this is the norm) and accuse each other of philandering (Aegisthus and Cassandra rear their sordid heads). Fermoy has to leave for an important phone call from "the chief." Frances tells Boniface that Stephen is a filmmaker and has made a film about a son who is found feeding at the breast of his mother on his wedding day. She is horrified that the mother was named Frances and drove "an auld Merc" (54).
Fermoy returns and Frances tells him to come to the ceremony. All exeunt except for Elaine and her father, who, when Fermoy complains about her mother, assures him that after the ceremony he won't have to see her for another year. Elaine exits and the phone in the room starts to ring. Fermoy puts it on the speaker and the ghost voice of Ariel tells him she wants to come home. She is terrified by a pike with big teeth chasing her - we are told later that the skeleton of the pike was found next to her remains. In Isaiah 29 it is said that the voice of Ariel "shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost."
Frances returns and accuses Fermoy of killing Ariel, and he confesses to her finally - again reminiscent of Clytemnestra confronting Agamemnon who finally confesses that what he has said to her up to that point was a lie. Frances stabs her husband repeatedly until he tells her that Ariel's body can be found in Lake Cuura - the same lake in which his mother was killed by his father. Frances continues to stab Fermoy until he is dead. Elaine at the trial describes the blood spattering the walls and says she had to piece the body together.
The third act, two months later, shows Ariel's body retrieved and Frances temporarily released so that she can take part in her daughter's funeral. She is in an asylum to which she has been confined after a trial in which Elaine testified against her. Stephen rejects working in his father's business, a cement factory. He abandons his mother at the end after telling her that she did not think of him or Elaine when she killed his father. In this he acts like Orestes, but does not kill her himself. The ghost of Fermoy appears to Elaine when she is alone on stage, but he does not recognize her. He says he is looking for a "cuurtyard, yella, or the ligh in ud is yella. There' some girl there I have to meeh." (74) This refers to the dream he told Frances about in which "I'm in a yella cuurtyard wud God and we're chewin the fah and then this girl wud wings appears by hees side." (57) The girl is Ariel.
In the final scene, Frances finds Elaine talking to her sister's skull. Elaine is furious that her mother moved her father's grave so that he could be buried with Ariel. Frances notes Elaines' close relationship with her father: "You and your father, swear ya were married to him." (53) Elaine not only adored her father but also condoned his killing of Ariel, attributing it to "necessity." At the climax to this confrontation between mother and daughter, Elaine, apparently using the same knife her mother used to kill her father, cuts Francis' throat and stabs her, dragging her onto a table which she then lifts up to face the audience. It suggests a crucifix with a plastic base, and her mother's body slides to the floor. Dripping blood oozes down the frame onto the stage. The table is Elaine's own private ekkyklema - the machine used by the ancient Greek tragedians to roll bodies on the stage and reveal interior scenes.
The final picture is of a pietà in which Elaine entwines her dead mother's arms around her in a loving embrace as she assumes a fetal position on the floor next to her. This was the misguided (in my opinion) decision of the director, and is not in the text. I think it is misguided because it seems to refute Elaine's profound hatred of her mother which is explicitly stated. This is contrary to everything we know about Electra in the various Greek myths which show her as devoted to her father - something which was continued in Freudian mythology in his Electra complex. One might see Elaine's gesture as an acknowledgement of her love/hate relationship with her mother; as Hegel has said, we are defined by our opposites. Enemies are important for one's own identity. Wilde confirms this, "Yet each man kills the things he loves." Carr's decision to have Elaine/Electra kill her sister rather than Stephen/Orestes seems to have some poetic truth to it. In Euripides' version of Electra, she is certainly the driving force and is present to help with the killing.
