Margaret O'Leary: A Feminist Reading

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First staged at the Abbey in September 1929, Margaret O’Leary’s The Woman was well received and is praised by Joseph Holloway. It returned to the Abbey stage later the same year for a further run, and played in Cork in early 1930. The play is a gripping three-act, realist, family drama set in rural Cork. It is essentially a peasant drama, where the action centres on the typical themes of marriage and the land. Joseph Holloway comments, “The house was very interested in the piece, and the players were recalled several times at the end as also was the author.” As he notes, the female protagonist, Ellen Dunn’s scenes with Maurice are reminiscent of Playboy, with Ellen as a female version of Christy Mahon. To the contemporary reader her character also suggests Annie Kinsella, from the later play by Teresa Deevy, The King of Spain’s Daughter, or, in its tragic ending, the fate of J.B. Keane’s eponymous character Sive (1959). Ellen is obsessed with love, but her fantasies are entirely incongruent with her impoverished rural setting. Like Annie Kinsella, she longs for passion and adventure, and is reviled by her local community as a subversive and disruptive element. Only Maurice’s mother shows her any kindness: when Ellen leaves the stage for the last time, she says, “’Tis her and her likes that the grand stories of the world are about, like Helen the Beautiful and Deirdre of the Sorrows.” The Woman is the earlier of two plays that O’Leary wrote for the Abbey stage. Her other play, The Coloured Balloon, is a stinging portrayal of greed and foolishness, first produced in 1944. She also published two novels, Lightening Flash and The House I Made. Her work has received little critical attention. Yet, although she is a minor writer and her output appears to have been slight, The Woman is a lively and forceful piece of dramatic writing. Traub, Kaplan and Callaghan in their study Feminist Reading of Early Modern Culture, argue that the individual can only use the means available in their own specific place and time to lay claim to their individual subjectivity. They list interiority, agency and status as defining marks of the individual subject, while presenting as a qualifier that the individual “makes claims for cultural recognition only through available means.” These theorists stress the centrality of culture and time in the formation of the subject. They argue that the subject’s struggle for emergence both influences, and is influenced by, economics, nation, family, religion and science. As Belsey argues, the subject, who controls the discourse, is in turn produced discursively, and therefore both controls and, paradoxically, is bound by signifying practice. “The subject is held in place in a specific discourse, a specific knowledge, by the meanings available there ... Subjectivity ... is constrained by the range of subject-positions defined by the discourses in which the concrete individual participates.” To move beyond the prescribed range in a given society is “psychotic”. The character of Ellen Dunn can be read through the Freudian concept of hysteria : her dialogue is out of joint with the dramatic world and with her actions, and her attempt to assert her individuality is dismissed as lying or madness. She resorts to sexual relationships to find expression for repressed passions which are not, of themselves, primarily sexual. Žižek also addresses some of the problems of asserting female subjectivity in his essay Passionate (Dis)Attachments, where he contrasts Habermasian and Foucauldian arguments of resistance.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUnknown Host Publication
PublisherMunster Women Playwrights Project
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 9 Dec 2005
EventMunster Women Playwrights - Granary Theatre, Cork
Duration: 9 Dec 2005 → …


ConferenceMunster Women Playwrights
Period9/12/05 → …


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