The Art of Breathing, Writing, and Living: Curiosity, Creativity, and Caring

The medical doctor and playwright Anton Chekhov once said that knowledge is of no use unless you put it into practice.

To give you an idea of how an artist can endow the word “practice” with deeper meaning, consider Marianne McDonald who when asked, “Why write?” instantly answers, “Why breathe?”  She inspires me to write about artists of our time whose hearts beat to different drums.

Dr. Marianne McDonald is someone who has harnessed intelligence, heart, literary acumen, and artistry and put them into practice.  Many are blessed with those gifts, but write only one book or play a decade (and give to the homeless without ever having to look in their eyes).  Not Marianne.

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Dr. Marianne McDonald

She has earned three university degrees, published countless books, written extensively, raised six children, lost a child, mothered other “children,” learned multiple languages (twelve), tolerated boyfriends and husbands, traveled widely, and given generously – heart, mind, body, and soul.  Not content merely to talk about life, she activates it, particularly through her writing.

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Dr. Marianne McDonald in childhood

When as a child one has a personal nurse to comb your hair and dress you, it would be easy to give into such comforts, disguise those as the laurels of life, and let life float you forward fancifully.  Marianne, however, chooses neither to rest nor fear complication.  Indeed, she grabs life by its horns, and rides its every kick and rear with buoyancy.

As her home page illuminates, Marianne is involved in the “interpretation, sharing, compilation and preservation of Greek and Irish texts, plays, and writings.” Recognized as a historian on the classics, she has received numerous awards and accolades because of her works and philanthropy. As a playwright, she has authored many modern works based on ancient Greek dramas in modern times.  As a teacher and mentor, she is sought after highly for her knowledge of and application of the classic themes and premises of life in modern times.  In 2013, she was awarded the Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Classics, Department of Theatre, Classics Program, University of California, San Diego (joint program with University of California, Irvine [UCI]). As one of the first women inducted into the Royal Irish Academy in 1994, Marianne was recognized for her expertise and academic excellence in Irish language history, interpretation and the preservation of ancient Irish texts.  As a philanthropist, Marianne partnered with Sharp to enhance access to drug and alcohol treatment programs by making a $3 million pledge. Her donation led to the creation of the McDonald Center at Sharp HealthCare. Additionally, to recognize her generosity, Sharp Vista Pacifica Hospital was renamed Sharp McDonald Center.

Marianne also has been honored with Greece’s Order of the Phoenix (1994) and Italy’s Golden Aeschylus Award (1998); and been inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame (2008).

Born in Chicago on January 2, 1937, Marianne achieved a 1958 B.A. in Classics and Music, Magna cum Laude, from Bryn Mawr; a 1960 M.A. in Classics from the University of Chicago; and a 1975 Ph.D. in Classics from UCI.  She went to school at Chicago’s Convent of the Sacred Heart and finished her secondary education at Chicago Latin School; during these years, she developed a fondness for Latin, Greek, and classical antiquities of the Greco-Roman world.  She now makes her home in Rancho Santa Fe in a house full of Old World furniture and Tibetan influences.  There is the sweet smell of incense, a harp, and beautifully decorated rooms that reflect the eye of someone who cares about aesthetics, comfort, and literature.  Outside the house, in a garden created by the home’s four sides, live Marianne’s beloved peacocks and peahens.  Because neighbors complained about the child-like noises they make, Marianne had to give up most of them.  That is sad to me because they reflected the beauty, grace, and magic that is part of Marianne’s view of the world.

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Dr. Marianne McDonald’s peacock and peahen from her homepage

McDonald’s life-long teaching as a classics and theatre professor primarily has been at UCI and University of California, San Diego (UCSD).  As a visiting professor, she has served at Trinity College, Dublin; University College Dublin, University College Cork, Dublin City University, and the University of Ulster in Coleraine.  Her publications include more than 250 books, translations, plays, poems, and articles.  As an actress, she has performed in numerous Greek plays.  As a scholar, two of her projects the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (a computerized compilation of Greek literature that McDonald founded and funded at UCI) and the Thesaurus Linguae Hiberniae (computerizes Irish literature no matter the language of the source material).

When I met Marianne, I felt a visceral connection with her as a human being.  I was invited to speak at her class at the University of California-San Diego via her then teaching assistant, Antonia Glenn).  I spoke about my play Kokoro (True Heart).  On that day in La Jolla, California, I found a true heart in Marianne.  Not only is she a writer and professor, but she also is a feminist, animal lover, spiritualist, organic intelligentsia, multiculturalist, U.S.-Japan being, and parent.

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Dr. Marianne McDonald and her beloved pets

Over the years, that truth of our human connection has flourished.  My Japanese mother always said that the soul is in the gut; I feel connected to Marianne with that kind of depth.  As artists, we support each other.  We have co-edited a book, The Myth Strikes Back: Medea Plays by Women, which recently was published.  We care about each other’s plays.  We celebrate and bemoan the politics of U.S. society.  Always, we discuss motherhood and our offspring.  The fact that Marianne is a prolific writer and intelligent feminist who is courageous in thought and deed inspire me constantly.  The fact that she is a true friend restores my faith in contemporary humanity.  She is a resilient person who cultivates resilience in others.

For the first five years of her life, Marianne was reared on a yacht.  During storms, she recalls dodging falling items and crawling to get around.  Not having sea legs or being seasick weren’t allowed in the McDonald yacht-hold.  There was childhood on the sea and then there was land.  Her father, Eugene Francis McDonald, said to her, “Land is a place to which you tie your boat.”  At six, Marianne shifted to that land and tied her boat into living a life of the mind where writing is paramount and the rest of life demands to be heard.  She began to strike that delicate and daunting balance.  No easy feat for an artist in the U.S., particularly a female one.

