The Mother

The Mother

From Medea to Mary: Dorothy Max Prior on dramatic representations, interpretations and explorations of mothers and motherhood

The Great, Good, Terrible Mother

'Intimately known and yet strange like nature, lovingly tender and yet cruel like fate, joyous and untiring giver of life, mater dolorosa and mute implacable portal that closes upon the dead...'
Carl Jung

It was Carl Jung who, in the early 20th century, identified The Great Mother (Good or Terrible) as one of the core archetypes of human culture, yet poets, playwrights and artists had been well aware of Her existence for many preceding centuries. Within myths, folk tales and dramas The Mother, 'lovingly tender yet cruel like fate' floats, weaves and wanders the world over.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the dark side has always had a strong appeal to storytellers - it takes very little effort to conjure up a whole host of archetypal Terrible Mothers: from Euripides' Medea to the Grimm Brothers' wicked stepmothers; Shakespeare's Gertrude in Hamlet to Racine's re-visited Phaedra. The Terrible Mother strides on throughout the 20th century - CS Lewis' White Witch, Garcia Lorca's Bernarda Alba and Frank L Baum's brace of Wicked Witches being just a few examples (although the creator of the Land of Oz also gives us the other side of the archetype: Glinda of Oz guides and nurtures Dorothy as a Good Mother should).

But in the post-Freud and post-Jung climate of the psychological age a number of rather more ambivalent mothers enter our stories and dramas, although the playwright who did most to establish the Ambivalent Mother (in the sense of neither Good nor Terrible, although ambivalent to their roles as mothers too!) was Henrik Ibsen who wrote in the pre-Freudian era, the late 19th century.

Plays such as A Doll's House remain a vital part of the dramatic canon, tirelessly revived year after year. A Doll's House is loved for many reasons, not least of which is the tremendous opportunity offered to women actors in the lead role: Nora, who with that famous slam of the door that ends the play, leaves her children rather than live a lie with a man who was willing to sacrifice her for his pride and public image. Ibsen's pistol-packing book-burning Hedda Gabler, the 'demonic victim' who may be pregnant but isn't sure she wants motherhood, is perhaps closer to the archetypal Terrible Mother, but the key change in Ibsen that distinguishes his approach to the portrayal of women as mothers is that we are allowed to experience his female characters from their own standpoint rather than as 'other'. We may not agree with their actions, but we identify with them and try to understand them.

From Male Gaze to Female Reflection

Whilst acknowledging the notable exceptions such as Ibsen (and to some extent, and in some texts, Brecht and Garcia Lorca) the dramatic portrayals of women as mothers remained for the most part within the archetypal realm as Good or Terrible Mothers until very recent times. Indeed, male playwrights and scriptwriters often continue the tradition to the present, with an example being Hanif Kureishi's script for the film The Mother, which was somehow sold as liberating for its portrayal of a late middle-aged woman having sex with a younger man, but in which The Mother in question is presented as an essentially one-dimensional character, an archetypal Terrible Mother, with no obvious explanation or understanding of her betrayal of her daughter offered by the writer.

So where are the women's voices in all this? Throughout the past hundred years, there has been an explosion of women writers and artists tackling the subject of motherhood. From Frida Kahlo's intense painted images of bleeding, birthing and breastfeeding to Anne Sexton's poetry reflecting on miscarriage, childbirth and the painful realisation of a daughter's growing-up to visual artist Mary Kelly's dirty nappies on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, women have used many different means and methods to investigate aspects of motherhood.

In prose writing, Isabelle Allende has created intricate tales of female dynasties through the fictionalised biography of her own family in The House of the Spirits, and written a moving memoir of her daughter's illness and death in Paula. A very different investigation of motherhood was made by Lionel Shriver in We Need to Talk about Kevin. Most of the reviews of this novel have portrayed it as a cautionary tale; an argument against motherhood based on the common fear of women that they may give birth to children they don't like. Far from being a simple expose of this one central idea, the book provokes more questions than it gives answers, and concludes with an argument in favour of a mother's love in the face of any eventuality, even the most awful and extreme that a woman could contemplate.

Meanwhile, back in the theatre, we have seen the emergence of a significant number of women performance artists and theatre makers exploring attitudes and responses to mothers and motherhood in their work. These many and various works have included very specific eulogies to mothers, responses to their own mothers, and dramatic representations of women for whom motherhood or their relationship to that state is of essence to the drama.

In this last category came Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, a seminal mid-20th-century play seen as launching what become known (sometimes disparagingly) as kitchen-sink drama.

Painter-turned-performer Holly Hughes' World Without End - in memory of my mother June W. Hughes, is self-evidently a response to her own mother: 'a depressed housewife, which was plenty of work'. Created in the 1980s, as part of the second-wave of performance art that moved out of the galleries and into the clubs and theatres of New York at that time, it is an unashamedly feminist work - a monologue which mixes memoir with political comment. At times the protagonist (called only 'the woman' in the written script) addresses the audience directly and adopts a tone of caustic humour. At other times she speaks in a detached stream-of-consciousness (reflecting, for example, on conversations that Adam and Eve may have had in the Garden of Eden). As it says in Hughes' always-entertaining stage directions: 'she slips into another world like she is slipping into a silk robe'.

