Making Them Bold And Breaking The Mould: Rona Munro’s Bold Girls
My Mummy taught me how to raise my family, how to love them, how to spoil them. Spoil the wee girls with housework and reproaches, the length of their skirts and the colour of their lips: how they sit, how they slouch, how they don’t give their fathers peace, how they talk, how they talk back, how they’ll come to no good if they carry on like that. They’re bold and bad and broken at fourteen, but you love them as much as you love yourself ... that’s why you hurt them so much ... Ruin the boys, tell them they’re noisy and big and bold, and their boots are too muddy, ‘Clear that mess up for me, Cassie.’ Tell them to leave their fathers in peace, and come to their mother for a cuddle, tell them they’ll always be your own wee man, always your own bold wee man and you love them better than you love their daddy, you love them best of all – that’s why they hurt you so much.’
This is a bold play for a young Scottish playwright. It draws on many traditions and types of drama, from Celtic myth and legend, and plays of the Irish Revival from Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World to O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, and from modern work like Pam Gem’s Dead Fish or Liz Lochhead’s Quelques Fleurs, as well as evoking something of the mood of Bernard McLaverty’s novel Cal. But its running references to popular culture, to game shows and horror videos, to supermarket brands and contemporary pub-and-bingo ritual, separate it from all these, and identify Munro’s main theme as a satire on the way ordinary people live now – not just in Northern Ireland, but in the West, and indeed in any culture which imbalances the sexes in their social roles, encouraging stereotyping of male dominance and social privilege and female subservience to that behaviour.
Bold Girls is in four scenes of unequal length, moving from Marie’s house (22 pages of 52) via the social club (13 pages), and outside the club (3 pages) back to Marie’s house (14 pages). Marie’s house is thus established as the base of the action, revelation – and, as it turns out, of the play’s positive values and its possible optimism concerning her own future, as well as the future of Deirdre, and probably of her friends Nora and daughter Cassie too. Marie’s house is in a sense the House of Women, of their sorrows and successes, their failures and – most importantly – in its charity and forgiveness, the House in which hope lies for the future, for the breaking of the mould which has made the Bold Girls we will meet, and their bold men, standing in the shadows beyond the play.
My treatment begins with a summary of the action and its implications. Thereafter it moves to consider central features of Munro’s dramatic presentation, including her use of the stage; her revelation of character through what seems like conversation, but is often separate monologue, with characters talking across each other; her use of imagery and symbolism; followed by discussion of Munro’s examination of the dreams and values of contemporary society through her characters; her view of the politics of the Troubles and ‘the Brits’, those controversial figures of authority placed amidst a society often deeply hostile to them; the emerging picture of a lost community; and the play’s conclusions regarding the relations of women and men, and the future of these relations; and a final examination of the quotation from angry Cassie which opens this essay.
The play is set in a world of Belfast drizzle and dreichness; the almost poetic scene directions capture this for the director; ‘it is irons and ironing boards and piles of clothes ... socks and pegs and damp sheets ...’ Toys everywhere tell us of children, pots and pans of domesticity and the ordinariness and clutter. Two images set out the play’s concerns – the picture of the virgin (and this will go far beyond merely Catholic symbolism), and the bigger and ‘blown-up’ photograph of the as yet unidentified Michael, Marie’s husband ... And then there’s Deirdre, crouching outside the room, but outside in further senses, in that she’s meant to be in the darkness of the Belfast streets, but also in the darkness of her hopelessness and of her sorrows. We don’t know who she is; as yet she’s only the wary, young face, speaking a ferocious drama-poetry. Her appearance establishes the next layer of the drama beyond Marie’s affirmative presence; and tells us that the rules of naturalism will sometimes be suspended, and reminders given of an older, stranger Ireland or a newer, nastier world of terrorism. Like the folk-music in Cal which hauntingly spoke of a lost and dear green place, an Ireland of green hills and community, Deirdre remembers the hills, and singing birds, but can’t see or hear them; the modern streets and the helicopter overhead have come between. Munro won’t attempt to join such sudden surrealism with the main action; it simply happens, then gives way to the main narrative.
And Marie comes before us with sheer vigour and integrity. Her children are there – but not allowed to appear, or to diminish our attention to her. Children and men are significantly not allowed to appear at all. Nora appears, with Marie’s towels – and two slight, but important points are made. Wee Michael was supposed to get them, but didn’t; and Nora covers up for his domestic failure – as she always does for men. Cassie shows her sharpness, her earthy sexuality revealing itself in the knickers episode – it doesn’t matter that they are Marie’s, with wee black cats on them saying Hug me, I’m cuddly; it’s Cassie who has foregrounded them. All the Bold Girls have appeared, and already the menace of Deirdre, the outsider, should contrast with the apparent normality and friendly banter of the women, centred around Marie, with mother and daughter Nora and Cassie not listening to each other, but revealing their key characteristics – Nora’s harassed and male-dominated domesticity, Cassie’s sharp rejection of it.
