So the Platonic Year/Whirls out new right and wrong,/Whirls in old instead;/All men are dancers and their tread/Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong.
—W. B. Yeats, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”
Ever since Greek was the vogue of the Romans, playwrights have emulated and imitated the classical tragedies of Athens, sometimes trying to fuse the old myths with whatever present in which their plays have been set.
Eugene O’Neill’s three-part Mourning Becomes Electra is one case in point, combining the doom of the generations of the House of Atreus from Aeschylus’ Oresteia with a modern domestic drama a la Strindberg, enacted by an American family in their Greek Revival mansion, circa 1865.
Marina Carr’s 2002 play Ariel—at Berkeley’s City Club in a Wilde Irish production—is another such play, injecting ancient venom into contemporary Irish veins amid scenes of familiar, even banal, public and private life. These themes of obsession and revenge are concentrated so that strife in the family seems more intense than that on a battlefield.
“Poet Patrick Kavanaugh once imagined Homer whispering to him that he made The Iliad from local land and marriage disputes,” writes C. L. Dallat of Carr’s previous By the Bog of Cats (an Irish Gypsy rendering of Medea, at San Jose Rep four years ago—and now in London—with Holly Hunter), “Marina Carr reinvigorates this idea.”
The play now on stage at the City Club, begins with birthday candles to celebrate Ariel’s 16th birthday, the Fitzgerald clan seems united in festivity. But all prove distracted, haunted by the sense that “everything’s either already happened, or is about to.”
Fermoy (Robert Hamm, with a wolfish leer and grin covering a desperate obsession) confesses to his priest brother Boniface (Howard Dillon, whose gentle manner eventually descends into a cynical foolery), “Me and God’s on a one-to-one”—and that this God demands sacrifice. Boniface counsels, “That’s why our thoughts are silent: so we can do away with them before they’re spoken.”
Fermoy’s wife, Frances (fiery Rica Anderson) is his match, whether dancing with him or dryly applauding his railing at the world. She mourns her dead son by a first marriage. She and Fermoy have been together 17 years after an adulterous “fling that went wrong.” Their 10-year-old Stephen (Sean og Bogue) seems barely weaned.
“Is there anything lovely as a sleeping child?” asks Boniface, seeing Stephen drowse. “There is,” Frances says, “a dead one.” Boniface tells her later in the play, “You’d reminisce the future, Missus, if you thought you’d get away with it, “
Most touching is the birthday girl, Ariel (fresh, girlish Elana Kepner). “When You Were Sweet 16,” Fermoy sings to her, and says, “Even though you aren’t a child any longer, we’re going to hold onto you as long as we can.” Her presence, and later absence, give a lyrical touch of the evanescence of youth, though haunted by nightmares of mortality.
A crisis is brewing. Fermoy’s standing for an election he’s likely to lose. There are threats from his opponent, bullish Hanafin (Larry LePaule), his obsession with a self-imposed mission of greatness, and the stormy attraction/repulsion of his marriage. He and Ariel go out for a ride in the car he’s just given her.
There’s a flash forward, years past the crisis, in a brilliant scene of an interview with now-seasoned politico Fermoy—that proves a rehearsal of finessing the press. Second daughter Elaine (steely-eyed Jena Rose) has transformed from tomboy in to father’s flack. Stephen (now played by Steve Nye) is a filmmaker of his own infantile obsessions. But the past stretches out to eternity, old atrocities begetting new ones; the skeletons dug up not of an ancient, but a primal scene. They’re from the family closet, and are followed by apparitions and visitaions, like in the old time dramas of revenge and retribution.
Fermoy’s anger at the Old Dispensation (“The death of Christ was by us, not for us. The Resurrection was for Himself.”) and crusade to reeducate the nation runs aground on the revelations of what he’s done to escape what he’s seen. Frances confronts him: “You laid my daughter on an altar for power!” And enter Electra: Elaine confronts Frances, saying, “Behind your own front door isn’t where you do what you like; it’s where you face ‘em all down, with your tail between your legs!”
Ariel’s an abridged Oresteia, not just “the legend of Iphigenia” as advertised. Gemma Whelan’s direction keeps the dire pace of what’s remembered, said and done, running ahead of the brooding over it all. It’s a peculiarly Celtic complex, trying to say the unsayable all at once, grasp the ungraspable in past, present and future all at once, have your cake and spew it, too. There have been even more crystallized visions of the same: Samuel Beckett’s radio play,
Embers—following Yeats’ great, late little masterpiece, Purgatory—may be the inspiration for Fermoy’s repeating the old family horrors he’s seen, hoping to put them to rest, unlike Boniface and Aunt Sarah (Breda Courtney) who’ve merely witnessed, and remembered.
In Marina Carr’s play, it’s played out on a bigger field, that of power, as Yeats put it elsewhere in “Nineteen Hundred And Nineteen,” “The night can sweat with terror as before/We pieced our thoughts into philosophy/And planned to bring the world under a rule/Who are but weasels in a hole.”
Ariel runs at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and at 3 p.m. Sundays through May 1. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. 644-9940. www.wildeirish.org.›