Knockaderry Clouncagh Drama Group’s Production of “The Loves of Cass McGuire” Reviewed

Sue Mullins as Cass McGuire

Following their  hugely successful production of Jim Nolan’s ‘Moonshine’ last year, the Knockaderry Clouncagh Drama Group, directed by Johnny Corkery, are back once again, this time with yet another poignant Irish play, Brian Friel’s ‘The Loves of Cass McGuire’.  The audience  were  highly entertained but were also at times brought close to tears at the opening performance in The Resource Centre, Knockaderry  of this powerful and deeply moving production of Brian Friel’s play. The play tells the sad delusional story of Cass, (played magnificently by Sue Mullins pictured above),  who is a tired and tipsy woman, who has spent  fifty two years working in a ‘speakeasy’ – a bar of sorts, a block from Skid Row, among downbeats, bums and washed up people in New York city.

Cass McGuire returns to Ireland after all those years in America and her remaining family – a brother (and his family) and her mother – welcome her back but then place her in a nursing home, Eden House, when she gets too difficult to handle. The play focusses on and explores the psychology of Cass as she returns from her emigration and exile and her search for ‘home’.   Gripping, often humorous, but steeped in compassion, Friel scripts a rich and complex portrait of a marginalised emigrant returning home.   We are only too aware of the different perceptions our relatives in America, ‘the Yanks’, have of ‘the ould sod’; the land of leprechauns, Arran sweaters and thatched cottages. We can, therefore, easily empathise with Cass’s dilemma.  She has returned to a world she cannot recognise and the play explores the difficulties she has in coming to terms with a life not as she imagined and the exclusions society now imposes upon her.  Whereas  Friel’s, Philadelphia Here I Come dealt with Gar’s physical act of emigration, this play deals with the psychology of returning and this  marks it out as a very relevant work – indeed, it can be said of Cass, like many a returning exile, she comes back to a home that does not exist except in her fantasy.

The ‘loves’ referred to in the title of the play meanwhile are not love affairs, but rather the love Cass has for people in her life.  Among them Cass’s mother played by Mary Angela Downes, her brother Harry (Colman Duffy), his wife  Alice (Rachel Lenihan) and four children to whom down the years she has sent money and presents and cards,  doing what ‘the Yank’, was expected to do.  She believes her sacrifice for her family will be appreciated, and she dreams of a happy homecoming, but sadly finds she has been deluding herself.   The reality was much different, however, and she wasn’t much thought about in her absence and when she came home, she was seen as a bawdy, loud, embarrassment and put into a home,  the ironically named Eden House.  Eventually this loveless scenario is replaced by a fantasy world of make-believe where a new vision of happiness is constructed from her past.  Cass and the other residents, particularly Trilbe Costelloe (Mary Geaney) and Mr. Ingram (Paddy Mulcahy),  begin rhapsodising about a past that never happened – they lay their dreams before us and ask us to thread softly..  The play, therefore, combines pathos, humour and truth – it is tragic but there is also scope for humour and, typical of Friel, and this production at times, the humour and comedy is of the type that brings the audience to the verge of tears.

This production gives full voice and exposure to the myriad of theatrical devices and innovations used by Friel to push the boundaries of theatre.  In this play Friel plays with conventions of theatre and memory. Cass, (Sue Mullins at her mischievous best),  breaks through the ‘fourth wall’ constantly, emerging on to the stage from the body of the audience.  Furthermore, she  refers directly to the author and title of the play, and she works hard to deny memories of how she got into her current situation, repelling the eerie draw of the other patrons of Eden House, superbly captured in the performances of Mary Geaney and Pat Mulcahy in particular.   My only genuine regret on the night was that Friel was not present to see the production for himself!

Sue Mullins was amazing as Cass and her shouts of bawdy joy and puzzled moments of stillness as she peered out into the audience and a deserted banquet hall, were all part of a memorable tour de force.   Colman Duffy was splendid as the weak but well-meaning Harry and he was well supported by Rachel Lenihan, recently returned from her successful trip to The Globe Theatre in London.  Paddy Mulcahy as Mr. Ingram  and especially Mary Geaney as Trilbe were essential and excellent in establishing and maintaining the poetic mood of this play and in easing Cass’s adjustment to Eden House ‘truth’.  John Young brought much needed laughter (if ironic and knowing) to the story as Pat Quinn.  Owen McMahon as Dom and Alison Lenihan, (in her first live role for the Drama Group),  brought the innocence and dreams of youth to the production.

