‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition’: Brian Friel: Plays (Contemporary Classics: Volume 1)

In the middle of Brian Friel’s play, The Aristocrats, a character recites the lines of the Scottish poet Alastair Reed’s ‘My Father Dying:

“But on any one
of these nights soon,
for you, the dark will not crack with dawn,

and then I will begin
with you that hesitant conversation
going on and on and on.”

In a way, these lines exemplify Friel’s work. ‘Hesitant conversation’ marks his characters’ interactions with each other, in different ways. As Seamus Deane puts it in his Introduction to this collection of six plays, it is “the failure of language to accommodate experience, the failure of a name to fully indicate a place, the failure of lovers to find the opportunity to express their feeling…” The human relationship, whether it is between father and son (Philadelphia, Here I Come!), husband and wife (Living Quarters), or lovers of occupied and occupying nations (Translations), is stymied by the insufficiency of language which, in Friel’s hands, becomes a viscous and resistant substance, its thickness lying heavy upon the page. We are always looking for words. We never find them. Perhaps because they do not exist.

The use of the word ‘conversation‘ in the poem is not straightforward either. ‘… the dark will not crack with dawn‘ signifies the death of the poet’s father, and how does one have a conversation with a dead man? It is at best a monologue, conducted with someone who can no longer speak for himself. It is the poet who must take upon himself the burden of representation. And likewise, in Friel’s plays – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Ireland’s colonial past – there is a constant struggle for representation. The characters in the play struggle to represent themselves against those outside the play, whether it is an off-stage Judge and a sociologist in The Freedom of the City, a seemingly omnipotent “Sir” in Aristocrats, or the protagonist’s own private persona in Philadelphia, Here I come! Again, Deane: “[Friel’s] plays are full of what we may called displaced voices. American sociologists, English judges, and voice-overs from the past play their part in the dialogue in set speeches, tape-recordings, through loudspeakers. The discourse they produce is obviously bogus. Yet its official jargon represents something more and something worse than moral obtuseness. It also represents power, the one element lacking in the world of the victim…”

Brian Friel was an Irish dramatist who had a long and distinguished theatre career, at home and abroad. The beginnings of his theatrical life coincided with the beginning of ‘The Troubles‘ in Northern Ireland, a period of sustained political and sectarian violence. Like in the case of his great poetic contemporary, Seamus Heaney, this has left an indelible mark on Friel’s artistic work. Out of the six plays that constitute Volume 1 of the Contemporary Classics edition of his work (Philadelphia, Here I Come!The Freedom of the CityLiving Quarters, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Translations), two deal with the overtly political theme of the relationship between the English and the Irish (Freedom of the City and Translations), while politics is rarely far away from the rest. Nonetheless, Friel’s relationship with politics is not simplistic, and his plays are anything but polemical. In a certain sense, he seems to view the relationship between art and politics in a manner similar to Heaney: there is a constant tension between keeping art apolitical, and using art to actively intervene in politics, to make a statement, as it were. But ultimately, Friel’s plays exemplify what Heaney himself said, in The Redress of Poetry:

“Poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.”

In fact, each of the six plays are primarily dedicated to exploring the immense complexity of human relationships, and they do so in limpid, bare and stark prose, that strips everything down to its essentials. In the opening play, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Gar O’Donnell is a young man soon to leave the suffocating little Irish village of Ballybeg for the United States. Torn between regret at the loss of something undefinable, and relief at the prospect of escaping the provinces, a Gar’s “public” and “private” personas (two separate characters) struggle with each other, and with those they are leaving behind: a former lover, childhood friends, the maid, and a father. As Private Gar tells Public Gar, “no one will ever know or understand the fun there was; for there was fun and there was laughing – foolish, silly fun and foolish, silly laughing; but what it was all about you can’t remember, can you? Just the memory of it – that’s all you have now – just the memory; and even now, even so soon, it is being distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious gold.” But it is his interaction with his father that takes on an almost terrifying intensity. Having never shared a meaningful relationship through their lives, on the eve of Gar’s departure, the two of them find that having dammed up river of words for so long with the logs of sullen silences, the bed has now run dry: “Say – say – say – say, ‘Screwballs, with two magnificent legs like that, how is it you were never in show biz? Say, ‘It is now sixteen or seventeen – Say – oh, my God – say – say something.”