Munro leaves Deirdre outside; and scene one is ordinary enough, on the surface – kids, washing, fags, whether to go to the club; the topics are mundane, although perhaps a clue to darker issues is given in the mention of the video, The Accused; note Nora’s verdict, and her disagreement with Marie, whose instinctive ‘no woman deserves’ in regard to Jodie Foster’s trauma is unfinished – or simply seen as irrelevant by Nora. They seem harmless enough Bold Girls, their worst excesses being to do with having too much to drink, or chatting up taxi drivers. Is Nora maybe a bit obsessive about her house and her peach fabric? And where are the menfolk?
Clues begin to emerge; ‘Michael’s been dead three and half years’, cries Cassie, urging Marie out, and shocking her mother. Cassie seems unduly nervous of Marie’s ghost-talk of Michael, though significantly none of them are unduly bothered by explosions outside. And what hidden depths to Cassie are revealed in her planting of money behind Michael’s photograph?
A major connection is established between Deirdre and Marie with the lighting change which, we’ll come to know, changes the play’s mode from realism to expressionism; first Deirdre, outside, developing her association with greyness, violence, loneliness; then a monologue from Marie, filling us in about her innocence, goodness, and childish optimism in the days when she was first married. We now know that Michael is/was her husband, if little else than that he was charismatic, a bold boy. Munro allows attitudes regarding the Brits, the soldiers who are everywhere, to emerge; cleverly, they are shown early in a good light, so that we don’t get tempted into stereotyping. This set against the ‘thunderous knocking’ at the door which follows the sound of gunshots; although it transpires that this time it’s not the brutal entry of troops, but the unexpected opposite; Deirdre, dirty, battered, looking like fifteen, though eyes heavily made up; second-nameless, unplaceable to the curious women. Again, questions force themselves on us; who on earth is she, with her unnatural toughness and vulnerability? Has she some connection with the violence? Is she a terrorist? She stonewalls all attempts to find her identity – and her fierce knife monologue raises more questions than it reveals. Why is she so bitter? What kind of truth is it she’s after? How has she been able to see the street-violence she clearly knows too well, when, at her age, she should be home with a family? And, once again, where are the men?
And at last we begin to hear what’s happened to them. Nora’s Sean is dead (Cassie nostalgic about her father’s gentleness to her), her son Martin and Cassie’s husband Joe are in Long Kesh Terrorist prison. (Isn’t there something odd in the curiously slapstick way Nora and Cassie do a double act about the night Cassie’s husband Joe was arrested? How can they laugh at this horrific treatment of women?) And Marie’s brother Davey seems to be in jail too; while her husband Michael has had his head blown off. Scene one has saved the most horrific revelation for the end; but there are still so many unanswered questions – such as how Michael met his death, who killed him, or why Cassie so misses her father.
Marie and Deirdre end the scene; Marie with her moving lullaby to Brendan, rocking him to sleep with her praise of Michael in heaven (but we note Cassie’s unease; why is she suddenly so keen to be out of Belfast?), and her praise of the bold men, ‘all men you’d look at twice’, remembered for their card-playing, drinking, sentimental party singing. It’s intriguing that this mood of elegy is capped with the final appearance of Deidre. Why is she so changed? How does she know where the hidden money is? And why has Munro chosen to let her steal the scene with this sharply jarring action? We’re left with a final impression of three (or four, if we count Deirdre) separate lines of thought developing. The girls may seem to communicate, but they don’t really listen to each other; there are private selves, motives, and agendas behind the apparent neighbourliness.
Scene 2: The Club
Again, stage directions are vivid and atmospheric; it’s worth briefly assessing just how significant they are, and just how much they help fix our responses to what follows. (That said, it should also be remembered that, in performance, they won’t be there; so what is their status as text?)
There’s a clever opening here, in which we as audience have to find our feet as regards what’s going on. Who’s being talked about? Why are they standing? It’s an effective way of underlining the repetitiveness of the violence – this has happened many times. And it reminds Marie of coffins – and Michael?
The club, with its garish decor and its get-rich-quick games, is an appropriate place for the girls to recall their men and the famous wall-and-dog story, and by now sensitive response to the play is questioning whether these memories can be taken at face value. After all, Nora’s husband cheated in betting, and Michael lost his car. Isn’t there something a bit strained about the brave face memory puts on? Isn’t Cassie showing more and more that she’s hardly got sorrowful feelings about ‘the dear departed’?
And isn’t something a bit strained about the toast to the bold girls by themselves? Again, we note the three simultaneous lines of topic; ‘Guess the Price’, Nora and Cassie’s sniping, the discussions of Deirdre’s boldness in Marie’s clothes all run together, intermingled. It’s a clever way of mingling themes. The materialism which defines Nora and Cassie emerges in the first (‘Oh Mummy! She’s won the magi-mix!’ shows that the world of prizes and things can bring them to agreement); in the second, we learn more of Nora’s survival toughness from her strange treatment of the past in her anecdotes (which are almost monologues – serving what purpose?), and of Cassie’s bitterness, with its crucial and central statement (quoted at the beginning of this study) from Cassie about how boys and girls are conditioned in Northern Irish – and Western? – society. What is Cassie’s brazen dance really saying? And, in the third line, after the raid which freezes time and the club, releasing Marie and Deirdre into a kind of shared, stylised dialogue, we ask more questions about what’s making Deirdre the utterly unfeeling and amoral person she seems to be.
