Last night saw the final performance (for now) of Mephisto’s excellent and important staging of Eclipsed. Their production is a revival of a 1992 Patricia Burke Brogan play which – at first infamously and now famously – was one of the earliest attempts to expose the abuses being inflicted by the clergy upon inmates of the Magdalene Laundries.
Burke Brogan’s play stands out for many reasons. Drawing on her own experiences as a novice nun, she presented a group of women who had been treated appallingly – not just by (some of) the nuns who were supposed to be in charge of them, but also by the families and communities that had banished them to the Laundries in the first place.
The play is extraordinary brave for its time. It appeared before Father Ted and McDonagh’s Lonesome West broke the Irish taboo against laughing at priests – and it also appeared long before we fully understood what had happened (and what had been covered up) in the Laundries. The year 1992 is not that long ago, but that was still an Ireland in which the Catholic Church had a lot of control – much of it exercised by means of intolerance from ordinary people, it must be said. To give just one example, a year after Eclipsed appeared, Annie Murphy was given an inexcusably hostile reception on The Late Late Show, not least from the show’s presenter Gay Byrne, for having had a child with the Bishop of Galway – a man who had been in charge of the spiritual direction of the diocese where Burke Brogan lived, and where Eclipsed was first staged. So when Burke Brogan was writing this play, she was writing in a county where her message was not welcome, and for an audience that had rarely acknowledged the issues she was trying to bring to light.
Watching the play now, I was immediately struck by how relevant it remains. Ireland may (to a certain extent) have thrown off the dominance of the Catholic Church, but the production suggests that this country’s underlying power structures – involving gender and social class in particular – may not be all that different from what they were twenty years ago.
Throughout Eclipsed, the women often wonder why they’ve been imprisoned for having sex, when the men they’d been with remain free. This double standard seemed directly pertinent during a summer when we in Ireland have seen one young woman – nicknamed Slane Girl on Twitter – attacked for having been photographed performing oral sex on a young man at the Eminem concert in Slane Castle. The young man, needless to say, was dubbed a hero. We’ve also heard stories in the Irish media about a young woman who had a threesome with two international rugby players: she was berated on social media sites, while the two men were given the virtual equivalent of a high-five by dozens of men on Twitter, and told by their bosses to keep a low profile for a few months.
Internationally this phenomenon has been dubbed ‘slut-shaming’ – a term that I don’t particularly like since it retains the focus on the victim rather than the aggressor, but a term that also shows that this kind of thing is not unique to Ireland. To watch Eclipsed is to be reminded that sex has always been used by the powerful to control the weak (and not just in this country). But in an Irish context the play also offers a painful assertion that some things about this country may not have changed enough – that although we may now have a good understanding of what the Catholic Church did, we have yet to come to terms with the ways in which ordinary Irish people let such abuses happen.
I don’t want to exaggerate the links between the Magdalene penitents and the “Slane Girl” incident, but what both seem to share is that they would not have happened without significant numbers of everyday Irish people (especially young men) thinking that it is acceptable to publicly express violent hatred against women whose sexual actions seem anything other than passive.
The status of women in the media this summer has been a subject of widespread debate – and again not just in Ireland. I’m thinking here of the presentation of Kate and William in Britain, of debates about Miley Cyrus, of the story of the Irish and Scottish girls who have been arrested in Peru on suspicion of drug-smuggling. In that reporting we’re seeing an extraordinary narrowing of the roles available to women, a reversion to archetypes and stereotypes that – even ten years ago – seemed to have less purchase. It is also interesting that many of these stories have found an audience during what is often referred to as the journalistic ‘silly season’, as if implying that women will vanish altogether from the news pages once parliaments are recalled.
For this reason alone, the decision by Mephisto to stage a play with seven strong roles for women is itself a highly political act. The play takes roles that are typically presented in a limited fashion (especially on the Irish stage and in society) and then complicates them. I’m thinking here of mother and daughter but also of the virgin/whore relationship – not to mention the ideal of Irish woman as representing the nation.
The clearest example of the complication of those roles is the presentation of motherhood. All of the women, including the two nuns, have different understandings of what maternal caring involves – it is for them an existential category rather than an ontological one (or put in plain English, caring is something they do, not something they are). Motherhood in the play is presented not as a role that can inhibit or circumscribe someone but as a source of power – a power that can be withheld from women in order to control them. The key point made by the production is that these ways of acting (or ways of being) are not essential identities but are roles that can be dispensed with or reimagined. So the play uses dressing-up, improvisation, role-playing and other theatrical strategies to show how powerful – and how subversive – performance can be.
The play also locates power very firmly in terms of having a voice. The sympathetic nun Sister Virginia holds the keys to the Laundry, and occupies a higher place in the social hierarchy than the inmates do – but because she is in an order that demands obedience and insists upon her silence, she is shown to have far less agency than the women in her charge. It is quickly made obvious that she is imprisoned too, albeit in ways that are less directly abusive.
Essentially, then, this production of Eclipsed is one of the best examples of an Irish feminist theatre that I have seen for some time. It may not be as theatrically daring as Louise Lowe’s Laundry but the work it is doing for our theatre and society is no less urgent.
It seems fitting that Mephisto would stage it. I remember attending their first production seven or eight years ago when, as MA students, they put on a mostly female version of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (there were men in the cast but most of the roles were played by women). Since that time the company have been at their best when staging work that interrogates the representation of women in theatre and the broader culture (in The World’s Wife and Grenades – and also by all accounts in The Mai, which I missed). They are also providing excellent roles for women performers – of whom there are so many in Galway. By coincidence I’ve been reading a lot lately about Charabanc (the all-women theatre company established in Belfast in the early 1980s), and it’s fascinating to see the overlaps between the two companies.
The production itself, as directed by Niall Cleary, is very strong – and while the performances from the ensemble are uniformly good I am sure I’m not alone in being impressed by Emma O’Grady in particular. As Bridget (the most volatile of the inmates) she is both explosive and tender, both restrained and hard-hitting, both embittered and joyful. Like the play itself, O’Grady shows that people are too complex – and too different from each other – to be reduced to one set of simple traits.
Eclipsed has finished its run now, but I hope this isn’t the last we see of this production. I know that many people feel a sense of wanting to put the Magdalene Laundries behind us – and to a certain extent it is important that we move on. But the production forces us to face the reality that power is still being wielded abusively in this country – whether that is the power that anonymous users have on social media sites, or other forms of control. We may think of this as a history play – and of course it is one now – but like all good history plays it invites us to think about where we are now, to consider our responsibilities, to question what has really changed in Ireland.