I’m still a little taken aback by the overwhelmingly positive response Bless the Mark received at it’s rehearsed reading in the Hawkswell last Friday. We had hoped for some positive feedback and that people would see some potential in it; but quite a few people suggested that the reading as is could be presented as a finished piece, which was entirely unexpected. Of course this isn’t to be taken literally; in one sense people seemed to worry that further development of the piece would turn it into a more traditional ‘play,’ and destroy what they thought was unique about it. But if we do get to take it further, that will be the main challenge; to find a form that conjures the time without depicting it, that allows the audience to experience the image without distracting them with pretence, much as the reading did. (One audience member described watching the reading as like reading a book, in that it allowed her to create the story rather than imposing one visualisation on her).
The most astute comment of the evening came from a youth theatre member, who pointed out that of all the characters spoken of, the one we end up knowing virtually nothing about is Turlough, the last brother; and because we know nothing about him, he becomes a force, an avenging power descending on the men to wreak vengeance. If we were told, for example, that Turlough’s favourite colour was blue, he would be reduced to a mere character – much like the other brothers are. The three men on stage can laugh about Eoghan, who they destroyed. They can talk somewhat about Niall, who eluded them. But they can say nothing about Turlough, who will destroy them.
But it occurred to me later that there is a greater force in the play that is made powerful by the characters inability to speak about it, and that’s women. In the early stages of the piece I thought I was writing a play that had no female characters. Gradually I came to understand that I was partly writing about the absence of women – their absence from the historical narrative, the genealogical narrative, the lives of these characters, the world of the play – not merely absent, but a non-presence, a wound in the world that the play cannot help but probe at and question. The men speak about their father as if they knew & understood him well – he was
a broken man
a hard man
a battered man
a beaten man
a fearful man
a crooked man
Twisted into a knot of himself that he couldn’t untie it
An aching heart surrounded by a fuck of a man
He could never say what he wanted to say
He was too deep in himself, you couldn’t reach him.
Spent his life breaking his back to pay the half rent on a siege of herons and a scatter of whins. And sure where is he now?
But when they speak of their mother –
– your mother is a memory of the sacred heart. She’s the dying embers in the grate where you know there was a warm fire once but you can feel nothing now. And when you ask the people – ‘what was mammy like?’ they tell you about the man she was a daughter of. They know next to nothin’, and she the missing piece that you make no sense without her.
And their memory of her is a confused mix of ideas; she rejects any easy image which might be constructed of her. She’s neither Cumann na mBan nor biddy; neither virgin or whore; she’s what they lost track of, what history did not record. The lads can’t find their way back to her, and they feel the loss of her. The play, their world, is incomplete without women and they know it.
What you have of her is good-
The tune of a tin whistle
Or the knitting in the lap
Or the dúidín in the gob
Feck the shawlies and the suffragettes
And feck the greedy priests!
“I’m going now” says he
“Well beir bua agus beannacht dé leat, there’s no use talking to you!”
Sure she was flittered living with him. Her softness wasn’t capable to him.
You were the pulse of her heart.
But she’s lost to you now.
This becomes an undercurrent throughout. Sean is in love with a girl, but she will no longer speak to him because of what he did. Tom speaks of the bravery of the women during the Rising – but was he even there to witness it? Frank’s song is a mother’s lament for her son’s deeds. The lads reach a safe house, an old woman’s home where the kettle is warm for them – but they’ve missed her, she’s gone. Perhaps in the dark journey they’ve undertaken she is invisible to them now.
It’s a recurring theme in my work. Dradin in Love, Jeff Vandermeer’s tale about a priest who obsesses over an imaginary woman; the distant voices in Sonnets for the Cradle; the theme is very often – not women, but men’s disconnection from women, their distance from them, their stubborn attempts to make them into what they are not. Women so often represent salvation in men’s minds that the virgin/whore symbolism is, though not an accurate way to depict women, often an accurate way to depict a man’s psychology. A person shedding their illusions about life is often a person shedding their illusions about the opposite sex – and that’s a real and true story to tell.
That said, for The Big Wall in May I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a couple of strong women with rifles, kickass heroes of the revolutionary period. For the sake of historical accuracy.
Bless the Mark is the first of three works-in-progress that will be presented at The Hawkswell as part of Bob Kelly’s Theatre Artist in Residency 2016