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Analyze the role of history in Friel's drama with special emphasis on "Translations" and "Making History"

Analyze the role of history in Friel's drama with special emphasis on "Translations" and "Making History"

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Elizabeth Mc Kenna. Originally submitted for Single Subject Major English at None, with lecturer Professor Anthony Roche in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Elizabeth Mc Kenna. Originally submitted for Single Subject Major English at None, with lecturer Professor Anthony Roche in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
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Analyse the role of history in Friel‟s drama with special emphasis on Making History and Translations.

Brian Friel‟s interest is not so much in chronicling the literal past of history, but in examining its mythology (Andrews 168). As the old hedge school master, Hugh, says: “it is not the literal past, the “facts” of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language”(Friel 445). It is these images of the past Friel wishes to explore and explode. In Translations the playwright takes a wry look at Hugh‟s romantic account of heroic young men going off to fight for freedom, when they return home after travelling twenty-miles. Historical and cultural certitudes are challenged too; Manus is presented as a loser because he refuses to have anything to do with England. While Friel is conscience of the necessity of myth and story to sustain a people, he is also mindful of the need to constantly re-examine the story. He is acutely aware of the distortions and fictionalisation of history, and how language can be used by chroniclers, politicians and historians, to create a partisan myth. History is, according to the dramatist, created in two ways, firstly by the military and political leaders of society, and secondly, by the historians, writers and interpreters. In Friel‟s view there is no such thing as History, only histories, and he wishes to present versions, „translations‟, and interpretations of events. Like Archbishop Lombard, the playwright “doesn‟t believe that a period of history…contains within it one „true‟ interpretation…it may contain within it several possible narratives”(Friel 267).

Translations is the social and cultural history of a small village in Donegal, Ireland, in the 1830s. The village is a microcosm of the country which suffered from the effects of emigration, famine and British colonial rule; it represents the disintegration of a community. Transcending national boundaries, the play compares the decline of the Irish civilisation to


the collapse of Rome, Greece and Cartage (Peacock 120-121). The drama describes the arrival of two agents of the British state in Ireland, a new state-run educational system, where attendance at school will be compulsory, “every child from every house has to go all day, summer or winter. That‟s the law” (Friel, 395), and teaching will be through the medium of English, replacing the Irish used by Hugh O‟Donnell in the community run hedge-school, and thus leading to the loss of the native language. The Officers of the Royal Engineers, who are also soldiers, have come to chart the area, and to standardize and anglicise place names, as part of the Ordinance Survey of Ireland. These representatives of the British government, according to Friel, lead to the decline of the Irish language, and culture, in nineteenth century Ireland.

According to Sean Connolly, Friel takes many liberties in his version of the decline of the Irish language, and culture in Translations. Claiming that the play is a misrepresentation of Irish history, Connolly says there was a drop in numbers speaking the native language since the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and more especially in the early nineteenth century, due to the development of a more commercial society with an increasing awareness of the usefulness of „English‟ in the world of economics. The Famine of 1845-1851 further reduced the proportion of the population with knowledge of the native culture. Connolly further claims, that rather than replacing the existing school system, the British appointed Commissions of National Educational offered support to the scheme already in place, and that English was, by then, recognised as the language of progress, political agitation, and the Catholic Hierarchy, and thus, the preferred medium of education in many hedge schools. Historians also disagree with Friel‟s representation of a peasant class well versed in the classics, claiming that knowledge of Latin and Greek was acquired only by young men training for the priesthood. Furthermore, Connolly maintains Friel presents a “hostile 2

caricature”(Connolly 152) of the men who came to map the country. Unlike Captain Laney, the men of the Royal Engineers, who carried out the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland, consulted with the best Irish scholars of the day when renaming places (Connolly 152). However, it has been suggested “that Translations should be read, not as a recreation of a real moment in Irish history, but, as a distillation of elements that have run through the experience of several centuries” (Connolly 153). Thus, Captain Laney stands not for a soldier of the 1830s, but for a tradition of British military history in Ireland dating as far back as the sixteenth century, and still present in Northern Ireland.