This production by the Knockaderry Clouncagh Drama Group  gives full rein to a cast lead by strong, forceful female characters, especially the lonely, isolated figure of Cass McGuire played with aplomb by Sue Mullins.   This role and the role of Madge in Philadelphia Here I Come, foreshadows  Friel’s later success with the Mundy sisters in Dancing at Lughnasa – actually if Knockaderry Drama Goup are considering a production for next year’s drama circuit they could do worse than turn to Dancing at Lughnasa – casting would not be a problem anyway!

This is a very powerful play, both humorous and sad, but ultimately uplifting. The play deals with identity, the notion of truth and communication, and how memories both public and private enable us to ride the highs and lows of life. Throughout the play, images from the past flood into Cass’s head and the story unfolds when, she returns to an Ireland and family which have changed utterly from what she had imagined all those years ago. To save herself from these changes, she eventually shares her life, work and experiences with us and those around her – continuously bursting through Friel’s  ‘Fourth Wall’ to engage the audience.  We also meet her brother and family who have remained at home, and we hear their stories. On her entry to Eden House, a “rest home” for older people, Cass encounters Trilbe Costellooe, Mr. Ingram and the new arrival Mrs. Butcher (played by Betty O’Sullivan), who help her see her way to survival.   Those sad stories and memories of other days came home with me after this production.  This is a  powerful and engaging production, not to be missed. Directed deftly by Johnny Corkery,  it combines excellent stage craft, a classic Friel set and a vibrant cast which  brings Friel’s characters to life.

 Rachel Lenihan as AliceMr. Ingram, Trilbe Costelloe and Cass

English is in Terminal Decline…. Again!

 

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The concerns that English is difficult to learn and is  in decline is almost as old as the language itself.   The average schoolchild can hardly write, one author has recently warned. Well, not that recently perhaps. It was William Langland, author of “Piers Plowman“, who wrote that, “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.” He died in 1386.

English has been getting worse ever since. In 1387, Ranulph Higden, a Benedictine monk and historian, found the culprit in language mixing: “By commiyxtion and mellyng, furst wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ Normans, in menye þe contray longage ys apeyred and som useþ strange wlaffyng chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbyttyng.” That is to say (in case your Middle English is rusty) that English speakers had taken to “strange, articulate utterance, chattering, snarling and harsh teeth-gnashing”, bad habits he put down to the mixing together of Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Norman French.

The wailing throughout the history of the language, by people convinced that the end is nigh, can be a bit exhausting over a full survey. But it holds a lesson: language is not constant. Change is—and anxiety about change is constant too. Indeed, I believe that the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies!  In 1577 Richard Stanihurst praised the English spoken by old English settlers in Ireland. Because of their distance from the mother country, they had not been affected by, “habits redolent of disgusting newness”.

A century later, in 1672, John Dryden, a poet and essayist, waxed especially operatic on the decline of English—and not just schoolboys’ English, but that of the greats:

It is not their plots which I meant, principally, to tax; I was speaking of their sense and language; and I dare almost challenge any man to shew me a page together, which is correct in both. … [M]alice and partiality set apart, let any man who understands English, read diligently the works of Shakspeare and Fletcher; and I dare undertake that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense.

Another half-century on, another great writer was at the decline game, this time Jonathan Swift:

our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.

Swift’s only comfort was that French was declining nearly as rapidly as English. (That didn’t stop him from proposing an English academy, along the lines of the Académie Française, to stop the decline.)

Anxiety sells, and so warnings about the state of the language accelerated as dictionary-and grammar-book writers sought—and found—a mass market. Samuel Johnson hoped to give the language some stability, but realised that trying to stop change was like trying to “lash the wind”. But many of his contemporaries were not so generous. Robert Lowth, probably the most influential English grammarian of all time, began his 1762 book with a quotation from Cicero complaining about the rubbish Latin that the Roman statesman heard in the streets around him. Lowth went on to use examples from Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible as “false syntax” illustrating errors, complaining that even, “Our best authors have committed gross mistakes, for want of a due knowledge of English grammar.”

