By Carly Hughes
Marie Jones is a playwright for the people of Ireland. Be they Protestant, Catholic, nationalist or loyalist, she draws upon the collective experiences of all those who could claim Irish blood. “I still write plays about us. I haven't moved away from my background and culture. Yes, when I am in London I might go to the Ivy for dinner. But in Belfast, I pop into Sainsbury's to do my shopping like everyone else and people stop and talk and tell me about their lives all the time, because these people have known me all my life” (Jones, Marie, quoted in Gardner, Lyn, “The Bard of Belfast,” Guardian Unlimited [Guardian Limited Newspapers 2004] http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,,1280430,00.html, 26 November 2004). It is this connection with her roots that gives her plays their authentic flavor, enabling her to infuse her characters with life from the lives of persons she meets in the grocery store, the restaurant, the casual stroll down the street, and not least of all, her own life. In this way, she gives name and voice to a people so often confined to the stereotyped portrait of Irish people displayed by Hollywood.
Born in 1955 in Belfast, a city divided by the years-old conflict between Protestant loyalists and Catholic unionists, Jones began to acquire the experiences that would sculpt her as a playwright. Some of her earliest and most vivid memories included the weekly visits with her mother to her aunt's house. There she was witness to the candidness of two sisters reminiscing. “They would tell the same stories every week. They would laugh, they would cry. And although they were the same stories, they were told differently every time. I couldn't get enough of them” (Bard of Belfast). In these conversations, Jones discovered the power of stories and story telling, and the need for the dreams, desires, and disasters of a human life to be expressed. This intrinsic value of storytelling, shown by the sheer numbers shared and heard in a single day, was permanently impressed upon Jones by these weekly, ritualistic visits. In her own words, “If anything turned me into a playwright, it was those visits to my aunt” (Bard of Belfast).
Though she would later credit this beginning for shaping her as a playwright, she didn't originally intend this as her profession and passion. Before she wrote her first published word, she was an aspiring actress. As a child she was enchanted by the annual pantomimes that would grace Belfast's Grand Opera House, and at fifteen, she was so taken by a particular play, that she wrote to the director to ask for an opportunity to participate in the next production (Maguire, Tom. “Marie Jones,” British and Irish Dramatists Since WWII Volume 233, John Bull, Ed. [Farmington Hill, Michigan: The Gale Group, 2001] 182-187). It was the beginning of a romance with the stage so profound, that after a later absence from it, she chose to leave a husband and son to pursue her career as an actress (Bard of Belfast). Of this decision between dream and duty she says, “I knew that I would be no use to my son if I felt frustrated and angry all the time. I felt that I had to learn, and listen, and educate myself. It was a very hard decision and it wasn't the traditional decision, but I am glad I made it because I wouldn't be sitting here now being interviewed if I hadn't (Bard of Belfast). That kind of decision is scorned by society and chosen by few, but the quandary between dream and duty is so common that when it appears in various contexts on the stage, it is impossible that it will not find resonance with an audience. Regardless of whether one judges such a decision as right or wrong, it certainly was the inspiration, alongside numerous other real life examples that enables Jones to write with a genuineness and authority that only come from having been “in the thick of it.”
After this turning point, Jones continued to work as an actress for years but became increasingly frustrated with the roles she was given, roles that used women as extras and eye candy in a male dominated cast (Maguire, 183). That was, of course, if she was fortunate to even get a part. She lamented,“We were in our thirties and widely experienced, but whenever a Belfast theatre put on a classic it would get young English actresses just out of drama school to play the roles” (Bard of Belfast). The frustration became so acute that Jones, with other fed-up friends, founded the Charabanc Theatre Company in 1983 (Maguire, 183). It was at this time that she drew upon the memoirs of her mother and aunt, the foibles of her own life, and the conflicts of countless others to be the fuel for her creativity. Her first collaborative play, Lay Up Your Ends, was well received and only the beginning of Marie's efforts to capture pieces of the Irish experience, the laughter, the tears, the challenges, and conflict which she wove into plays that “make critics sneer and ordinary audiences cheer” (Bard of Belfast). All who claim literary or theatrical authority are not particularly inventive or profound; as Jones notes, “people want to keep the theatre as some kind of special preserve for people like them, educated, cultured people; they don't like it when a play packs out the theatre with ordinary people having a good time” (Bard of Belfast). That's exactly what happened. Local spectators attended and failed to encounter a Hamlet or Macbeth, nothing epic at all. Instead, they saw themselves satirized and parodied but even more importantly, actualized and validated.
Jones remained with Charabanc until 1990 when she resigned, but continued to write and co-founded another company, DubbleJoint, for which she could write plays that addressed “the troubles” of the age old unionist-loyalist conflict (Maguire, 185). However, these plays were written in such a way that they brought ethical questions to attention without becoming a screaming complaint or sweeping moral/political statement. The Blind Fiddler, Stones in His Pockets, and A Night in November explore such themes as generational rift, geo-political discrimination, and cultural exploitation in a humorous manner so that an audience is skillfully seduced into pondering these questions, even enticed, making it more effective than an overtly critical manner. This can leave some to surmise that her play's statements are weak because they invite the intellect of the audience to take from it what lessons it will, instead of ramming it down the collective throats That courtesy compensates for any weakness a critic could attach to her plays.
To date, Marie Jones has received multiple awards and acclaim for her wit as well as cultural commentary. The greatest award, however, is the delight of play-goers with her ability to soften the harshness of reality by placing it upon the altar of a stage where they can laugh at what would bring them heartache in life. She uncovers the meaning in everyday, mundane life so that people of Northern Ireland and the Republic or Ireland, people, are represented, and “even in the midst of total devastation we'll always be having a laugh” (Bard of Belfast).
People need to tell stories; they need to relate and make sense of what they experience, to heal and understand, laugh and let go, but not everyone can be heard. Marie Jones speaks for those.