It’s becoming clear now that Cassie’s dislike of Deirdre has deeper undertones to it than simple loyalty to her friend. The past is here too, in Marie’s uncanny feeling of having seen Deirdre before. Is Deirdre here to have something out? With Marie or Cassie? Why does she not defend herself against Cassie’s final attack?
And why does the scene end, not with the drama we’ve been witnessing, but with an oddly placed stylised monologue from Nora deriding the use of talk, and leaving us with her obsessive yearning for fifteen yards of pale peach polyester fabric?
Scene 3: Outside the Club
This short scene, three pages of dialogue between Marie and Cassie, with a typically wordless, brief and nasty contribution from Deirdre at the end, poses questions. Just why is it so unbalanced with the rest of the play, so disproportionate in size? Why change from interior setting of house and club to wasteland and moonlight? Is there significant and symbolic connection with what’s happening between Marie and Cassie (and with all the bold girls) in the fact that there’s an eclipse of the moon – ‘our very own shadow swallowing up all the light’? A simple enough answer to the first question regarding length might suggest that staging considerations call for time to allow the resetting of Marie’s house for scene 4; that said, Munro is far too skilful a dramatist to allow mere stage necessity to dominate. Marie and Cassie here show their closeness; there is a great strength in this bonding, a strength which has supported all of them in hard times. But there is a crack in this togetherness; and this wedge of a scene drives home the first real division between them all, a knife-point which will come close to destroying them all by the end. Cassie’s ‘Aw Jesus I hate this place!’ as she kicks the very ground she lives on, her agonised desire to leave, and Marie’s reminder of the claims of children, reinforce our awareness of Cassie’s tortured heart and Marie’s (self-deceiving?) goodness. Do all the bold girls have some kind of self-deluding dream? In The Wild Duck Ibsen called this ‘the saving lie’, and suggested that all human beings console themselves with some kind of self-delusion. Don’t Marie, Nora, Cassie – and even Deirdre – all in the end reveal that they are holding on to some kind of consoling dream of past or future? Certainly Deirdre, stealer of purses, seems more of a straightforward destroyer as she finds her longed-for knife and slashes at Nora’s dream-fabric. But, looking deeper, can’t we see that she too is following a kind of distorted dream?
Scene 4: Marie’s House
Our impression of Marie’s steady goodness is reinforced by the picture of her feeding birds in the pitch blackness, while Nora and Cassie continue to drink. (Do you think that Munro means us to see drink as one of the major problems in this play?) A latent hostility between Nora and Cassie comes to a head in this scene of many climaxes, as memories of the menfolk – and a new ugliness, that of wife-beating – surfaces through the alcoholic haze. With the discovery that her hidden money, the dream-of-escape-money, is gone, the antagonism (is it indeed hatred?) between mother and daughter explodes, and we see the resentment of years, with Cassie’s comment that her mother’s heart is made of steel, a condemnation oddly qualified with understanding – ‘she had to grow it that way’.
Have we been prepared for the horrific admissions from Cassie which follow? Has Munro planted enough clues to suggest to us that deep down we aren’t surprised? Remember, however, when considering Cassie’s betrayal of Marie, what Deirdre will say about Cassie’s appearance when making love with Michael; ‘she looked like my grandmother, old and tired and like she didn’t care about anything at all anymore ...’. Does this help us to understand Cassie’s betrayal of her best friend?
Unusually, the play has yet another denouement; perhaps more important than the revelation of Cassie’s affair with Michael. Deirdre comes back from what may have been an attempt to rape her, after the club closed. She brings back most of the stolen money – and her knife. She seems poised between attacking Marie and talking to her – poised, perhaps, between two different kinds of ‘hard truth’? Her choice has to wait; after revealing to Marie that Michael is her father, she wants some kind of confirmation from her. But can Marie ever give Deirdre the ‘truth’ she’s after? She can destroy Michael’s photograph, and her own and Deirdre’s remaining illusions, she can tell her that she does look like Michael, and what Michael had for tea, and that someone – Provos, enemies, does it ultimately matter? – ‘took the lying head off him’; but the truth about Michael, and Cassie’s father, and all the other men implicated in their lives, will surely remain elusive, as Marie’s last big speech about ‘all the daddys’ admits. All that can be hoped is that ‘we learn some way to change’, in our dealings with each other, women to women, men to men, and women and men to each other.
How far does Marie reveal in these closing stages that she isn’t and has never really been the trusting innocent, the feeder of birds? How far – and why – has she been living a lie? And how far can we read the end, with its partial reconciliation of Deirdre and her sorrows with Marie and hers, as optimistic? What is the significance of the play’s closing actions, the return to ordinary domesticity and the feeding of the birds?
