Barbarism And Other Heresies In These Places

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It must be owned that poor old Brian Friel, the Irish playwright who passed away just over a year ago, wrote some marvellous lines. Not quite so many, perhaps, as the Irish would like to believe he did, but then we’ve never been the best judges of this kind of thing, whatever the tourist brochures might say.

The sad occasion of the great man’s passing excited much comment in his native country, but strangely, not so much elsewhere. Where was the obituary in Arts and Letters Daily? They measure things differently over there. It had, after all, been an impressive 24 years since Friel’s last original big hit.

Personally, I think there’s a great deal to recommend plays like ‘Making History,’ ‘Freedom of the City’ and ‘Aristocrats,’ not so much as kinetic dramas perhaps, but as solid and weighty and impressively thought out and occasionally very moving texts. They are among those plays where Friel was most explicitly concerned with themes of history and politics, and this has always tended to render them into minority pursuits.

It’s only become cool to write about politics since the invasion of Iraq, and even then, the conventional wisdom has it that people will at best attend such things grudgingly.

When it comes to writing about Irish history, Ireland’s Cultural Cosa Nostra are deeply leery of anything that might sniff of coming from a nationalist perspective. Friel could do it only because he was so much bigger and older than the Cosa Nostra; later writers find it very difficult indeed to gain an airing.

History which appeals to some sentimental notion the greying bits of Irish America still hold about Ireland is far more likely to sell, and this accounts for a lot of the success of ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ in the early 90’s. I still feel it’s possibly Friel’s most overrated play, a step backward where texts like ‘Faith Healer’ and ‘Translations’ were carefully pondered leaps into an occasionally terrifying unknown.

In fairness to Friel himself however, I doubt commercial calculations about ageing Irish America even entered his head when writing the play. Dancing at Lughnasa’s main themes continue to revolve around history, memory and the mad making inadequacy of language – that tool he had worked with all his life – to express what is really inside the human heart.

It often seems that any truth has a paradox dwelling in its centre, like a black hole in the middle of a galaxy. The relentless interrogation of the properties of language was both part of Friel’s claim to greatness and arguably his most frustrating quality.

I read once that the great Cuban chess grandmaster, Capablanca, bored with games where he kept winning with pretty much the same moves, once called for the enhancement of chess by adding extra pieces and squares to the board. This was back in the 1920’s, and yet other masters came up with ingenious new tactical wrinkles, and in due course dethroned Capablanca.

To put it crudely, the preoccupation with language and all its faults could sometimes make Friel forget about the drama. ‘Faith Healer’ contains some of the most haunting and spectacular language you’re ever likely to read anywhere. It has attracted the talents of no less a figure than Ralph Fiennes, yet I still can’t understand why it’s a play, rather than, say, a brilliantly written short story or novella.

My favourite Friel play is probably ‘Translations’ (it’s also his most quoted), that haunting, relatively short and desperately sad drama set at a pivotal point in Irish history, when the British Army had begun the process of translating every single place name in the Irish language (and there were a lot of them) into ungainly English facsimiles. They were literally annihilating an entire culture through supposedly peaceful assimilation, and someone of Friel’s background and interests couldn’t help but see this as a key moment in terms of designing the future maladies of the Irish State and culture.

‘Translations’ contains one of the cleverest and most poignant love scenes ever written by any dramatist. The peasant girl, Maire, falls in love with an English officer named Yolland. The two break away by themselves and attempt to have a conversation even though neither can speak the other’s language: ‘say anything, I love to hear you speak.’ It is Friel at his deceptively simple best, though now that I think of it, maybe he was on to even more than critics suspected at the time: imagine how many romantic relationships might be enhanced and prolonged by the continued inability to understand what the other person is actually saying.

The play’s most tragic figure is the hedge school master and classical scholar, Hugh O’ Donnell (presumably a descendant of Ulster Kings) whom, if he had born in any country other than Ireland, would have occupied some illustrious chair in some impossibly venerable European University. Instead, he spends his days drinking and obsessing about soda bread to a dwindling band of peasant scholars.

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It is Hugh who utters what I consider Friel’s most quotable line, at least in the sense that I have quoted it too often for comfort. The only problem, of course, is that the line isn’t actually Friel’s, but Ovid’s.

“Barbarus ego sum quia non intelligar ulles.” As translated in the play, it says “I am a barbarian in this place because I am not understood by anybody.”

Were truer words ever spoke?

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