There are cute allusions to the ancients. The Fermoy Fitzgerald house has Greek columns, of course. Fermoy refers to his political rival Hannafin as a member of society's dregs: what the Spartans "left on the side a the hill and that's where I'll lave em when I've the reins." (18) Frances says to Elaine " Seems to me we been battling a thousand year." (66) Frances dreamt she was nursing a snake (like her Aeschylean counterpart) that she thought at first was Elaine (Electra), but she realizes it is Stephen (Orestes). (68) Frances also wants an end to the killing, as Clytemnestra did at the end of the Agamemnon, and she says, "Elaine, please, no more, no more, our love affair wud the knife is over." (70)
There are lots of references to the sins of former generations, an allusion to the ate or family curse that haunts the present. As Hannafin tells Fermoy: "You were forged in a bloodbah, Fitzgerald, and the son allas carries the father somewhere inside of him." (33) Fermoy also refers to his father as a tyrant - as Agamemnon's father Atreus was. There are many allusions to necessity driving the action, as Agamemnon claimed that necessity drove him in the Iphigenia at Aulis. Carr combines the allusion with the red carpet onto which Clytemnestra seduced Agamemnon in the Oresteia when Elaine, while defending her father's murder of Ariel, tells her brother: "How before ya come to this world, Necessity and her sisters weaves a carpet for ya." (62)
Fermoy says he'll return to a god without mercy and a time without ethics. He says he can't do worse given how we're ruining our modern world "The earth's over, paple knows thah in their bones, ozone layer in tahhers, oceans gone to sewer, whole world wan big landfill a dirty nappies. We're goin to lave this place in ashes like the shower on Mars." (18) His cement factory contributed to this, and after his death Frances wants Stephen to appreciate how its returns have made their life easier and contributed to his education. In his interview, Fermoy claims he put the country on sound financial footing: "I brough money inta the country from places yees didn't knew existed and in ways ye'd never dreamt of." (40) Along with a Protestant's private access to God, Fermoy practices the Protestant ethic which worships capitalism with a vengeance.
Fermoy's god seems to be one of death and blood who resembles Shiva (or Kali) more than even the God of the Old Testament: "When he throws hees head back hees hair gets tangled in the stars, and in hees hands are seven moons thah he juggles like worry beads. Hees eyes is shards of obsidian, hees skin is turquoise, and hees mouth is a staggerin red, whah the firs red musta been before ud all started fadin." (16) This red we shall see is blood. The sacrifice Fermoy's god demands is "The only suurt he acknowledges. Blood." (18) Carr has been faithful to Euripides both in her criticism of the conventional view of God, but also in her use of the language of common people, for which Nietzsche criticized Euripides. Fermoy's Christ seems as cruel as the Old Testament God: he describes Christ in a painting by Piero della Francesca: his "Resurrection." Fermoy's gospel says "The deah a Christ was by us, noh for us, and the resurrection a Christ was for heeself .A big, cranky, vengeful son a God plants his leg like a tree on hees new opened tomb. He looks ouh into a middle distance and hees eyes say wan thing and wan thing only. Ye'll pay for this. Ye'll pay for this." (44) The God of the Old Testament was also cruel, but not quite as irrational as Fermoy's. Abraham was tested, but he was not forced to kill Isaac, his son; Even in Euripides' version, at the last minute there was a reprieve. Not for Jephthah in the Book of Judges, however: he had to sacrifice his daughter to win a war. She willingly offered him her life. However, these instances seem a bit different from a father killing a daughter who to all appearances would have been unwilling, simply so that he could become Taoiseach.
The greatest difference between the Greek tragedies which seem to have inspired this play, is that even in Euripides' darkest vision, he creates some audience identification with or sympathy for the characters. There was also some underlying sense of ethics involved and a sense of hope at the end by virtue of the characters of human beings who survive the worst that the gods send to them. One is at a loss to find that in Carr's play. If this is a critique of modern Ireland and its senseless drive to capitalistic success, it does not have the force of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, or even David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, both of which had comparable attacks on America's own drive for money and power. Those were believable plays and one felt some emotions for the characters, even when disagreeing with them. Angels in America even with its fantastic conventions, is able to tap into the emotive force of a plot driven by gratuitous and greed-driven deaths, but not Ariel. I found myself longing for the honest directness of Carr's earlier plays. I left Ariel not renewed as I do after Greek tragedy, but disgusted at the gratuitous violence, pretentiousness, the banal dialogue and bad direction, which I could not separate from "over-the-top" or "under-the-table" acting.
Born in 1964 in County Offaly, Marina Carr writes about the Irish midlands. She lost her mother at a young age. In 1987 she graduated from University College, Dublin and has written many plays that focus on the darkness of the landscape with which she is familiar. She writes about incest, murder, suicide, and philanderers of various kinds. Ghosts walk freely in daylight, and sometimes sing (Portia Coughlan).
Carr often defines her fictional daughters by their longing after their mothers who have been lost in one way or another, as she did in The Bog of Cats. Carr fills her plays with mother figures, betrayed by their men. In The Mai (1995) the daughter Millie loathes her mother's patient tolerance of her philandering husband, and her remarks could have contributed to her mother's suicide. In this way she becomes another Electra and resembles Vinnie in Mourning Becomes Electra.