Munro uses the stage with a strong sense of patterning – a patterning designed to reinforce the arrangement of characters and the balancing of ideas within the play. For example the overall sense of what happens onstage works out as a Marie-Club-Wasteland-Marie movement. Doesn’t this echo the movements in Marie’s mind, from a kind of tired security to doubt and despair, returning to what can be seen as a better kind of honesty? And for the other characters, the play begins with Marie, then moving into materialism, bitter quarrelling, darkness and separation. And yet, isn’t there the implication that forgiveness and a kind of community will once again be found with Marie? It’s worth thinking of the ways in which the play arranges the bold girls in a kind of dramatic choreography which continually changes to represent the action in spatial terms.
Probably the most striking examples of stage use occur in the brief, but startlingly effective non-naturalistic moments when the dramatic narrative is suspended, and characters speak directly to the audience as though revealing their innermost thoughts. The opening appearance of Deirdre is the outstanding example of this. The play may open with Marie’s disorderly domesticity, but the stage use challenges us with its almost immediate revelation of Deirdre outside the room. If this and other similar scenes are considered with the effects made through differences of lighting and focus, Munro’s clever integration of stage effects becomes clear. (The Lighting Plot and the Effects Plot are appended to the play; examination of the connections between the twenty lighting cues and their dramatic action, together with the thirteen cues for effect, is a most revealing exercise). And it’s not just Deirdre who is starkly revealed in her loneliness, her association with terrorism and violence, through this method. Cassie and Nora have their direct say (witness, for example, Cassie’s monologue given at the opening of this essay), which reveals their anger and bitterness respectively; and Marie will use this mode several times, culminating in her speech of forgiveness at the end. What rules can be seen governing Munro’s use of this mode of presentation? Is there a way in which her timing of these moments contributes towards the patterning and development of the play’s themes? In the case of Deirdre’s actions in this mode, are there other points being made about issues beyond the lives of the bold girls, such as Belfast violence – and perhaps even of ancient Irish sorrows in legend and myth, seen dimly in this contemporary Deirdre of the Sorrows? And isn’t she used at times as a kind of bleak chorus to the Troubles?
And Munro exploits techniques which suggest off-stage presence with great skill. Notice how cleverly the on-stage action links up with children who are never seen, but who are talked to, given to, comforted. Doesn’t this ‘absent presence’ echo the absent presence of the menfolk of the bold girls? Positioning is paramount; for example, when Marie, at the Club, is disengaged from Cassie and Nora to stand at the podium, their bitter wrangling breaks out worse than ever, or when Deirdre intrudes, as she often does, into the threesome, distancing them from each other. This divisive positioning links directly to the next issue.
Monologues and Crosstalk
Some of the most striking features of the way the bold girls talk are connected to their essential loneliness, despite the appearance of communal living and sharing of washing, shopping, socialising.
Rona and Cassie frequently talk without listening to what the other is saying, and even Marie will reminisce without noticing if anyone is paying attention. The effect is at first humorous – for examples, the opening discussion between Cassie and Marie regarding the red knickers, which is interspersed with Nora’s unheeded reminders about the washing machine boiling over, or the way in which shortly after, with distant explosions and troops coming up the road, Marie and Cassie talk about computer games and heaters while Nora laments her nasturtiums. Munro is, of course, making the point that all of them are so hardened to this backdrop of the Troubles that explosions no longer merit more than a moment’s concern; but isn’t she also showing a habit which in the end reveals that all of them have taken refuge in humdrum domestic chat which really doesn’t communicate, but which papers over the real and tragic difficulties and distances in their lives? A good example for analysis occurs in scene one when Deirdre has arrived; Nora and Cassie casually have one eye on the TV, the other, distrustfully, on Deirdre. Munro adds another comment here; that modern absorption with the trivia of TV puts distances between real life and media-imagined life; they are watching Blind Date, and Munro slyly suggests ironic contrasts between the lives of the bold girls and the dream world of the TV show.
The idea of breakdown of communication deepens as the play goes on. Notice the random disconnectedness of what the girls say at the one-minute silence for the latest casualty of the Troubles; significantly, the opening is ‘I didn’t know him’, echoing the play’s main theme of loneliness. Marie, typically, shows sorrow – Nora talks of her cramp, Cassie of her sore feet. This is even more pronounced during Marie’s spell at the lectern. Guessing prices for tea-sets and computer games; Cassie and Nora really begin to dig each other up – yet manage to switch back continually to the price game, in between insults. What began as strategic deafness and non-listening goes on to become serious evasion of reality and home truths; for example, the scene three eclipse exchanges between Marie and Cassie, where increasingly Cassie finds she can’t reveal the truth about Michael to Marie. We should remember that Marie herself, with her protective sentiments about brave Michael the Good Daddy in Heaven, probably doesn’t want to hear either.
Doesn’t all this prepare us for the realisation that it is society itself, and local community, which has broken down in terms of communication and truth? Direct, honest face-to-face talking and listening only comes at the end of the play – and by then it is perhaps communication too late for reconciliation.
