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Thursday, 21 November 2013 18:12

'The Two Sisters': Irish rebels suffer in the Armagh women's prison

Written by Steve Callahan
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The Details

A lovely, sensitive new play, "The Two Sisters," by Dennis Corcoran has opened at St. Louis Community College at Meramac.  It's set in 1980 in the women's prison at Armagh, Northern Ireland, and it addresses the heroism—and the brutishness—that can arise in religious and political conflict.

Let me give you a little background:

For over eight hundred years England has claimed sovereignty over Ireland.  And throughout that long history the Irish have protested.  Despite military domination, despite British efforts to suppress the Irish language and culture the spirit of Irish nationalism is very much alive in Northern Ireland.  Beginning in 1980 that spirit was very visible for thirteen months of the so-called "dirty protest" in the women's prison at Armagh.  The IRA prisoners were revolting. Truly revolting.

Since 1972 all IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland had been granted special status and privileges as "political prisoners."  They were allowed to wear their own clothes, not prison uniforms.  They were excused from the normal prison labor.  They were allowed to meet for "free discourse" with other political prisoners.  But in 1976 the Unionist government began to crack down on the IRA, and that special status was withdrawn (for those newly convicted).  The men in the Long Kesh prison revolted.  There were attacks on prison guards and prisoners refused to wear the prison uniform—preferring to wear only a blanket.  This led to the restriction of various freedoms, to violence, assassinations of guards, and eventually to the prisoners refusing to leave their cells to bathe for fear of beatings.  Chamber pots overflowed.  Urine was poured out the guards' peep-holes (which were then nailed shut) and excrement was dumped out the windows (which were then boarded up).  Prisoners smeared the walls with excrement.  (One wrote that it smelled less that way than if it piled up in the corner.)

In February, 1980, IRA inmates in the women's prison at Armagh joined this "dirty protest."  In Ireland and in the Catholic Church the feeling was that women didn't belong in prison anyway.  They were "special"—assigned by God to nurture children and support husbands.  The fact that these were women (who were smearing not only excrement but also menstrual blood on their cell walls) raised a wide public outrage.  There were marching demonstrations by Catholics, Protestants, feminists—really everyone concerned with human rights—against these deplorable conditions.

This is the situation that Dennis Corcoran addresses in his play "The Two Sisters."  The technical aspects of this production (set and lighting by Darren Thompson, sound design by the playwright, haunting original music by Lamar Fitzgerald) are stunningly beautiful and effective—certainly among the very best I've seen in a college production!   We see five prison cells—two left, two right and one up center.  Fragmentary concrete walls with exposed re-enforcement bars convey the grim reality in which these women are forced to live.  Guards' desks flank the stage, left and right.  Above the center cell is a large screen, framed by graceful flourishes, on which striking period images are projected.

We meet five prisoners:  Άine, Siobhán and Maureen arein the IRA.  Janice is a Protestant jailed for murder and she's raging fierce.  Emma is a battered wife who killed her husband;  she's mute, depressed, suicidal.  The two female guards are most definitely "good cop" and "very bad cop".  And then there is the dancer, who rises from beneath the stage to introduce the evening with an interpretive modern "Dance of War."  

The play consists of eighteen brief scenes in which we see the growing conflict and violence between the inmates and the authorities.  There are occasional "voice-over" monologues between scenes;  these are in graceful rhymed verse.  The forbidden Gaelic drifts through the dialogue—most notably in a common prayer.  There is much anguish—and much beauty in this play.

The actresses are comfortable in their Irish accents;  some are very good, all are acceptable.

Author Dennis Corcoran does little to mask his bias toward the Catholic cause.  And why should he?  The Protestant brutality is presented vividly.  Yet, though it can be shocking, it is hardly real drama to simply show bad people doing bad things;  far better if we can see something of ourselves in these bad people—our feelings, our fears, our motivations.

Most of the scenes are of unrelieved suffering, with hatred and vituperation hurled back and forth between the inmates and the guards.  Once, indeed, Siobhán does a bit of stand-up comedy for her friends, parodying her own arrival at the prison as if she'd arrived at a grand hotel.  But she falls a tiny bit short of the pace and punch of a true stand-up comic.  So for the most part we see nothing but misery, misery, misery.

There is certainly variety:  Janice raging, panting and growling like a lioness;  tiny Emma suddenly waking to give a painfully poignant monologue in her sweet, high, fluting voice.  Emma's monologue condemning hatred seems almost an editorial—even a lecture, written in literary language and given directly, almost scoldingly, to the audience.  

There is a curious venture into symbolism when, after Emma arises, the dancer lifts a skeleton from Emma's bed.  It stretches its arms crucifixially for a moment behind Emma , then it rises to the heavens.  (???)

At one point Janice begins very tremblingly to sing "Silent Night".  One by one the others join in giving one of the most beautiful moments in the play.  Similarly at the end of the evening all sing a most moving version of "Bright Morning Stars".

And there are silences.   Long silences.  These tend to give a sense of great slowness to the evening.

There are many beautiful things here, but I felt something was missing:  I didn't find a real arc of plot.

Moreover, I sensed more than one voice at play here.  I don't know if this was the case, but there seemed to be hints that Corcoran's play had been subjected to "workshopping".  Did each actress contribute to her scenes and monologue?  Did the presence of dance talent persuade the author to include dance?  If so perhaps these elements were not quite perfectly integrated into the play.  For me it lacked an overall coherence.

But it is nevertheless a work of considerable strength and beauty, and a triumph for all involved.

(Oh, and by the way:  Who are the two sisters of the title?  None of the inmates appear to be related.)

"The Two Sisters" runs through November 24th.  For more information: 314-984-7500.

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