Perhaps the stern Victorians, at least, mastered English? They did not; the poet Arthur Hugh Clough complained in 1852 that, “Our own age is notorious for slovenly or misdirected habits of composition.” Americans in their young republic were also already going into decline, too: Adams Sherman Hill, a Harvard professor of rhetoric, found, “the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions” in 1879. Charles Henshaw Ward, another American, blamed the usual suspects, the school pupils, in 1917: “Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.”

Perhaps the greatest writer to be persuaded of declinism was George Orwell, who wrote in 1946 that, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.”  The essay in which he tried to stop the rot did little good, at least as far as his successors were concerned. Dwight McDonald wrote in his 1962 review of Webster’s third New International Dictionary about modern permissive attitudes, “debasing our language by rendering it less precise”. In 1973 “Newsweek” explained, “Why Johnny can’t write” on its cover. That same year, a young Lynne Truss finished school in England. She would go on to sound the alarm in what would become the modern stickler’s book-length battle-cry, 2003’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”.

This is in no way limited to English. I have just been sent a press release for a book called “Bin ich der einzigste hiere, wo Deutsch kann?” (“Am I the Only One Who Speaks German Here?”) with a few hard-to-translate mistakes in the German title. German has also been in decline for a while: 1974 saw the publication of Die Leiden der Jungen Wörter, “The Sorrows of Young Words” (a pun on Goethe’s Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, the “Sorrows of Young Werther”.) Even Jakob Grimm (1785-1863) thought that German had been more expressive and elegant hundreds of years before his time.

Have young people too lazy to learn to write been with us since the very beginning? A collection of proverbs in Sumerian—the world’s first written language—suggests that they have: “A junior scribe is too concerned with feeding his hunger,” contends one.  Another states: “He does not pay attention to the scribal art.”  It seems that the slovenly teenager, not to mention the purse-lipped schoolmaster, is at least 4,000 years old!

– based on article in The Economist

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An Overview of Yeats’s Poetry

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Two poets, one American, one Irish, dominated English Literature during the first half of the twentieth-century: T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.  So powerful is Yeats’s distinctive poetic voice that his poetry has been described as ‘magisterial’, ‘authoritative’, ‘commanding’, ‘formidable’, ‘compelling’, ‘direct’, ‘exhilarating’, and even ‘overbearing’.  Before he died Yeats arranged for an epitaph to be cut in stone ‘by his command’ – and as Seamus Heaney has pointed out ‘command’ is the operative word here!  But there is also in Yeats the voice of the dreamer, the idealist.  We see it in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, which he began when he was twenty-three.  The life imagined on Innisfree is simple, beautiful and unrealistic and this longing for the ideal is also found in the sixty-one year old Yeats when he sails in his imagination, to Byzantium.

Yeats (like Joyce) lived in a time of extraordinary change.  A world war was fought and Ireland fought for and attained its Independence and went through the scourge of the Civil War; his poetry charts the political turmoil of those times.  Yeats writes about aspects of his private and his public life and sometimes those two aspects of his life overlap.  He is a public poet in a poem such as ‘September 1913’, where he becomes a self-elected spokesman in his condemnation of small-mindedness and the absence of vision.  He played a public role, was committed to Ireland (he refused a knighthood in 1915) and was made a Senator in 1922; one of his early ambitions says Michael Schmidt, was, ‘to reconcile the courteous Protestant heritage with the martyred, unmannerly Roman Catholic tradition in Ireland towards a political end’.  In ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ he touches on these themes.  ‘All his life’, writes Augustine Martin, ‘Yeats sought for a harmonious way of life as well as a perfect form of art and he re-invents himself several times during the course of his life and work’.

While it is obvious, having studied a selection of his poems, that many similar themes recur in his poetry, it is also evident that he rarely repeated himself.  In Irish Classics, Professor Declan Kiberd identifies this aspect of Yeats’s poetry and comments:

‘The greatness of Yeats lay in his constant capacity to adjust to ever-changing conditions….As the years passed, he grew simpler in expression, using shorter lines dominated by monosyllables, with more nouns and fewer adjectives.  He said himself that a poet should think like a wise man, but express himself as one of the common people’.

Our poets and songwriters frequently write repeating similar themes and styles.  (Need I mention David Gray?  Eva Cassidy? Morrissey even!).  When Yeats writes about nationalism, his preoccupation with the passing of time and the reality of growing old, his belief in the extraordinary power of art, it could be said that these themes are not startlingly unusual, but it is the way he writes on such topics that makes him unique.  He once described this process memorably as, ‘the stitching and unsticthing’ of old themes.