It’s worth, too, looking at Nora’s almost ritual self-deception and self-celebration. No-one else has ever appreciated her, so her habit is to ‘frame’ the past, violent or happy, into set pieces which give her a sense of importance. These arranged and edited memories have presumably been heard by the others many times. ‘The Night They Took Joe’, ‘Sheila’s Kids and the Magnolia Paint’ – Nora has several pieces in her repertoire which serve to buffer her from harsh truth. She turns things like the brutality of the British troops to women into comic episodes – the alternative, facing the truth, being impossible.
As noted under Stage Use, the play has striking expressive monologues. Deirdre has four (1, 8, 16, 32); Marie three (8, 21, 33); Cassie three (20, 29, 47) and Nora one (36). In terms of the play’s theme of the breakdown of communication, these reinforce the idea that central truths are being avoided, since the honesty of these direct, almost surreal moments cuts right across the grain of evasion and mutual deception which is typical of the Bold Girls. It’s significant that Deirdre and Marie – the two characters seen to be at least partly redeemed in the end – break out of expressionist and surreal monologue to talk frankly to each other in a way which brings catharsis, the purging of hatred and distrust, and a willingness to go forward.
Image and Symbol
The play’s title has open-ended symbolic suggestions; in that it points to several meanings of ‘bold’ (and even some different meanings of ‘girls’?). Boldness can be a term for bravery; for brash self-assertion, even for selfish arrogance. Used with ‘girls’, it can carry sexual implications – and when we see that ,girls’ spans young teenagers to elderly women, the symbolic overtones and ironies increase. There’s also the idea of some kind of sisterhood – backed up by the central toast the three make to themselves in the Club. Doesn’t the title also challenge, symbolically, with its use of ‘bold’ for women, when conventionally it would be used, especially in Irish culture and drama, in regard to ‘boys’ and men? Perhaps from that very title we are supposed to be asking why it’s not men who are the bold ones – so where are they?
An interesting characteristic of Munro’s use of image and symbol is the way she lets very ordinary items and objects slowly gather their symbolic significance through repetition, using them almost as leit-motifs. Her approach in this respect is much closer to that of Ibsen or Miller than to that of Becket or Pinter. Her use of bird-imagery, of the pictures of Michael and the Virgin, of Deirdre’s knife, of course carry expectations of freedom (and captivity), secular and spiritual obligations, and violence respectively. More unusual is the way she makes more mundane objects such as Mickey’s raspberry ice-cream syrup, or Nora’s peach-coloured polyester fabric, or innumerable references to current TV shows and films (including The Accused, Nightmare on Elm Street, Blind Date, The Hulk, Home and Away) into a running symbolism indicating the cheapness of modern materialism and culture. She effects this so cleverly that the most casual reference – say, to the Black-and-Decker drill of the club game – becomes part of a web of symbolic undercutting. This is what Irish culture has come to in contemporary Belfast, and perhaps what culture has come to in the Western World.
In a sense Munro makes everything symbolic – the children out of sight, the ignored explosions, the Brits trampling flowers, the continual reference to absent men. It’s a measure of her creative and poetic richness that, the more the play is considered, the more its situations and its contrasts of light and dark begin to stand out, however; the use of the eclipse of the moon in scene three, and the use of the name ‘Deirdre’ for the lost youngster of Belfast.
The eclipse occurs at the play’s lowest point. Yes, scene four will bring horrific home truths into the open, but this can be seen as positive, in that at least what’s been festering has broken out. It’s important, too, that the eclipse darkens the wasteground on which Cassie once again evades telling the truth to Marie; the darkened moon and the wasted ground joining together as powerful correlatives for the darkened and wasted lives and situations of all the women. The lack of sun and freedom we’ve already observed; now, with Deirdre’s destruction of Nora’s dreams, with Cassie’s continual deception, of herself as well as Marie and her mother, and Marie about to have her last saving lie shattered, even the residual moonlight of their wasted lives is going to vanish – our very own shadow swallowing up all the light of the moon’, says Marie, more truly than she knows.
Munro has stated that she wasn’t conscious of having picked the name ‘Deirdre’ as an echo of the famous tragic heroine of Irish and Scottish mythology, Deirdre of the Sorrows. She has also said that her Deirdre isn’t all that similar to the legendary Deirdre, though she sees that her ‘desperate love and terrible grief’ echoes that of the ancient Irish story. Authors, we know, work at levels of imagination of which they are not always conscious; and, whether brought about consciously or unconsciously, one of the great achievements of the play lies in the way the youngster Deirdre carries with her, like the older Mrs Boyle in Juno and the Paycock, a burden of Irish history, its agonies and its dreams. She has dim memories of a greener, older Ireland; she is a lost generation; and, though her story lacks the magnificence of the older Deirdre’s tragic involvement with great lovers and heroic kings, isn’t there almost a supernatural feel to her waif-like appearances, suggesting that in a way she embodies suffering Ireland, come down from ancient glory to modern tragedy and bathos? And isn’t the implication of the ending that ‘it’s nearly morning’, that she may yet find birds, sunshine, freedom? And is there perhaps associated with this a last representation of Marie, generous to birds and children and friends, protector of lame ducks, as an ironic but kindly comment that the real saints are closer to home?