Other ways in which The Mother is met by women theatre-makers is as a reflection on the artist's role as mother and explorations of the nature of motherhood. For examples of these, we come up to date with a profile of a contemporary theatre company who have pursued an exploration of mothers and motherhood through a series of different works, and a personal reflection on a solo performance piece made by a mother about being a mother.

Company:Collisions - a case study

Company:Collisions have made a name for themselves for their deft combination of poetic text, music, visual imagery and physical enactment. Theirs is a total theatre in which the various elements of the plays they produce are allowed to merge and melt into works that become more than a sum of their parts. They devise work in many different ways: re-working existing theatre texts; using biography or fiction as a kick-off point; or, in the case of their most recent work, using a text scripted by a contemporary poetic dramatist, Damian Wright.

This latest piece (touring 2005-2006) is Mary of No Man's Land. This is a theatrical investigation of the mother of God as archetype, icon, fantasy, historical figure and, most crucially, as a real live Middle-Eastern girl - a product of her geography, family, cultural life and of the political strains and stresses of the land in which she lives. The parallel with contemporary times is not hammered home, but is there as a very obvious element. Life in the biblical lands, the production seems to say, is much the same as it ever was. Girls are in turn fussed over and bullied by the female relatives in their extended families; men holding religious office or political power within the community often abuse that power or office, either to dominate and control women's lives and/or to gain sexual access to young women; women's extraordinary ideas, experiences or visions are most often viewed as hysteria (i.e. relating to the womb's disrupting influence) and thus dismissed as nonsense.

The play incorporates spoken text, highly charged visual imagery created to a great extent by inspired lighting, and physical movement that sometimes moves into a more abstract expressionism, but never strays so far from theatre into dance as to leave the essence of the work's narrative and dramatic themes behind. At the heart of the piece is Mary's relationship with the mother figures in her life - her mother and her aunt - which are explored with a bawdy physical and verbal comedy that contrasts wonderfully with the poetic beauty of other sections of the piece. As with many other successful plays of past and present times, it is the balance of humour and pathos and the seesaw between the sublime and the grotesque which makes the work such a successful piece of theatre.

Unlike previous works, which were ensemble pieces, Mary of No Man's Land is a solo work, performed by Tanushka Marah, founder and director of Company:Collisions. As with any other solo performance, particularly a full-length piece, much rests on the skills of the performer holding the space. Many solo works lose impetus due to a lack of light and shade in the performance - but here we see a highly-skilled performer who can move with ease from earthy and robust characterisation (her portrayal of Mary's crotchety and ribald aunt is particularly enjoyable) to ethereal images that place her body in space as moving sculpture - as, for example, in a repeated section where she slowly walks across the space, her feet the only lit part of her body.

In conversation with Tanushka, I am keen to discuss the play's exploration of motherhood, but she first reminds me that Mary is but one of many works by the company that explores aspects of motherhood, and that this could be seen as the driving investigation of all her work. Previous productions have included her version of Frankenstein, which focuses on Mary Shelley's experiences with pregnancy and miscarriage as a central theme and which sets the piece on and around the central visual motif of Shelley's marital bed. This, the first of the company's theatre pieces, grew out of a long-standing obsession with Shelley's novel. Later pieces have included a re-working of Medea, which was developed at the Young Vic when she was awarded a Young Vic Director bursary, which gave her the opportunity for development of the piece which is often sadly lacking in contemporary British theatre due to constraints of time and money.

Although Tanushka's interests and obsessions pervade all her productions, Mary is the most personal of her works. It is inspired by the fact that her father was born in Bethlehem (placing her family history in a direct relationship to that of the biblical Mary, mother of God) and by the rich variety of women Mother characters in her own extended family, who are, she says, all natural comics who live for family weddings and the excuse to gossip (including her Gran who has morphed into Mary's aunt in the play, admonishing her to 'sugar your hairy knees'). And there is an additional interest in playing Mary herself for Tanushka - as a child in English schools, she was never chosen to be in the Nativity play as she was brown-skinned, foreign and feisty, not the meek and mild blonde of the usual Western view of Mary!

It is her own experience as a Palestinian girl, like Mary, and the humour and ribaldry of the typical Arabic family that she is keen to share; a quite different picture to the austere images of the shrouded and silent Muslim woman which is presented as the usual Palestinian stereotype. She sees this stereotypical veiled image as one which has pervaded our dominant view of Middle Eastern women for the past 2,000 years: 'we never see or imagine the Mary in the bible actually giving birth', she says, which is why she felt the depiction of the birth of Jesus to be a crucial part of the play. This is, incidentally, a wonderfully observed scene, with Mary's vacillation between earthy I-don't-know-what-I-want grouchiness and elation at the miracle of the new arrival just right. Her irritation at being subsequently disturbed by the arrival of various shepherds and kings is also a lovely touch.

