Hester Swane is a woman of the open spaces, haunted by a past not altogether of her own making. She is beautiful, a bit wild and part tinker. She won the love of settled Carthage Kilbride and bore his child. She has moved into a house he built for her to live in so that she and their daughter could experience normal life. But Carthage has moved on and up, and a marriage is planned to cement the new alliance in property and blood. He wants her out, to make room for his soon to be wife.
Hester’s fatal flaw is that she is bound to love only the one man and this love eats away at her remarkable power, rendering her humbled before him, now grieving, now begging him to come back, now threatening terrible vengeance if he leaves her and turns her out. Paradoxically, it is this weakness, and the other great loss at the heart of the play, that makes her humanity shine through the armour she puts on to face the world.
As in Medea, the Greek template for By The Bog of The Cats, the heroine is an outsider, Hester by way of her Traveller blood, the princess from Colchis because she was a foreigner.
Medea is cast as a sorceress and brewer of potions. Jason says he was mad when he married her, how else would he have brought her, a Barbarian, into his home?
Carthage believe’s something similar: I owe you nothin’ now Hester Swane. Nothin’. Ya’ve no hold over me now.’
This is no slavish re-working of the myth, rather an act of possession and embodiment. Medea’s power increases when she leaves the domestic interior and moves outside. The Kilbride’s categorize Hester’s need to walk the bogs, not to be confined to the domestic space, as other, something unhealthy and suspect and society readily agrees.
But when they have tamed all the wild earth, and made everything in it neat and orderly, how will they cope when the real world enters and the crooked truth comes out?
Throughout the play, as we learn more about Hester’s absent mother, through glimpses into the past, we begin to understand why she cannot or will not move away from the territory she loves. The bog, as is so often the case with landscape in Irish literature, is the powerful locus of the story, as essential to the action as any character. It is shifting and dangerous and wide open, the jack o’ the lantern nature of it as familiar to Hester as her own body.
Dramatic tension is carried and heightened through language and imagery whose source is as old as the history buried in the bogs themselves, with their ghostly visions and will o’ the wisp flashes that dart through the lives of all but are only heeded by Catwoman and Hester. The myth of the swan and the purgatorial world of the bog are plaited with the classical themes of prophesy and piety into a tough dramatic skein, compelling and relentless as a river in full spate.
Into the chasm between the erosion of one language and the rise of another, many things fall, and the psyche that the Gaelic language developed to express was always a poor fit with the language that replaced it. Put another way, a foreign language was not well equipped to express the nuances of a declining Gaelic culture, rich in idiom and story and playacting, poor in the things of ‘high’ culture.
People adjusted the new cloak to their purpose as best they could, and a rich and ungrammatical dialect glorying in bastardisation and invention become the best, often the only revenge.
Each language comes with a point of view and the point of view of post-Elizabethan English required women to be either comely maidens or shrews.
It was partially in response to the romanticisation of the West in literature that Mairtin O Cadhain gave us Caitriona Phaidin and Nora Shaeanin in Cre na Cille, with its rich vocabulary of insult, spite and wit.
Carr’s use of language is rich in idiom and accuracy, in insult and allegation. The play is shot through with the surreal nature of the Gaelic imagination, making Hester and Catwoman essential characters of the Irish stage, as Fate propels one and torments the other with the double-edged gift of second sight.
These are not nice girls. Neither are the women in Cre na Cille. Neither is Maeve of Connaught in her contests. They are much more interesting and complex than that. Hester is incapable of facing a life without her lover and we watch her psyche splintering under the weight of grief and isolation and an older, more crippling wound than any Carthage could inflict.
This is a deeply radical play, dealing as it does with a woman of great strength with a fatal weakness for a man who no longer wants her and could never have been her equal.Hester Swane is a woman on the edge, and events are unfolding that could tip her over, not into some unspecified ‘nervous breakdown’ but into tragedy.
Carthage is no Jason, but he too has abandoned his ‘wife’ for a new alliance. That the prize is ‘a few lumpy auld acres’ rather than the city of Corinth neither lessens nor increases his treachery. In tragedy as in life, it is the betrayal that counts.
In Hester Swane, Marina Carr has given us a heroine to rival Caitriona Phaidin in complexity and in Carthage, helpless in the face of his desire for a quiet life, a man who wants women to be simpler than they are.
Mary O’Malley is an award-winning poet and member of Aosdána. She is currently writing a memoir of place, and a new collection.
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