The Dreams and Values of Contemporary Society
Deirdre opened the play with her dream of a lost Ireland which had become a grey nightmare; There’s hills at the back there, green, I can’t hardly see them because – the street is grey. Somewhere a bird is singing – ‘ – and the play will close with a return, if not to a lost green Ireland, to Marie’s feeding of the birds, perhaps the only surviving dream, after the disintegration of the saving lies and illusions of the Bold Girls.
The play strips away not just their dreams, and not just some of the illusions and false hopes of modern Ireland, but many of the central desires and dreams of Western society. Marie’s life – and Cassie’s and Nora’s – is based on television, its game shows, its films, its values. Their children are placated with horror films, computer games and endless toys. Munro has the girls constantly watching and referring to familiar shows like Blind Date (O look! – and they’ve got a weekend in the Caribbean’) and Home and Away – and their behaviour is shaped by what they watch. Cassie asks how many calories there are in a gin and lime, revealing she’s dreaming of herself in a bikini on a golden beach with a toyboy; Nora, closer to home, is caught up in her peach fabric; ‘that’ll be my front room just a wee dream again’. These two, in different ways, are now trapped in a materialistic yearning which the play shows as empty and doomed. And even the memories they trot out at the beginning of the play, showing their apparent resilience and suggesting at first some kind of depth to their family lives, is shown increasingly to be a saving lie, a pretence that daddies and brothers were strong and lovable. Isn’t a large part of Munro’s success and power in this play to be found in the account of just how shallow Cassie and Nora have become? Scene two, with its portrayal of Cassie’s almost desperate dream of escape through drink and dancing (‘This is going to be the wildest of wild nights’), its shoddy setting of the warehouse with glitterballs and its imitation of TV prize games, marks the point where Nora and Cassie’s self-delusion and materialism is both at its highest – at the toast to the Bold Girls in the club – and about to collapse, as the raid brings a harshly lit realism into the night of their escape, and as their pent-up hostility and repressed bitterness begins to spill over. Cassie will still cherish her private dream of escape, via the money she’s stolen from Nora; but it’s a measure of how hopeless her predicament is that we know with Marie – and Cassie in her heart knows too – that she’s stuck, in what has become a nightmare. Dreams, whether on television or from memory, of escape or change are just dreams. And perhaps it’s Cassie’s desperation, her incredible yearning for something different, some kind of way out, which has led her to the affair with Marie’s Michael?
If Cassie and Nora dream false dreams, Marie and Deirdre are different. It might be argued that Marie deludes herself about her memories of Michael just as much as Nora and Cassie pretend about their men. But isn’t there a quality of innocence in Marie’s dreaming of Michael in heaven, or of their wedding-day, or in her bird feeding? That’s not to say she doesn’t, in the end, reveal that she’s guessed all along that Michael is duplicitous to her and his cause; but her self delusion is designed to create a cleaner world in which she and her children can live. Marie perhaps grows and develops through the destruction of her illusions, where Cassie and Nora can’t. She’s never as materialistic as the other two; she’s clumsy and inept at guessing prices as well as dancing in the social club. And Deirdre’s dreams – of violence, of having a little bit of truth in a knife – are shown to be typically destructive coverings for, strangely, another kind of innocence, the very natural yearning of a child for parents, for recognition, and the security with Marie which perhaps will be the miracle of this play, the only dream to be fulfilled.
Contemporary Western Society
In all this Munro is being deeply satirical about where post-war Western society has got to, in terms of its values and ideology. Marie’s aren’t the only children in Europe being fed on convenience food and placated with television; Cassie and Nora aren’t the only women smoking too much because of stress; they aren’t the only people singing commercial jingles or weaving catch-phrases from shows into their domestic life; Belfast’s social clubs aren’t the only places where drink-and-glitter offer quick escape and romance; and Belfast isn’t the only place where values and beliefs have met in head-on confrontation.
It would have been easy for Munro to set her play more simply amidst the clash of ‘Brits’ and Catholics. Her aim, however, is much more subtle and important. By exposing the cheapness of media participation in our lives, and the way it endorses ancient patterns of male-female relationships, in which men are men and women are women, and by showing how films and adverts create expectations or reinforce prejudices or legitimise violence, Munro traces back the roots of conflict far beyond simple issues of religious difference, to male-and-materialism dominated culture generally. These Bold Girls have been made so, by bold men and bad society, which sees them as servers and attenders, to be sexually exploited and lied to, and – as in Nora’s case – occasionally beaten. Is it any wonder, asks Munro, that Cassie should be bitter, chained as she is to self-indulgent, unattractive men who think they’re the centre of the universe and who think that drunken gambling and conning each other is the height of social achievement? Is it any wonder that Nora turns obsessively to dreams of living rooms and curtains, with drink and cigarettes as fuel for the dreams? Is it any wonder, in a world of transient fathers and such twilight values, that Deirdre has turned to violence – perhaps to terrorism? The wonder is, of course, that Marie is as unspoiled as she manages to be. Munro’s view of humanity is finally hopeful, rather than pessimistic. Marie, feeder of birds and naturally kind, most likely in the end to forgive Cassie and Nora, since they need her too much, and widening her family to include Deirdre with her sorrows, is no Bold Girl, but simply a redemptive woman who instinctively senses what’s wrong with modern materialism.