Imagery, especially his use of symbol, is another striking aspect of his work.  Powerful, memorable images remain with the reader, such as the ‘purple glow’ of noon; the fumbling in ‘a greasy till’; ‘the hangman’s rope’; the nine-and-fifty swans ‘Upon the brimming water’ and the ‘bell-beat of their wings’; the stone in the midst of ‘the living stream’; a creature ‘somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man’; ‘sages standing in God’s holy fire’; ‘the bees build in the crevices / Of loosening masonry’; ‘Two girls in silk kimonos’, etc., etc.

In ‘Under Ben Bulben’, written five months before he died, he praised the well-made poem and scorned and condemned the shapeless, badly made one.  All his life he valued form and his mastery of rhythm, rhyme and the stanza are testimony to this.  Yeats is intensely personal: he names names and writes about events and happenings that are recorded in newspapers and history books, but he knew that ‘all that is personal soon rots, it must be packed in ice and salt’.  His poems speak to us with great immediacy and directness but they do so in elaborate and musical forms.

‘My poetry is generally written out of despair’ says Yeats.  As he grew older, he searched for ways to overcome his weakening body.  He raged against old age, wrote about it with great honesty and accepted the inevitability of death.  His poetry reminds us of the immortality of art, that ‘Man can embody truth but cannot know it’ and that ‘we begin to live when we have conceived life as a tragedy’.

 

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YEATS – A POET OF OPPOSING TENSIONS.

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Yeats’s poetry examines a powerful series of opposing tensions between youth and age, order and chaos.   Indeed, it is easy to find evidence for the opinion that he is ‘a poet of opposites’.  His poetry explores many diverse conflicts at both a personal and national level.  One of the strongest impressions created by his poetry is that of searching.  Sometimes he searches for a means of escape, sometimes for a solution, but the presence of numerous rhetorical questions throughout his poetry reveals a man who was sensitive to the world around him, encountering it with intellectual vigour while remaining true to his heart.

 One of the major conflicts in his work is that of youth and age.  Yeats can become melancholic in his awareness of life’s brevity as we see in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ where he reflects rather dolefully that ‘The nineteenth autumn has come upon me’.  Time refuses to stand still for a poet who realises that ‘All’s changed since ….  Trod with a lighter tread’ along the autumnal shores of the lake at Coole Park.  A similar acceptance of time’s inexorable progress occurs in ‘Easter 1916’ where horses, birds, clouds and streams ‘Minute by minute they change.’  In the opening stanza of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ Yeats presents a dramatic affirmation of youth where the young are ‘in one another’s arms’ mesmerised by the ‘sensual music’ of love.  This poem establishes powerful conflicting claims between the younger generations who live in the sensual world and the more sedate singing of the old scarecrow, reincarnated into an eternal art form of the golden bird.  The bird has transcended the decay and infirmities of the transitory world; it may claim to be superior to the ‘Fish, flesh, or fowl’ who have been ‘begotten, born’ but must also die.  However, the rather cold, mechanical song of the golden, immortal bird does not quite match the passionate, vibrant music of the young.  And yet, they too are the ‘dying generations’.  In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the old poet, a figure of fun in his own country, leaves the sensual world for the changeless world of Byzantium that is beyond time and passion.  His appeal is to be reincarnated.

 A second significant conflict in Yeats’s work is that between order and chaos.  Yeats admired the aristocratic tradition in eighteenth-century Ireland.  The world of the Great House was aligned to his own sense of identity with that particular class.  He felt at home in Lady Gregory’s house at Coole Park and in his poem ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ he remembers in the opening stanza the tranquil, serene and orderly world of that eighteenth-century estate.  The graceful living of Lisadell is beautifully evoked in the opening images of ‘In memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’ as he describes,

 The light of evening, Lisadell,

                               Great windows open to the south,

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

 Beautiful, one a gazelle’.

Using an image from nature, Yeats makes the transition from the refined, elegant youth of the girls to their turbulent adult lives when he says,

  a raving autumn shears

 Blossoms from the summer’s wreath’.

 The remainder of the poem seems to lament the passing of such an ideal world of youth in the women’s futile attempt to find, ‘Some vague Utopia’ that aged their beauty until it was ‘skeleton-gaunt’.  The references to conflagration at the end of the poem point to the destruction of the traditional values that were cradled in places such as Lisadell.

