March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Part 2: Brian Friel's TRANSLATIONS

Plays, like the poems and stories often told through song, are part of the communal performance tradition that has long been an important part of Irish literature. The past century especially brought a resurgence in Irish theatre, beginning with the establishment of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin by Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats. With this theatre, its founders sought to create a national space for Irish writers and playwrights to gather and perform their works, thus sparking the Irish Literary Revival of the early 1900s.

One of the leading contemporary Irish playwrights to carry on this torch is Brian Friel, who has had a long and prolific career in theatre. He and Stephen Rea (the Irish stage and film actor, perhaps most memorable in The Crying Game, that great movie that is somewhat overshadowed by its shocker of an ending) collaborated often and went on to found the Field Day Production Company in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. The company would put out a number of plays dealing with Irish politics and the Troubles – a very apt subject matter in 1980s Ireland. The first play that Field Day performed, and arguably Friel’s most well-known play, is Translations.

Translations is set in a small rural village of County Donegal in the 1830s. As the title suggests, the play is about language and the problems that arise – linguistically, culturally, and otherwise – when people try to overcome language barriers. The Ireland of the play is very much old Ireland; the many of the town inhabitants speak only Irish and know nothing outside of Donegal. British officers arrive as part of the Ordnance Survey, and begin the process of translating maps and town and county names from the original Irish to English. Confusion ensues – sometimes humorously, sometimes tragically – but always to highlight the cultural divide between the English and Irish. It is a wonderful play, especially in its historical context. The problems between the English and Irish have been around for a very long time, so to see them portrayed in the early stages of the modern troubles (the 1830s was only a generation or so after the Famine, and a few decades before things would get really crazy in Ireland over the question of Independence) is to see the later progression of the problems with a better understanding. As thus far I have only read it, Translations is a play that I would love to see done on stage.

Plays don’t lend themselves very well to being quoted at length, so with that brief introduction I’ll just include an excerpt from near the end of the play that I particularly like – I won’t give too much context so as to avoid giving the play away, so just try to appreciate it on its own.

"Hugh [the old Irish teacher]: To remember everything is a form of madness. The road to Sligo. A spring morning. 1798. Going into battle. Do you remember, James? Two young gallants with pikes across their shoulders and the Aeneid in their pockets. Everything seemed to find definition that spring – a congruence, a miraculous matching of hope and past and present and possibility. Striding across the fresh, green land. The rhythms of perception heightened. The whole enterprise of consciousness accelerated. We were gods that morning, James; and I had recently married my goddess, Caitlin Dubh Nic Reactainn, may she rest in peace. And to leave her and my infant son in his cradle – that was heroic, too. By God, sir, we were magnificent. We marched as far as – where was it? – Glenties! All of twenty-three miles in one day. And it was there, in Phelan’s pub, that we got homesick for Athens, just like Ulysses. The desiderium nostrorum – the need for our own. Our pietas, James, was for older, quieter things. And that was the longest twenty-three miles back I ever made. My friend, confusion is not an ignoble condition."

-Brian Friel, 1980

(Image via Julliard)

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