Political and Religious Issues
If Munro is looking deeper than topical Irish issues, why does she set her play in Belfast during the troubles? Certainly there’s very little religious debate, although Catholic imagery and reference pervade the play. It’s never significant, however – rather a kind of ‘wallpaper’ which gives away character and taste. It’s worth while asking how far Munro regards religion as important at all in this play, other than as a kind of conditioning which, like television and media generally, creates responses which are often self-destructive and destructive of others. Is there a possible weakness here, in that the apparent principal cause of the Troubles is ignored, other than in casual reference? Or has Munro a deeper purpose?
Similarly, Munro’s treatment of the issue of British troops in Northern Ireland avoids locating it in any central way, instead keeping their undoubtedly formidable presence offstage – and ‘offstage’, as it were, in the mind of the girls, as they respond without bitterness to invasion of their houses, explosions, raids in their social lives, with an almost abstracted air, as if they’ve got more serious things on their minds. Marie will tell us of how the Brits helped her to get to her wedding – although she has no illusions concerning their future behaviour; all the girls have learned that the Brits can be brutal. Munro allows them admirable resilience here, so that they turn serious personal disruption into wryly remembered farce (or is this perhaps another example of evasion of reality?). In the end, the Brits seem somehow irrelevant, a sometimes harmless, clumsy, nuisance in their lives. Nora’s account in scene two of the difference between the way a soldier and a local boy run through her front room (‘Sorry Mrs’, says the local boy) sums up a general sense that there are home problems which are their own, not to be solved by lumbering intrusion.
The net result of this de-centring of major issues is to suggest that they may not be quite as central to the lives of these – and all? – women as they are usually considered to be. Munro suggests that the central problems are located closer to home – and lie in the history of community, and how traditional community values have eroded under sectarian division, or, even more importantly, failed to adapt to cope with contemporary social pressures.
Failure of Community?
Rona Munro comes originally from Stonehaven, the same part of Scotland as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, whose Sunset Song (1932) was in part a lament for the passing of an older and kindlier way of life in a rural community. It is perhaps Munro’s Scottish background which lends her play – otherwise so different from Gibbon’s work – something of his sense of loss of mutual respect and value in the community. Scottish fiction in particular is full of this yearning for a lost but dear green place, a memory of green hills (and a simpler way of life) seen beyond grey cities, together with a recognition that that older community is permanently lost, that there’s no going back. Bernard McLaverty’s Cal (1983), and the fine film made of it, showed how echoes of a better, simpler, rural-based community past haunted the nightmare of the present; and McLaverty’s novel suggests that there may be something innately Celtic in this benign, almost tribal memory.
For the signs are all through the play that there were better community times, and that people used to behave with more respect and decency. From the apologising boy, running from the Brits through Nora’s room, to the minute’s silence in the club for the most recent victim of the Troubles, there are reminders that this wasn’t always a world of dispirited or unemployed men; Marie, particularly, show Michael, Davey, Martin and Joe in ways which, for all we know she sees through rose-coloured glasses, shows real human beings at their best, in a community. And doesn’t Munro stress how, despite the tribulations, the women bond together to pool resources, chores, leisure? Isn’t the use of ‘our’ in their references to their menfolk (‘our Michael’, ‘our Davey’) indicative of a habit of bonding? Don’t the women tell stories – about the Brits, about nasty recent events, and about menfolk who have beaten them and gambled away cars and money – in an almost traditional way which distances the pain and lends humour and acceptability to modern horror? The story of how Michael lost the family car in a bet about a dog that could jump a ten-foot wall is told with an affection which hides the reality of drunken irresponsibility, of sharp practice and deceitful friends; again, much as in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, pointing up the tension between a positive closeness of community and a negative community-self-destructiveness. Synge identified the darker side of community which had become too narrow and too introspective, and Munro finds something of the same gallus indulgence in a present day Ireland, a false swagger and defiance on the part of originally decent men and women which has made them into Bold Girls and Bold Boys.
Bold Girls and Bold Boys
Who are the Bold Boys? How does the play present them? They are offstage, in jail, in the past; they are always the first to be fed, deferred to, indulged in their drinking and gambling, forgiven. They are brutal, unfaithful, foul-smelling, secretive in their Provo-macho-politics. They are fathers, husbands, brothers, unreliable lovers, and sons (for the present children are brought up no differently), and the play analyses their effect at each of those levels.
As an example of the effect of the father and the husband, the relationship of Nora and Cassie is central. It’s so important to Cassie that one of Munro’s occasional non-naturalistic monologues, at the end of scene one, is given to Cassie’s dream-like sentimentalisation of her daddy in a way which gives her the love she’s otherwise denied throughout the play; ‘Oh my daddy was a lovely man ... my daddy said I was the best girl ... My daddy never lied to me so it must have been me that lied to him’. Isn’t it significant that Cassie can’t blame a man who clearly deserves some criticism at the very least, and that she’s turned her feelings for her father into yet more self-hatred? Cassie’s father is seen very differently by Nora, with bitter hatred and irony (‘I shouldn’t have thrown myself in the way of his fists’) and one of the most powerful moments in the play comes in scene four with the showdown between them, a confrontation which reveals just how protective each woman has been in covering for the obvious faults of the husband and father in different ways.