 In place of such values Yeats presents the birth of ‘mere anarchy’ in the poem ‘The Second Coming’.  This poem is a stark and terrifying vision of disintegrating social order and ominous evil that has been born and ‘loosed upon the world’.  Images of the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ and a ‘rough beast’ slouching towards Bethlehem show how troubled the poet is by the increasing violence and the annihilation of cultural and aristocratic values.  The conflict between order and chaos is the focus of more local manifestations of violence and murder in ‘A Stare’s Nest by my Window’.  In the poem, which details the negative impact of the Civil War, the poet fights his own inner battle against chaos in calling for renewal, rebirth and regeneration in ‘the empty house of the stare’.  However, the hope of a return to some order is filled with ‘uncertainty’; the predominant images in the poem are of destruction where,  ‘A man is killed, or a house burned’.  The house could well have been a Lisadell or a Coole Park.

Yeats did attempt to resolve some conflicts in his poems but in many cases he had to accept that such a synthesis was not always possible let alone probable.  But he did remain in contact with the world, however imperfect it seemed, and encountered it with his complex temperament that could whisper of grace, youth and beauty or clamour against injustice, old-age and decay.  Perhaps we should be grateful that many conflicts were never resolved, for it was they that evoked his most difficult struggles and his most poignant poetry in granting him ‘an old man’s frenzy’.

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Hidden Riches in The Poetry of Adrienne Rich

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  • Adrienne Rich, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet, crystallised in her work and life, the consciousness of modern women. Her poems are, in this respect, overtly feminist in their outlook.

 

  • Her poems are confessional in that they often draw from her own life experience. While many poets tend to do this, Rich is unique among the poets on the Leaving Cert course in that she uses these experiences to make political statements.

 

  • Her poems contain complex images and metaphors – some extended metaphors like ‘Storm Warnings’ – and carefully worked out rhythms that challenge the reader.

 

  • Rich tends to draw from everyday experiences and events in order to make complex ideas more accessible.

 

The poems of Adrienne Rich spoke to me in a powerful way. She was definitely one of the most original and thought provoking poets that I have studied. Rich speaks for both herself and her generation in the throes of great change. The poems that I have studied represent many of the new ideas that emerged during her life. Not only do I find these ideas interesting but I believe that I have benefited directly from them.

‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ speaks to me on many levels. It is an overtly feminist poem exploring the position of married women in society.  However, it is also a great piece of writing. Rich creates contrast for maximum effect; the tigers are “proud and unafraid” unlike Aunt Jennifer who is “terrified”.  The nervousness of the aunt is perfectly conveyed through sound and movement; her “fingers” are “fluttering through her wool”. Her creativity and personality is being suppressed by the marriage she is in: “The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band/Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.”

There is a sense that her marriage is ‘weighing’ her down. The dominance of her husband is suggested through the capitalisation of “Uncle”. It is clear that this marriage is an unhappy one; even when her aunt is dead she is, “still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by”. Unfortunately, even though this poem was written over fifty years ago, I can still recognise women like Aunt Jennifer.

However, the poem is not completely pessimistic. I think it does a lot to celebrate the potential of women. Aunt Jennifer may have been repressed and timid but she produced tigers that were “proud and unafraid”.  These tigers live on beyond her death. I think this poem hints at the changing position of women that we see today.

The threat of change is evoked beautifully in ‘The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room’. Unsurprisingly, this poem is taken from Rich’s collection called ‘Change of World’. The arrogance of the speaker is displayed in his dismissal of the protesters as a “mob”. Like ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’, the dominant figure is the “uncle”.  I believe he is a symbol of a patriarchal society that is class-ridden with a sense of privilege and entitlement. References to the “drawing room” and “crystal vase and chandelier” reinforce this idea of an ostentatious, wealthy world removed from the common people.

I felt the anger of the mob as they “talked in bitter tones” and “fingered stones”.  Alliteration is used to great effect as Rich describes the “sullen stare” of the crowd. The strong rhyme and rhythm in the poem is reminiscent of a drumbeat or death march. It increases the tension in an already dramatic poem. The uncle dismisses the threat as “follies that subside”. However, he still fears for his “glass”. The fact that he says, “none as yet dare lift an arm” implies that he believes that they may in time. The speaker ends the poem with a warning about how his generation must guard the treasures of “our kind”. I thought this poem was a clever insight into the minds of those who hold the power in the world. It created vivid pictures for me and I was disappointed when it came to an end.