The Freedom of the City is set during a civil rights protest in County Derry. Three marchers mistakenly enter the Guildhall to escape from the smoke and tear gas of the English. Right from the beginning, we are told that all three are going to be shot dead; in fact, the play alternates between the protagonists’ dialogue among themselves, a tragi-farcical judicial investigation into the “shooting”, as well as an off-stage American sociologist pontificating about the working class. It would be easy for politics to overwhelm the play, to turn it into little more than an anti-colonial polemic. Friel escapes that because of his acute sensibility: Lily’s thoughts at the moment of her death, for instance, are painfully, viscerally human, irreducible to any form of politics:

“The moment we stepped outside the front door I knew I was going to die, instinctively, the way an animal knows. Jesus, they’re going to murder me. A second of panic – no more. Because it was succeeded, overtaken, overwhelmed by a tidal wave of regret, not for myself nor my family, but that life had somehow eluded me. And now it was finished; it had all seeped away; and I had never experienced it. And in the silence before my body disintegrated in a purple convulsion, I thought I glimpsed a tiny truth: that life had eluded me because never once in my forty-three years had an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening been isolated, and assessed, and articulated. And the fact that this, my last experience, was defined by this perception, this was the culmination of sorrow. In a way I died of grief.”

Living Quarters and Aristocrats are about the disintegration of family: the first through an extramarital affair, and the second through inevitable exile. Living Quarters, in particular, uses an interesting device. It has what seems to be an omniscient figure, only known as “Sir”, who opens the play by informing us that all the characters have gathered to relive a fateful evening, and to try and understand what happened. Through the play, it becomes clear that the characters are not only trying to understand, but trying to escape, to change the course of events. Their attempts are futile, giving them an (almost) grotesque appearance of keenly self-aware, self-regarding, regretful marionettes.

Faith Healer is considered to be one of Friel’s strongest works, although I found it to be the least powerful of the collection. Friel’s special device here is to write a four-act play, each act of which is effectively a monologue by one of the three protagonists of the play (the ‘Faith Healer’, his wife, and his manager). As the three of them go over the same tragic events, Friel gives us a compressed and immensely powerful demonstration of how neither memory nor facts are stable, how everything is subject to interpretation, how there are three sides to every truth.

My own favourite, however, was the last play: TranslationsTranslations is set in 1833 in County Donegal, Ireland, around the very real events of the Ordnance Survey – an attempt by the English to draw up a map of Ireland, and in doing so, replace all the local, Irish names with their English variants. As Druim Dubh becomes Dromduff, and Poll na gCaorach becomes Poolkerry, tensions begin to rise, especially as one of the members of the community acts as a go-between, informing the soldiers and the surveyors about the Irish names, and suggesting their anglicisation. And matters are further complicated when an Irishwoman and an English soldier begin to fall in love, with their languages a desperate, almost insurmountable barrier between them. From Philadelphia, Here I Come!, we have turned a half circle: there, communication ceased because words could no more be found; here, all the words in the world will not help, since they come from different universes. And the tragically inadequate, unfinished relationship between words and the world is at the heart of this play: the abortive relationship between the lovers is mirrored by the fear of the death of the Irish language with the great renaming, and the consequent death of Ireland itself. As Hugh, the schoolmaster says:

But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.”

And yet, soon after that, he contradicts – and corrects – himself:

“James thinks he knows too. I look at James and three thoughts occur to me: A – that is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language. James has ceased to make that discrimination. .. B – we must never cease renewing those images; because once we do, we fossilize.”

And realising as he does so, the limits of it all:

“I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar. But will that help you to interpret between privacies? I have no idea. But it’s all we have. I have no idea at all.”

And, as in the case of language itself, Friel leaves the play unfinished, ambiguous, unresolved. Perhaps it is the last few words of the play that best sum up Friel’s work itself, in its refusal to embrace easy certainties:

“Maire: Master, what does the English word ‘always’ mean?

Hugh: Semper – per omnia saecula. The Greeks called it ‘aei’. It’s not a word I’d start with. It’s a silly word, girl.”

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