And poor Cassie is poisoned at each of the other levels of husband, brother and lover relationships too. Her revulsion to her slobbish husband Joe is patently honest and convincing; (‘I can’t stand the smell of him. The greasy, grinning, beer bellied smell of him, and he’s winking away about all he’s been dreaming of, wriggling his fat fingers over me like I’m a poke of chips. I don’t want him in my house, in my bed–’ Are we to blame her for this revulsion? Has Joe perhaps degenerated so much that Cassie is entitled to her disgust? Her brothers are hypocrites, reproaching her for promiscuity when clearly they are no better, perhaps worse (Martin, it would seem, has fathered a child on ‘the wee girl in Turf Lodge’), but defended fiercely by their mother. Cassie probably isn’t all that promiscuous, but there’s surely more defiance of her allotted roles than commitment in her affairs? As she tells Marie in scene three, it’s ‘grabbing on to some man because he smells like excitement, he smells like escape’, and it’s worth recalling again how Deirdre told us of the terrible look on her face as she made love to Michael.
And it’s worth making the effort of imagination which Munro’s play calls for, in recreating the world of the lost men. It’s a world of nudges and winks, of gallus stories and swagger, of double-dealing from family to politics. (What was Michael killed for, and who killed him?) In this world it’s a point of honour among men to pay up on drunken bets, even although the bets are based on cheating and deception, even although it means losing the family car. It’s a world where wife-beating is ignored, where sons learn from fathers that getting girls pregnant isn’t something to feel too guilty about – perhaps it’s even something to feel bold about. And, day to day, it’s a world where mothers and wives take a back seat, where male whims are obeyed, and where, as Cassie so tragically shows, daughters eventually assert themselves through deceit and betrayal of their fellow women.
Marie and Deirdre are more simply betrayed. Deirdre is example of a kind of basic or primary betrayal by men – she could be the child of the wee girl from Turf Lodge, though it is virtually certain she’s Michael’s daughter. And Marie has suffered a similar basic betrayal – several times, it would seem, in Michael’s complex, charismatic, treacherous and foreshortened life. Theirs may seem dark predicaments, but isn’t there a deep irony in the fact that Nora and Cassie are in the end more deeply poisoned and less hopeful of working out some kind of affirmative future?
Doesn’t Munro argue through all this for a kind of honest reappraisal of the way human beings, male and female, relate to each other? Isn’t her point, about Marie and Deirdre as opposed to Nora and Cassie, that bringing painful secrets out into the open can be regenerative for some, but catastrophic for others, depending on the essential nature of the people involved? Cassie and Nora have been poisoned too far; Marie’s strength and unselfishness, and Deirdre’s direct youth, should allow them to survive.
Munro is, however, never simplistic in allocating blame to men or women. Like Liz Lochhead, her fellow-dramatist and poet, her feminism is low-key and humane, seeing the roots of sexual confrontation and deceit in the way women have treated men as well as the way men have subordinated women. In the end we realise that ‘bold’ has moved from being a term of admiration, denoting vital resilience and character, to being an ironic, sad commentary on men and women, on their foolish exaggeration of destructively lop-sided aspects of sexuality.
These Bold Girls have been moulded by a bad system, a distorted society, argues Munro. Marie and Deirdre recognise that it’s time to break that mould, and to let kindness, honesty and communication into family life. Munro has no illusions that this will happen easily or soon – which is the point of the final scenes, in which Marie feeds the birds. Her act won’t change much, she knows, but it’s still important; ‘It’s easy enough to build a great wee nest when you’ve a forest to fly in, but you’d need to be someone special to build one round the Falls. Someone should feed them ...’.
The Opening Quotation; Making them Bold and Breaking the Mould
We return to the opening quotation, with Cassie’s perceptive, bitter description of how her mother moulded her, and how, while the wee girls got real love from their mothers, it’s the disillusioned realism of that love which makes the mothers hard on them. The boys get fantasy love, the disappointed love taken from the failed fathers and transposed to them, and therefore a love which spoils and indulges – and moulds boys into men who are excessively macho and self-centred. Cassie sees it all, although she’s powerless to change anything in her family or herself. She sees where the terrible hurt and hostility between Nora and herself comes from; it comes from warped love. And she sees how the men hurt the women so much; that, too, comes from a different kind of warped love.
Bold Girls is thus a cry of pain, anger, and yet of hope. Above all, it is a cry from the heart that it is time to break the moulds which create the distorted women and men whose only refuge is that shallow boldness which, in the end, is more dangerous to modern society than differences of religion and politics, lying as it does so much deeper in their upbringing and in their unconscious. As Marie concludes, as she forgives all the men; and so it goes on and so it goes on and so it always will go on, till we learn some way to change – because this place is no different to anywhere else.
Copyright © Douglas Gifford 1996
Last updated 19 August 2010.