Friel uses “history [as] a frame for individual stories” (Andrews, 172). Manus encourages Sarah, who “has been considered locally to be dumb” (Friel 385) to say her name. Her effort to find language is linked to the struggle for power, she briefly finds her voice, but on the arrival of Captain Lancey, soon falls back into silence and becomes “more waif like than ever”(Friel 430), thus she is silenced by the imperial power. The historical year 1789 has different meanings for different people, Yolland associates it with the fall of the Bastille, Hugh and Jimmy remember “Going into battle… [marching to the]… Glenties”(Friel 445), and feeling homesick in Phelan‟s pub. The final scene of the play will be recalled by some for the burning of the English camp, by others as the day they joined the freedom fighters, and by still others, as the day on which Nellie Ruadh‟s baby was buried.

The playwright uses the love scene between Yolland and Maire, to represent a breaking of cultural barriers. When alone, the lover‟s speech dissolves into pure sound and rhythm. Reciting Irish-place names creates an exhilaration that brings them close together, their speech and actions deny the existence of any division or border between them, thus mocking 3

the idea of insuperable barriers created by history and tradition. The „other‟ is now seen as attractive, rather than something to be feared. Maire recites the place names of Yolland‟s Norfolk, and thinks they are “nice sounds” (Friel, 438) even if a bit strange. (Andrews 171172).

Through Maire, the dramatist looks at the role of traditional historical attitudes and values, and examines the ways in which the Irish, by their fatalistic resignation, have colluded in their own victimisation. According to her, the people are constantly complaining, expecting the worst, and sensing the sweet smell of rotting potatoes; their actions and attitudes always determined by a sense of doom “Sweet smell! Sweet smell! Every year at this time somebody comes back with stories of the sweet smell. Sweet God, did the potatoes ever fail in Ballybeg?”(Friel 395). The young woman is the spokesperson for modernisation; she wishes to cast off the old traditional values. While Gaelic is Hugh‟s response to “mud cabins and a diet of potatoes”( Friel 418), for Maire, the more practical riposte is to learn English, thus improving her prospects when she goes to America. By entering into a relationship with Yolland, the outsider, she shows her willingness to break family and community ties, and refuses to be bound by the limits of history and custom.

History must be constantly subjected to review and critique, “We must never cease renewing …images [of the past] because once we do, we fossilize”(Friel 445), and though his focus is mostly on the past, Hugh recognises “that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of…fact” (Friel 419). Recognising that tradition can only survive through translation, Hugh is willing “to learn those new names… [to] make them our new home” (Friel 444). Seeking to adapt to history he rejects the word „always‟, saying “It‟s a silly word” (446). While willing to accept the English tongue, the 4

teacher retains a strong sense of the past, and a concern for preserving the classical languages of Greece and Rome. Though he says, “To remember everything is a form of madness”(Friel 445) the school master appears to recommend “ a selective remembrance, one which allows for new versions of the past to emerge”(Andrews 178), there ought be no fixed dogma “confusion is not a an ignoble condition”(Friel 446). Unlike Hugh, Jimmy Jack fails to change, and having become fossilized can only escape into a romantic fantasy, and Manus, by his intransigence, lost his girlfriend, job and home.

The history of women in Ireland is reflected in Friel‟s, Translations. The play‟s main theme, the supplanting of the Irish language by English is presented as a clash between men. The hedge school is run by Hugh and Manus, and they, along with Jimmy Jack are the masters of Greek and Latin. Captain Lancey commands the “general triangulation which will embrace detailed hydrographic and topographic information”(Friel 406), and Yolland‟s “task is to see that the place-names on this map are…correct…standardized…[and] where there‟s ambiguity, be…Anglicized(Friel407-408). Neither Sarah nor Maire teach in the school nor have they knowledge of the classics. However, it‟s Maire‟s sexual transgression, which provokes violence at the end of the play. By kissing Yolland at the dance, Maire stepped outside the boundaries of accepted behaviour, and when Sarah reports the act, violence erupts in Baile Beag. Thus “the community rises up to assert control over the sexual life of its symbolic property” (Onkey 162-163).