A poem that deals with change and power in a slightly less dramatic way is ‘Living in Sin’. This poem really spoke to me because I could easily relate to it. As a big fan of the movies, I am consistently bombarded by idealised depictions of love that would probably be impossible to recreate in real life. Rich’s poem gave me an insight into the difference between our romantic expectations and the reality of everyday life.

The poem tells the story of a woman who decides to live with her boyfriend. From the first lines of the poem, we realise that things are far from perfect:  “She had thought the studio would keep itself;/No dust upon the furniture of love.”  It is clear that the woman had not even considered the mundane realities of domestic life. She feels guilty about her resentment of domestic chores because in that society it was “half heresy” not to embrace what was seen as ‘women’s work’. I enjoyed the wry humour in the poem as the woman is disturbed by the reality of her new life when “a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own”. The pressure on women to conform is conveyed by the fact that her “minor demons” jeer her as she cleans the apartment.

It is interesting that the man whom the woman is tending to seems very far from a romantic hero. In fact, he hardly seems worthy of her. He fails to see the problems in the house. He is lethargic and lacks personality. She “writhes” under “the milkman’s tramp”, a metaphor for life and even though “by evening she is back in love again”, it is not as “wholly” as before. I believe this poem acts as a warning to women everywhere to beware of slipping into a life of domesticity where their needs become subservient to those of others.

Another poem that deals with relationships is ‘From a Survivor’. This poem is a lot more directly personal than ‘Living in Sin’. Rich uses the first person in this poem and it is obvious that this is about her failed marriage to Alfred Conrad. After seventeen years of marriage, the couple separated. Months after their separation, Conrad committed suicide. This poem spoke to me because it is very sad and I think it was courageous of Rich to publish it.

The poem expresses itself simply and the language used is almost conversational. Rich reflects on the “pact of men and women in those days”. The use of the word “pact” suggests some sort of battle, perhaps, referring to the shifting balance of power between the sexes at the time. Rich shared the view of all newly weds that herself and her husband were “special” and could withstand the “failures of the race”.

The poem addresses the fact that her husband is now “wastefully dead”. There is real pathos in the lines: ‘Your body is as vivid to me/As it ever was: even more since my feeling for it is clearer’.

Now that their relationship is over and he is dead, Rich can assess what they had together. When they initially married, the status between man and wife was unequal. The husband was a “god” with the “power” over his wife. This poem really interests me on many levels.  It is a very personal reflection on Rich’s life but it also documents a life that has been left behind. I believe, as a result of pioneering women like Rich, our generation will not suffer such inequalities in our marital relationships.

 In many of her earlier poems Rich gives the impression that she is at the mercy of elements that she can’t quite control.  In ‘Storm Warnings’, for example, Rich, by using a sustained extended metaphor, portrays the weather as a powerful force for change that threatens her fragile home.  All she can do is close the windows and lock the doors against the storm that is brewing outside.  As the poem points our, even with our fancy new-fangled technologies and our weather reports, we are unable to control the weather.  We might be able to predict what is going to happen, but we are powerless to prevent it happening.  Time and darkness are two other forces that we are unable to control.  She also seems to suggest that there are elements of our own lives that we are powerless to change also.  As Rich points out: ‘Weather abroad / And weather in the heart alike come on / Regardless of prediction’.  By this she seems to be talking about the depression and other moods that we suffer from throughout our lives.

 Rich wrote ‘Power’ in 1974. From the beginning of that decade, she had devoted her life increasingly to feminism. Certainly, the conflict of an influential woman existing in a patriarchal society is explored in the poem. The poem first interested me because Marie Curie was famous and known to me for her dedication to science and the priceless discoveries she had made during her life. She was a fascinating woman who was the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes for her discovery of the radioactive elements plutonium and radium.  Her work with these elements led to her eventual death from leukaemia.

The poem follows a ‘stream of consciousness’ method that I found both challenging and interesting. It opens with the discovery of,  “a hundred-year-old cure for fever  or melancholy  a tonic”. This bogus “cure” contrasts with the real cures Curie found in her research.

