Should you be passing through the depths of the Irish countryside, you may well run into people who will jerk a thumb at some venerable ruin and say it’s the work of Elizabeth I or Oliver Cromwell, as though these English vandals had struck only the other week. However, if you confine your Irish experience to theatre-going, you will rarely find a play in which the dead and the living similarly rub shoulders.
That they do so a little more nowadays is largely thanks to the master dramatist, Brian Friel, who died last week aged 86, and who redefined the form of Irish playwriting no less than Beckett. The two are complementary: in life, Beckett followed the standard pattern of Irish playwrights, by getting out and beating the British and French on their own soil. Friel disdained the escape route and achieved universality by staying put. Thus, Beckett’s dramatic territory is anywhere on earth, while Friel’s remained his childhood holiday home in Donegal, renamed Ballybeg (meaning “small town”), which has turned out to be a home to all the world. He expanded this patch of land by mining it. Increasingly as time went by, his people came to inhabit a fragile, present-tense shell, while beneath them and sometimes striking through it, lurk the still commanding spirits of the Irish past—Victorian colonialists, the fleeing aristocratic “Wild Geese”, down to Ireland’s pre-Christian gods who cause women to dance.
One obvious claim for Friel is that he took the rant out of Irish drama. His material is often traditional, but the tone is that of someone who knows that material to be inflammable. Like Shaw he was a writer who always knew the other side of the argument. His themes and craftsmanship turn on dualisms, beginning with his first international hit, “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” (1964), which features a divided hero played by two actors. Later plays feature family and political dualisms, with commitment and violence always held at arm’s length through irony and debate until, finally goaded by the atrocity of Bloody Sunday in 1972, he wrote his first directly political play, “The Freedom of the City”. The “Irish Chekhov”, as he was known by then, never again ventured so close to the fire; but thereafter, it was always burning in the background. And in plays like “Volunteers” and “Faith Healer”, he devised a form of action consisting of a stay of execution for characters who know they will be killed as the curtain falls. Additionally, by presenting the protagonist of “The Faith Healer” as a metaphor for the artist who never knows whether his gift is going to work, Friel was including himself in the circle of danger.
Words, the clash of different registers, the fact that the powerful and the impoverished have different voices, were too important to Friel for authorial rant ever to be an option. The clearest demonstration of that appears in his 1981 masterpiece, “Translations”, a colonial study of the 1830s when a military exercise of mapping the uncharted Irish countryside leads to evictions, slaughter of cattle, and the destruction of the very place the redcoats have come to put on the map. None of these brutalities appears in the play, which remains focused on words—Latin and Greek words spoken by penniless hedge-school students, or the misunderstandings in a love scene between an English soldier and an Irish girl. Or the certainty that when the British translator renders the village of Bun na hAbhann as “Burnfoot” the place is doomed.