111: The Cordelia Dream

10 Jul

I love Marina Carr. Her writing is passion, longing, dark and light, everything fearsome and all our blackest desires, writ out large on the page.

King Lear with the body of Cordelia

King Lear with the body of Cordelia, illustration by Friedrich Pecht in Shakespeare-Galerie, 1876.

The Cordelia Dream is Carr’s own wonderful take on the last act of King Lear. A father and his daughter fight to the death. He’s an elderly composer and musician, locked away in a room with a piano and little else. She is also a musician and composer and has achieved more success than he has, to his great outrage and distrust.

He calls her dog-hearted and a viper and believes that she has sucked the talent from him, leaving him unable to compose. So he blames her for his lack of success and curses her achievements. He believes that only her death will release him to the greatness he is capable of.

MAN: You stopped being my daughter a long time ago.

WOMAN: Yes, I stopped when I felt your claws around my throat, strangling all fledgling aspirations. Yes, I removed myself for protection, protection of this gift you spit on. I watched you. I gave you chances – too many! – to redeem yourself. I let you hold my firstborn. But I watched and I saw you wanted me to be a failure like you.

MAN: I am a great artist.

WOMAN: I’m glad you think so, for no one else does.

MAN: I am a genius. A genius! And you are a charlatan! A charlatan who stole my gift when I wasn’t looking. You are a charlatan who has plagiarised from everyone.

WOMAN: That’s what art is. Plagiarism and cunning disguise, a snapping up of unconsidered trifles.

In the first act of The Cordelia Dream, the daughter comes to visit her father, hoping to at last have it out with him and come to some sort of peace. But there can be no peace between them and he sends her away with only his curse and wish for her death.

The second act is five years later. The old man has gone mad when his daughter visits him again. Madness hasn’t mellowed his memories but he’s gradually able to talk of paternal love, even though he disguises it in fable and keeps the venom at its core. He must always think his child capable of the worst sins, capable of wishing his destruction. So even when he talks of love, it’s love of a viper.

MAN: My wife and I had a goat-faced child. Goat-faced, dog-hearted with the soul of a snake. We buried her under the blue swing in the field of beech trees. But out she came, ate the coffin, clay in her eyes, and we took her in. My wife said, we’ll pay for this. I said no, I had such faith in the heart of God. This is what she sounded like.  (He plays a few notes on the piano.) And we loved this goat-faced, dog-hearted one as if she was our own. I even taught her the violin.

He doesn’t mention that the reason he taught her the violin was that he had locked the piano so that neither she nor her mother, who could also play, could ever rival his talent. Cutting her down is his way of maintaining his place on his pedestal.

The reviews I’ve read of the RSC production of The Cordelia Dream were overwhelmingly negative, but I wonder if this is to do with the production. Reading it on the page there was light and shade, not an unrelenting howl of pain as some seem to have taken it. I’m marking this play as biographical although this may be a complete overstatement on my part. Apparently Carr’s father was also a playwright and the director’s notes for the RSC production said that she was “addressing themes that have long haunted her”.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (included in Marina Carr: Plays 2)

Cast: 1M, 1F

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