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Dr. Marianne McDonald as a child aboard the family yacht

Her father, who grew up in New York City, dropped out of school and became family patriarch at age twelve to support his family.  He wanted her to be fearless and expected her to know the land.  He taught her how to shoot, hunt, and fish.  From shooting, he lost his hearing in his right ear and she lost it in her left ear.  In those days, there was no protective gear to preserve their hearing.  After going deaf, her father established Zenith Radio, utilizing shortwave sets to broadcast Inuit songs to Australia and to outfit the U.S. Navy during World War II.  On that basis, he created the Zenith Radio Corporation.

Sometimes his loss of hearing was an asset.  Marianne said that, at home dinner parties, he placed “boring people” on his right; Marianne does the same on her left.  (If you have ever been seated to her left, pause for a moment of reflection.)  Her father also was a drinker and smoker, coupled with her concert pianist mother who was a drug addict.  When her father passed away in 1958, he left a large fortune to Marianne, along with a collection of gifts that broadened her interest in Ireland and in philanthropy.

Despite good fortune, Marianne had lack in her life at its outset and lost other valuable things along the way.  Her mother didn’t want children and never let Marianne forget it.  She often reminded Marianne:

“I went to the pits of hell giving birth to you.”

Even though her father wanted a son and got one when Marianne’s brother “Stormy” came into their lives five years after her birth, Marianne remained her father’s favorite.  After she married and began her family, Stormy committed suicide.  He called her and said that everybody was after his money and that he could only trust her.  Then he was gone.

“I wish I could have talked him out of it,” Marianne stated.

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With brother Stormy holding snakes in Canada, one of their homes

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With brother Stormy and (behind them) a friend

The delicate and daunting balance of a literary soul often was challenged by Marianne’s parents.  When she was twelve, her mother parked her in movie theatres “so she could meet her lovers.”  Marianne noted that her mother kidnapped her and her brother “to sell us back to my father.”  Her father had to drag them from her mother’s car.  Despite these problems, Marianne’s mother gave her the gift of music, for which she is grateful.

“She let me hear her beautiful music,” Marianne reminisced.  “She often played in concerts and I still can hear compositions.”

At the Convent of the Sacred Heart, nuns provided Marianne with sanity and love that was free from alcohol and drugs.  The nuns encouraged her to read, which continues to be an avid activity.  Her father encouraged her scientifically, giving her a chemistry set at an early age.

“I did dangerous things…explosions and separating mercury from mercuric oxide,” she recalled.  “How I survived is a miracle.”

Her survival was laced with freedom from alcohol and drugs, a freedom that extended into her adult life.  As noted above, she founded the Scripps McDonald Center and then the Sharp McDonald Center for drug and alcohol addiction and rehabilitation.

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Dr. Marianne McDonald

Beginning her family was challenging for Marianne.  She had thirteen pregnancies and six children, who, as a group, look like what she calls “a United Nations gathering.”  Years later, one of the six, at age fifteen, took her own life, but under different circumstances than Marianne’s brother had faced.

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Dr. Marianne McDonald’s six children

“Of course, losing a child causes more pain than anything else in the world,” Marianne said.  She wrote a poem about her departed daughter called “Aftermaths.”  Here is an excerpt:

matchabook marianne's poem 12-03-2018Marianne’s daughter died while Marianne was on a trip to Washington lecturing on Greek tragedy.

“She was staying at a house with some boys I’d forbidden from mine, and they found a gun which they passed around playing Russian Roulette,” Marianne said.  “She lost,” she continued.  “They were all high on LSD, the one drug they knew I never tested for.”

But Marianne’s life goes on, after Greek and real-life tragedy.  Her artistic energies are galvanized by her students (she has supported more PhD students than anyone else in her department at UCSD) and people who create exciting theatre.  I am honored that she includes me in the latter category.

Marianne creates theatrical excitement of her own, such as her Trojan Women, which was produced by the Old Globe Theatre; and a project rich with social justice with regards to color, culture, gender, and sexuality, her Medea, Queen of Colchester (an adaption of Euripides’s Medea) that explored the infamous heroine as an African drag queen of color.  In investigating themes of women subjugated by the men who love them but love power more, Marianne coalesced numerous dimensions of identity.

“The actor playing him/her said it was the first time he’d worn heels,” Marianne said.

For the theatre, she also penned …and then he met a woodcutter, which was named Best New Play of 2005 by the San Diego Critics’ Circle; and Medea: The Beginning, performed with Athol Fugard’s Jason: The End.

Her interest in theatre continues to be galvanized by the same motivators.  She loves theatre, but has no favorites (“That’s like asking what child is your favorite,” she mused.)  Her hope for those who live the life of the mind is that they reflect and “ask what’s wrong with the world we live in.”  In other words, she wants artists and scholars to be inquisitive and courageous.  She feels she sees less and less of that today.

Theatre, however, thrives in her veins because “it reveals truths in wayward ways…you continue thinking after you leave the theatre,” she stated.  She hopes that, rather than being driven by greed, artists create out of a desire to illuminate truth and cultivate change.

Some of Marianne’s numerous books include:  Terms for Happiness in Euripides, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978; Euripides in Cinema: The Heart Made Visible, Philadelphia: Centrum, 1983; Ancient Sun, Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage, Columbia University Press, 1992; The Living Art of Greek Tragedy, Indiana University Press, 2003; The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, Edited with J. Michael Walton, Cambridge University Press, 2007; and Dancing Drama: Ancient Greek Theatre in Modern Shoes and Shows, book chapter for Oxford Handbook on Dance and Theatre, edited by Nadine George, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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All photographs courtesy of Dr. Marianne McDonald and Dr. Bridget McDonald.  Used with permission.





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