Fermoy's father killing his wife takes us back again to the ancient house of Atreus described in Aeschylus' Oresteia. Fermoy's father claimed his wife was unfaithful, as Atreus killed Aerope after she slept with Thyestes. Boniface, however, claims their mother was innocent. This is another plot complication which adds to the picture of this dysfunctional family which however still does not surpass the house of Atreus with their bloodthirsty crimes which include incest and infanticides followed by a parent banqueting on his children's flesh. Fermoy refers to one of his ancestors eating a child during the famine as something he says that Hannafin can add to his list of slanders, but that is hardly the feast that Atreus served up to Thyestes of his own children.
Michael Billington in his review of this play (The Guardian, 5 Oct. 2002) claims that Ariel shows "a cycle of family revenge-killings that makes the House of Atreus look moderately well adjusted." This just shows that he doesn't know the ancient myths. Dysfunctional families are certainly a theme embraced by Carr, and indicative of many rural locations in Ireland, to say nothing of the cities. This is also not an Irish monopoly. But it gets to be monotonous if there is not enough variation in play after play. In Portia Coughlin, By the Bog of Cats and On Raftery's Hill, Carr added a bit of incest to spice up the mixture. Tthis can also be traced to the Greeks, not only in the Oedipus myths, but in the Oresteia, where Aegisthus is born from a union of his father Thyestes with his daughter Pelopeia.
In my opinion, the writing in Ariel is not as skillful as in the earlier work and much of the earlier poetry which characterized Carr's plays is absent in this one. No character evokes our sympathies, which I can't believe is the playwright's intention. This is rather like a freak show, with some laughs along the way as the corrupt political and religious scene provides ample material. No character is believable either, from the perpetually mourning Frances to the career-obsessed Fermoy who is willing personally to kill his own daughter - another variation in the old myth where priests sacrificed her in response to a command from Artemis.
The ranting, the dance with the skull, and bloody murders of the second act are simply boring. One hopes the play will soon end - perhaps they will mercifully run out of bodies. The magic of the Irish countryside which added to the charm of The Mai and Bog of Cats is totally lost in this version. The wit of those plays has become grotesque slapstick and obvious humour in Ariel. It is a pity when Greek tragedy that showed violence offstage is flouted to pander to a modern taste for violence. The problem with reworking a Greek tragedy is that it is inevitably compared to the original. Euripides wins this contest hands down.
The recurrent theme music is suggestively "Mors et Vita" ("Death and Life") from Guonod's Judex ("Judge"). Death certainly feeds life here, and life leads to death. It plays as Ariel exits to her death, after Frances kills Fermoy, and after Elaine kills her mother, the music adding its own judgment as crime piles on crime. But here there is no Eumenides, or Aeschylean law court which attempts to free these characters from their cycle of crime in a civilized way, which is surely the great moralizing force of the original Oresteia by Aeschylus. This is also not T.S. Eliot's Family Reunion, based on the Eumenides, with its redemptive message. This does not have the inherent logic of Mnouchkine's powerful tetralogy, Les Atrides, also based on Aeschylus' Oresteia, but preceded by Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis. In that version, Clytemnestra did not forgive Agamemnon for killing her daughter, but she was hardly the moaner that Carr's Francis is. She, played by a fiery Brazilian actress (Juliana da Cunha), dances a dance of triumph over the body of Agamemnon after she has killed him. Neither is Carr's version as powerful as Peter Stein's rendering of the Oresteia, with its chorus of citizens meeting together in the familiar helplessness of citizens bullied by those who govern, elected though they may be. And Carr lacks the poetry and power and careful crafting of O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra with its passionate egocentric Christine/Clytemnestra and vindictive Electra/Vinnie trying to carve out lives that have other plans for them. That Christine commits suicide and Vinnie wastes slowly away in the stranglehold of the family destiny.