I was really moved by the description of Curie’s suffering. Rich conveys a vivid picture of the scientist’s “body” being “bombarded” by radiation, her eyes developing “cataracts” and her skin “cracked and suppurating”.  The final image of Curie being “unable” to “hold a test-tube or pencil” is particularly poignant.

There is a sense that she was forced to deny “her wounds” because they came “from the same source as her power”.  It is highly ironic that the work that Curie did made her both famous and sick. One wonders if Rich is making a broader political point here. Is she saying that in a male dominated world, a woman must make serious sacrifices to be successful? The poem brought to mind the problems that many women who have both children and demanding jobs experience today. There is always a sacrifice that has to be made in some way. Whatever the ultimate message, this poem is a powerful testament to both Marie Curie and Rich’s powers both as scientist and poet.

Rich said that she had written,  “directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman’s body and experience”. Her work was both challenging and thought provoking. I was continually excited and surprised by her unusual perspectives and striking imagery.

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Some ‘Grace Notes’ on Macbeth

 Note: The term ‘Grace Notes’ comes to us from the world of Irish Traditional music where they are used as embellishments, added extras to further personalise the tune.  Here they are used in similar fashion – maybe becoming the difference between a B1 and an A1!

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Throughout the play Macbeth there is almost a grotesque obsession with violent and unnatural images of children and babies (as well as apparitions of a bloody child and of a child crowned), for instance:

Come to my women’s breasts…….I have given suck, and know

How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me….

None of woman born shall harm Macbeth..

There are also many images of barrenness, for instance:

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown

And put a barren sceptre in my grip,

Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,

No son of mine succeeding.

Even though Macbeth is obsessed at the thought of the children of another man succeeding him, he himself does not have any children (Macduff states that he cannot properly avenge the murder of his own children, since Macbeth ‘has no children’).  Lady Macbeth mentions that she has ‘given suck’, but here she may be referring to children from a previous marriage – or maybe any children the Macbeths have had are now dead.  With this in mind, the voices of the witches that he hears could almost be those of his children that have died or possibly the voices of his imaginary children whom he wants to inherit the throne.  (In some productions of the play the witches have been played by children.  This is not too farfetched – after all, nowadays, when we think of witches, an image of an eccentric woman on a broomstick or a child dressed up in a pointy hat and cloak at Halloween readily comes to mind.)

  • IMAGES OF TIME AND SPEED

By Shakespeare’s standards, Macbeth is a short play.  There are no major sub-plots, and the events of the central story unfold at an alarmingly fast pace.  Macbeth returns home in Act 1 to prepare for the arrival of the king at very short notice, while Lady Macbeth summons him to ‘Hie thee hither’ and a messenger who has already travelled so quickly is ‘almost dead for breath’.  The images of travel, speed and breathlessness create a sense of unbearable urgency in the play.  Characters are obsessed by time passing – Macbeth himself seems to realise how Time ultimately is in control of his actions, when he addresses Time:

 Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits.

Later he refers to Murder as something which moves with        ‘stealthy pace’     and he acknowledges that

Come what come may,

               Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

Macbeth’s reaction of distant resignation to the death of his wife begins with the famous deliberation on time,

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…….

  • IMAGES OF BLOOD

In Macbeth, the word ‘blood’ is mentioned 24 times, and ‘bloody’ is mentioned 15 times!  Once blood has been shed, there is quite a gothic obsession with it, as Macbeth and his wife are haunted by images of blood.  This horrified reaction to the blood they have shed is altered, when Macbeth realises that he cannot turn the clock back, saying –

I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

This image of wading through blood which creeps up your body surely has influenced countless Hollywood directors down the years e.g. in films such as The Shining.

Lady Macbeth might have control over her husband in the early stages of the play, but she cannot control her own mind which is plagued with bloody images, washing her hands of invisible blood, and saying –

Yet who would have thought the old man

               To have had so much blood in him.

Perhaps most selflessly and poignantly, Macduff refers to the decline of Scotland with a different use of blood imagery when he says –

Bleed, bleed, poor country.

  • IMAGES OF SLEEP

In the middle of the night (with its ‘bloody and invisible hand’). The Macbeths murder Duncan, taking his sleep from him.  Ironically, sleep is also taken from them, as Macbeth hears the words

Macbeth shall sleep no more.