In Making History, the author treats of a significant point in Irish history, just as he did in Translations. The play deals with Hugh O‟Neill‟s attempt to prevent the overthrow of Gaelic Ireland by the English crown in the sixteenth century. Spanish forces arrive from CounterReformation Europe to support O‟Neill, who is seen as a champion of the Catholic cause in 5

the battle against Protestantism being waged on the continent. While O‟Neill is the historical leader who goes to battle in Kinsale, for his patriotic exploits to be understood, an account must be committed to paper. Peter Lombard, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh undertakes to write a hagiographic of the patriot, arguing that history can never be more than a version of the past, and claiming that Ireland on “the brink of extension…is in need of a heroic literature”(Friel 334). O‟Neill, exiled in Rome, wishes the truth of his existence to be recorded, and is unsettled by his biographers varnished account of a sometimes unedifying life. However, drunken, broken and in penury he capitulates to the wishes of the wily Archbishop who wants to write a story which will reflect “the spirit of the Counter Reformation and…an emergent Irish nationalism,” (Connolly 10). Attainment is thus articulated by the chronicler rather than a truthful narrative (O‟Brien 117).

As well as highlighting the disparity between the history been made by the political and military leader on the field of combat, and the historians partisan version of events, Friel further illustrates the traditional link between republicanism and the catholic Church in Ireland. Lombard, the „maker of history‟ and the „myth-maker‟ is a cleric, who has earlier written on the lives of Irish saints, and now in recounting the life of O‟Neill he attempts to canonize him too. Lombard‟s History, is written in Biblical language, “It was foretold by prophets…that there would come one like him/A man, glorious, pure, faithful above all….He will be a God-like prince/and he will be king for the span of his life”(Friel 339), thus the protagonist is identified with Christ.

Making History, in keeping with Friel‟s view that there are many versions of the past, presents three personifications of Ireland in the persons of O‟Neill, Earl of Tyrone, English educated, but with Irish blood in his veins, Lombard, the Archbishop of Armagh and Church 6

diplomat, and Hugh O‟Donnell Earl of Tyrconnell, a young, impulsive and undisciplined man. However, rather than offering a new analysis of history in his play, the dramatist relied heavily for his material, on Sean O‟Faolain‟s book, The Great O’Neill, first published in 1942. The author conceded in the programme notes to Making History, that the play “uses some actual and some imagined events in the life of Hugh O‟Neill to make a story,…where there was tension between historical „fact‟ and the imperative of the fiction,…I kept faith with the narrative”(Connolly 159). According to the history books, Hugh O‟Neill was born in the 1550s, became, with the support from the Dublin government, a powerful figure in Ulster. In 1591 he married his third wife, Mabel Bagnel, sister of the Queen‟s Marshall. The head of a powerful clan in Ulster, O‟Neill was a pragmatic leader, who managed to keep the loyalty of his Gaelic people while retaining the support of the English government. However, in 1595 due to pressure from other Gaelic lords, and with military aid from Europe, O‟Neill went into open rebellion. Beaten at Kinsale in 1601, he surrendered to the English government in 1603, departed Ireland in 1607, and died in Rome in 1616.

Friel takes liberties with the recorded facts. The play opens with O‟Neills‟s marriage to Mabel Baegnal in August 1591, in scene two we are told “Almost a year has passed”(Friel 272), and O‟Neill learns from Lombard that Spain has kept its promise of help, and thus emboldened, the Earl of Tyrone decides to risk open rebellion against the British Crown. Then, “about eight months later…[he]…is on his knees…at the edge of a thicket somewhere near the Sperrin mountains”(Friel 303), holding out following a crushing defeat at Kinsale. Thus, the playwright has reduced the ten years of Irish history from 1591 to 1601, into less than two years. Connolly says, “Friel may have chosen to confuse the picture…to advertise, even more clearly his liberation from the constraints of the historical record…perhaps, to reinforce the play‟s satirical treatment of the pretensions of history”(Connolly 160). 7

In Making History, Hugh O‟Neill personifies an Ireland, which is rash, lacking discipline and divided, O‟Donnell is “impulsive, enthusiastic, and generous”(Friel 254), an unpretentious, passionate patriot. While he is a faithful and loyal follower of the leader, he does not understand the guile and craftiness of O‟Neill, and only sees things as good and bad, black and white. Tony Corbett claims Friel uses O‟Donnell‟s antics to highlight the “simpler attitudes which surround” (Corbett 11) O‟Neill. In the opening scene, O‟Donnell‟s conversation flips from one subject to the next, while Lombard is delivering a resume of his Commentarius, a thesis on the Irish political situation, and discussing the forthcoming Counter-Reformation in Europe with O‟Neill, O‟Donnell interrupts to report on the repair work done on his mother‟s floor, with wood salvaged from the wreck of the Spanish Armada, as well as complaining about the “shit O‟Dohery up in Inishowen…[who] is stealing…sheep and shipping them off to France”(Friel 258). By introducing these cross-purpose conversations Friel is offering two concurrent views of history “the partisan historian‟s view, which imposes patter and purpose on events, and the equally partisan view of the participant, who…cannot see the big picture at all”(Corbett 11). The chronicling of events is further explored, when O‟Neill questions Lombard on his history making: O‟Neill: And when your checking is done! Lombard: Then I suppose I‟ll try to arrange the material into a shape, eventually. O‟Neill: And interpret what you‟ve gathered? Lombard: Not interpret, Hugh. Just describe. O‟Neill: Without comment?... Lombard: I‟m no historian, Hugh. I‟m not even sure I know what the historian‟s function isnot to talk of his method (Friel 257).