Carr should have relied more on the stories she knew. The fresh believability of her earlier work is missing on this awkward procrustean creation that lumbers after Euripides and Aeschylus and Sophocles and others. Even Tadashi Suzuki's mismash of the three in his Clytemnestra is more powerful. There Clytemnestra returns as a ghost from Noh and kills Orestes and Electra locked in an incestuous embrace. Even Carr's By the Bog of Cats suffers by comparison with Euripides' Medea in that his glorious heroine could kill her husband's children (significantly two boys, who reminded her of their father) so that she achieves an exquisite vengeance by killing them AND then escapes to begin a new life in Athens. She suffers, yes, but she never gave up on life. Carr's Medea commits suicide, and she only kills her daughter (instead of sons) because she does not want to abandon her when her daughter pleads she take her with her - she herself had been abandoned by her own mother. This undercuts Medea's proud vindication of her honor and subsequent embracing of life. Carr's death-ridden landscape filled with ghosts and a Medea who commits suicide does not accord well with Greece's sunny landscape and vindication of life in spite of the greatest of suffering - see Medea, and Oedipus.
Carr's earlier more modest Portia Coughlan, The Mai and On Raftery's Hill were more successful in their country setting, with Irish folk tales informing the drama rather than Greek myth. They had a poetic poignancy that redeems the brutal realism in a way that lets these plays touch the audience. Ariel is instead a play of ideas which leave the audience (at least this one) as cold as the corpses that lie at the bottom of Cuura lake. Ideas, myths, and metaphors are poor substitutes for vital stories. Where is the journey of the major characters? The broken Creon at the end of Antigone? Oedipus, who because of his insights puts out his eyes?
Perhaps Carr would have been better served by a director who would have been more faithful to the text than squeezing out the last drop of blood to shock the audience as Conall Morrison did. Morrison has his searchers blind the audience with their miner's helmets as they "dredge Cuura lake," while a woman weeps in the background. This is another one of his dramatic touches which is added to the text and unnecessarily prolongs this play. So often a director will put his or her personal stamp on a production in hopes that one will remember his genius rather than the author's.
This could have been richer if the director and main actor had explored the possibility of Fermoy's wavering in his decision to kill his daughter. They could have used the visit of Hannafin as a precipitating element that forces Fermoy into his Faustian pact with his god (or fallen angel). Morrison should have tried to make Mark Lambert who plays Fermoy more human and sympathetic. Here he makes the usual mistake directors do in fashioning Antigone into a heroine and Creon a villain, without realizing that they both represent some part of the truth. Here's the rub, though: is there any truth to any of these characters? They are mainly ideas, and Morrison seems to prefer ideas to creating living characters.
One would have wished there could have been some of the strength of Clytemnestra in Ingrid Craigie as Frances. She is only convincing as a professional mourner, not as a vindictive murderess. When she learns the truth that her husband killed her daughter, her scream should be banshee-like. Then she would truly be like Clytemnestra, and not the whinger painted by both Carr and this director. This frail actress can also hardly be taken seriously as someone who can overpower Mark Lambert, unless we think that he has suddenly become suicidal because of his guilt after hearing the ghost voice of his daughter. However, this would be contrary to the way the plot has developed his character up to this point.
The priest brother is well conveyed by Barry McGovern, and a warm human counterpart to the mainly unbelievable Fermoy. Eileen Walsh as Elaine and Dylan Tighe as Stephen do credible jobs conveying their dysfunctional types; Elske Rahill as Ariel is convincing as a giddy careless teenager.
The set shows a birthday table in the Fermoy home. The second act begins with a TV interview, with Fermoy's face showing in a TV monitor. The TV people leave and we recognize the house, on the anniversary of Ariel's death. The third act begins with the search of the lake, and Ariel's coffin brought onto the stage. Each of the sets suggests the location with a few pieces, and stage scaffolding is visible around, rather like Wilder's Our Town. One gets a feeling of being perpetually surrounded in darkness. One hopes this is a temporary lapse in the work of a very talented and promising young playwright. One is tempted to ask, was this written to order to fulfill a commission? If the last commissioned plays I have seen give accurate testimony, then a commission can be as fatal as any poison potion to good drama.
Reviewed by Marianne McDonald, Ph.D., MRIA
Professor of Theatre and Classics
University of California, San Diego
McDonald, Marianne and Michael Walton, eds. Amid Our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedy. London: Methuen, 2002.
Marina Carr. The Mai. 1995; rpt. Loughcrew, Oldcastle, County Meath: The Gallery Press, 2000.
---- Portia Coughlan. Loughcrew, Oldcastle, County Meath: The Gallery Press, 1998.
---- By the Bog of Cats. 1998; rpt. Loughcrew, Oldcastle, County Meath: The Gallery Press, 2001.
---- On Raftery's Hill. Loughcrew, Oldcastle, County Meath: The Gallery Press, 2000.
---- Ariel. Loughcrew, Oldcastle, County Meath: The Gallery Press, 2002.