For not only has Duncan been murdered in h is sleep, but sleep itself has been slain

Macbeth does murder sleep – the innocent sleep,

              Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

              Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

              Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

In Act 3 Scene 2, Macbeth lives in ‘restless ecstasy’ and sees life as a ‘fitful fever’, while in Act 3 Scene 4, one of the last things Lady Macbeth says to her husband before she loses her reason is  ‘you lack the season of all natures, sleep’.  In the same scene, when asked, ‘What is the night?’, she can only reply, ‘Almost at odds with morning, which is which’ – life has become one long waking nightmare for her.

Macbeth has murdered sleep, and the next time we see Lady Macbeth, she cannot sleep as she wanders about trying to clean her ‘bloodstained’ hands.  It seems that the murdering of sleep by Macbeth results directly in his wife’s inability to find peace or repose.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare is so fascinated by night-time and darkness, he uses the word ‘night’ 38 times and ‘sleep’ 26 times!

  • THE MACBETHS’ MARRIAGE

In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is stronger initially, but cannot cope after Duncan is murdered; while this first murder is difficult for her husband, subsequent murders hardly cost him a thought.  We know from life and literature (and the tabloids!) that in the aftermath of any major tragic event, the relationships of those involved can either grow stronger or break down – Shakespeare seems to be interested in how the latter situation can come about in this play.

Their separation seems to start in Act 3 Scene 1, when Macbeth gets rid of Lady Macbeth so that he can talk to the murderers, then she returns to see why her husband is spending so much time alone and brooding.  She seems happy to have achieved her goal – the crown, while Macbeth is obsessed by trying to prevent another’s offspring from succeeding him.  Once their aims are different, they grow apart, which suggests theirs is a marriage based on shared political intrigue and desire, rather than love.  As the play progresses, there are very few terms of endearment or fond words expressed (unlike the early scenes).  In fact, Lady Macbeth only refers to Macbeth as her ‘husband’ once (just after the murder of Duncan) – perhaps since she is vulnerable and in need of support at that point.  Also, Lady Macbeth’s constant jibes at her husband’s lack of manhood and inability (as she sees it) to follow through on his desires could refer to more than just his political manoeuvres – if you catch my drift!

 

  • POLITICS

As Macbeth establishes his dictatorship, and his enemies subsequently try to destroy it, political manoeuvres and cunning manipulation abound.  A number of observations about how characters deal with each other are interesting to note:

  • Note how Macbeth persuades the murderers to kill Banquo
  • How Ross tries to find out how Macduff will respond after Duncan is murdered
  • How Malcolm (when he is approached by Macduff in England) pretends not to have any interest in the throne (or, indeed, to be at all suited to it), in order to put Macduff’s loyalty to the test (showing just how paranoid and untrusting everyone has become during Macbeth’s reign of terror).
  • How Ross does not tell Lady Macduff everything and then later seems to withhold information from Macduff about his family – possibly because he wants to enrage him so much to ensure that Macduff will fight against Macbeth? (In the Second Age Production we saw it was interesting that Ross was depicted as the third murderer who comes to help the witches’ prophesy be fulfilled, by helping Fleance to flee.)

In Macbeth, it is Duncan – the King – who seems most notably deceived by show (as, indeed, in many of his plays, Shakespeare is intrigued by appearances which hide reality).  Duncan is a bad judge of character – he had placed great faith in the previous Thane of Cawdor –

He was a gentleman on whom I built

               An absolute trust.

Then almost immediately he makes the very same mistake with Macbeth and his wife, not noticing the serpent under the ‘innocent flower’.  He is oblivious to Macbeth’s potential for evil and unable to see below the surface or to realise Macbeth’s ability to hide with a ‘false face’ what ‘the false heart doth know’.

Banquo, on the other hand, becomes suspicious of his friend, as he starts to see through the façade Macbeth has tried to create for himself, and then realises Macbeth has ‘played most foully’ for his achievements.

  • HERO OR VILLAIN?

This is the great on-going debate.  For Elizabethan audiences there was but one answer.  For modern-day audiences things are not so clear-cut.  However, in his defence, despite the fact that Macbeth does not seem to mind whom he destroys – surely the sign of a villain – he does have many (initial) crises of conscience which may just about redeem him and allow him the dignified status of ‘tragic hero’.  His sense of regret and awareness of what he has lost can be seen in Act 5 Scene 3, when he has been abandoned by all but a handful of employees, and is without ‘honour, love, obedience, troops of friends’.

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