Freedom of the City, like Making History explores how history can be distorted and fabricated by the language of the politicians, the myth-makers, and men in power. The subject of this play is events in Derry on Bloody Sunday, 1972, when British soldiers shot dead thirteen innocent citizens during a banned civil rights march. Friel‟s drama is set in 1970, and concerns three marchers, who blinded by British army CS gas, make their way into Derry‟s Guildhall, and are eventually shot dead. The play examines the way in which the actual experiences of the marchers were distorted by the records of the event, and “interrogates the process by which ideology transforms „brute fact‟ into myth”(Gleitman 228), and demonstrates how even as history was being made on the street, it was being distorted. The nationalist community declared the dead marchers heroic patriots, who like “Pearse and Connolly”(Friel 118) had died for Ireland, while official reports described them as “a group of about fifty armed gunmen”(Friel 117). Meanwhile, the truth of what happened to innocent citizens who lost their lives is never reported. The play further explores how the Widgery Tribunal, set up to investigate the truth of what happened during the massacre, offered a whitewash, a fiction which was accepted by the \British public. Friel once again takes liberties with the facts of history, setting the play in 1970, and refusing to adhere to known facts, he thus “suggest the impossibility of accessing „actual‟ history except as it is filtered through subjective and often self-serving interpreters” (Gleitman 228), and again suggesting that the truth of events is of little matter to the reporters and recorders, their concern is with how facts can be exploited to create the story.

Friel constantly reminds us of the relative truth of chronicles. There is “no absolute truth, no history which is entirely objective, and no ideologically free zone”(Andrews 203). To Hugh O‟Donnell, Henry Baegenal, the Queen‟s Marshal and O‟Neill‟s brother-in-law, is “the Butcher Baegnal”(Friel 264), while Mabel Baegnal informs her husband, that O‟Donnell is 9

known as “the Butcher O‟Donnell”(Friel 269), to her brother. For the playwright history is a construct, a product, it is made, and the language of its makers, not only reflects, but also represents reality, thus for Friel, language is “the manipulator of history”(Pine 211). The first duty of the chronicler is according to Lombard “to write the kind of story which will help shape…people‟s destiny in a desirable way”(Andrews 203), and often, since there isn‟t time for critical assessment the historian simply serves the cultural and political needs of the society in which he lives, offering a “narrative that has the elements of myth”(Friel 334). Friel links his study of history with the destiny of individuals, and considers the psychological impact of momentous events on the lives of the people it impacts; he also exposes the myths and traditions which imprison people in the past and calls for a new „translation‟.


Bibliography: Andrews, Elmer. The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Reality Nor Dreams. London: St.Martin‟s Press, 1995. Connolly, Sean. “Translating History: Brian Friel and the Irish Past.” The Achievement of Brian Friel. Ed. Alan J. Peacock. Gerards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1993. 149-163. Corbett, Tony. Brian Friel: Decoding the Language of the Tribe. Dublin: Liffey Press, 2002 Coult, Tony. About Friel: The Playwright and the Work. London: Faber and Faber, 2003. Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel:A Study. London: Faber and Faber, 1988. Gleitman, Claire. “Negotiating History, Negotiating Myth: Friel Among his contempories”, Brian Friel: A Casebook.Ed. William Kerwin. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1997. Onkey, Lauren. “The Woman as Nation in Brian Friel‟s Translation.” Brian Friel: A Casebook. Ed. William Kerwin. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1997. O‟Brien, George. Brian Friel. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1989. Pine, Richard. Brian Friel and Ireland’s Drama. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Friel, Brian. Brian Friel: Plays 1. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Friel, Brian. Brian Friel: Plays 2. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.


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