Tanushka describes motherhood as 'the most dramatic thing that can happen in life - normal but not normal...' She is not a mother herself, but someone for whom her relationship with her own mother and other older women relatives is a core part of her life and a major influence on her work. She equates creating a piece of theatre to the processes of motherhood: 'every production is like a birth' and, extending the metaphor, talks also of the exhaustion after each 'birth' and the need to have 'space to allow the conception of new ideas'. After each 'conception' there is then the need to have the right amount of time for gestation. When the production reaches the point that it can come into the world: 'it demands attention, and then I run around servicing its needs'. She feels that she would like to have a 'real' baby, but that 'theatre is an unforgiving world for a mother' and worries that her 'masculine' and obsessional way of directing, with total immersion in each new project, is incompatible with real-life motherhood: 'theatre is like a religion to me'.

It is an interesting point to reflect on: is the driven and single-minded vision of the professional theatre-maker incompatible with the nurturing role of the mother? For many women, the choices are absolutes - one or the other - but for others, there is a shift and change of gear that happens after becoming a mother that makes for working in a different sort of way. I'd count myself in this second group.

Mother Ginger - a personal reflection

When I gave birth to my first child, I remember saying to friends that I was intending to take a break from touring for a year or so. Nineteen years and three children later, here I still am, never having returned to that old world of tour buses, dodgy hotels and intensive 12-hour rehearsals. Post-children, making any sort of art seemed to be hardly worth all the effort involved: the endless negotiating, the seeking out of childcare and the constant re-arranging of family routines. Like many before me, I am sure, I kept waiting for that moment when a long stretch of creative-intensive time would open up - and that point never came. It was difficult after one child, extremely difficult with two and verging on impossible with three.

Eventually, I realised that the only realistic way I could make or be involved in any sort of performance or art-work, without incurring complete exhaustion and a wrecked family life, would be to adopt a different model of working. Half-an-hour of writing while a baby naps; a two-hour dance class while a toddler is taken for a walk; rehearsals that start at 9.00 am to take advantage of school hours; work created solely for local sites or in local venues, rather than touring work; an emphasis on making one or two small inter-related pieces now and again, rather than the big attention-grabbing production that would wow the world. It's a decision to work in a quieter and more contained way: to forgo the big dream for the realisation of many smaller dreams. And although I still enjoyed occasionally being part of a group project, solo performance seemed to offer more possibilities for creation on my new terms, both in the working models offered and the opportunity to explore a more intimate and personal artistic agenda - although the downside was the isolation of working without someone to share ideas with.

There came a point where I felt a strong desire to make a personal, solo piece of work that reflected my experiences of motherhood, but (in what I now see as another example of women's self-oppression!) was rather frightened that this was material of little interest to the wider world. Luckily, there was plenty of encouragement from friends and colleagues (male and female) and the offer of a collaboration with scenographer Miriam Nabarro, which would mean not only having a visual designer on board, but also her valuable involvement as an outside eye on the performance.

With Miriam's help, I devised a character called Mother Ginger, the name taken from the character in the Nutcracker who has enormous skirts hiding a whole litter of little creatures that scurry out when her petticoats are raised. I also liked the oblique reference to Brecht's Mother Courage, who carted all her possessions around with her: my costume and set were one and the same; an enormous hooped skirt full of pockets and strung with objects which included pegs, pebbles, chalk, feathers, flowers, a magic wand, and a specially-made Mr Punch hand-held stick puppet, who was called upon to play the father-inquisitor and other male foils.

The piece was constructed around the notion of an interplay between the archetype Mother and my individual experience of motherhood. Mother Ginger was sometimes me and sometimes Everywoman, her journey creating pathways and landscapes on the stage, patterns on the ground built up with the natural found objects, and rituals involving the many crafted objects enacted along the way. Another aspect of Archetype was also key to the piece - the exploration of archetypal male and female energies: sticks versus stones; straight lines versus circles, staccato movement versus flowing movement. Woman's encounter with Other as the mother of male children (my own three boys represented by papier-mâché babies tied to my body) was enacted through spoken text, a collage of quotes from poems by Blake, Brecht, Plath, Wordsworth and others, juxtaposed with autobiographical writing.

Everyone has a Mother

Thus concludes this admittedly idiosyncratic and piecemeal investigation of The Mother in theatre and performance. Her pervading presence, be it as archetypal representation, performance persona or fully-rounded dramatic character, will no doubt continue for as long as people are making art and theatre. After all, everyone has a mother, so The Mother means something to everyone.

It seems appropriate (in a feminine, circular sort of way) to come back to where we started, with a quote from Carl Jung:

'The Mother carries for us that inborn image of the Mater Natura and Mater Spiritualis, of the totality of life of which we are a small and helpless part.'

Carl Jung quotes taken from Four Archetypes: Mother/Rebirth/Spirit/Trickster. Jung, C. G. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

The term 'demonic victim' references Christopher Innes' introduction to A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler, Routledge London & NY, 2003.

Quotes from Tanushka Marah taken from a conversation with the author, March 2005. For further information on Company:Collisions see

Dorothy Max Prior is editor of Total Theatre Magazine and also a freelance writer/dramaturg and arts producer. For further information see

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