Dramatic field of vision

 

Field Day is remembered more for political issues it raised than for its important contribution to theatre. A BBC documentary aims to redress this, writes Sara Keating.

The premiere production of Brian Friel's play Translations by Field Day Theatre Company in 1980 was a landmark moment in Irish theatre history. Not only was the historical drama - set in colonial Ireland in the 1830s - a masterpiece of theatrical innovation, but its investigation of language, identity and cultural memory set the tone for the major cultural debates that would echo throughout Ireland, North and South, during the ensuing decade of sectarian conflict. Touring throughout the entire island with a new production every year, Field Day was at the centre of this debate and was also responsible for generating much of it.

It is often the public debate which raged around some of the issues that the Field Day project raised - and still surrounds Field Day's legacy in academic circles - that is remembered above their important contribution to Irish theatre. A new BBC Northern Ireland documentary, directed by Johnny Muir, restores theatrical integrity to Field Day, using rare archive footage of many of the original productions to create a compelling picture of Field Day's artistic endeavours during the 1980s and early 1990s.

However, even from the very first production of Translations, contemporary commentary indicated that Field Day was always going to have more than theatrical significance. As one commentator suggested at the time, Translations proved to be "a symbol of how two cultures could meet in peace and throw away their cares in front of the footlights". Another called it "a unique occasion, with loyalists and nationalists, unionists and SDLPs, Northerners and Southerners laying aside their differences to join together in applauding a play by a fellow Derryman."

STEPHEN REA, WHO co-founded the company with Brian Friel in 1980, believes that Field Day's work had resonance outside of a theatrical context because "it was directed at a very broad kind of audience, not just a theatre audience or the theatre ghetto, but into the veins of public opinion. What was unique about it was that it was a theatre of debate or discussion; [we were] looking for a way out when the ceasefire wasn't even a remote possibility."

While Field Day's original goal, Rea asserts, was merely to tour Irish theatre for Irish audiences, as the company grew Field Day did "accrue all sorts of ideological positions. But they were just a matter of voicing things, heightening the language in which things were being debated . . . or asserting that there had to be a language in which things could be debated, because everything was being fought over rather than discussed."

Prominent board member Seamus Deane, who still manages the publishing extension of Field Day, regards the controversy as a grim paradox. "The responses Field Day very often brought out - in their clearest and most malign forms - were the very stock responses that we had been trying to rinse out of the system."

Rea insists that there was nothing dogmatic about the cultural ideas and political ideals that Field Day's board of directors, appointed in early 1981, refined and shaped in their theatrical and publishing projects. Comprising leading artists and intellectuals (Friel, Rea, Deane, Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin and David Hammond), the group of three Protestants and three Catholics represented a symbolic reinforcement of the company's ambition to use culture to heal sectarian divides.

"As Tom [Kilroy - who later became a board member] used to say," Rea remembers, "there were as many positions around the table as there were people." In fact these positions sometimes involved competing visions of Field Day's purposes, culminating in the departure of Friel from the company in 1990 and the gradual dissolution of Field Day's theatrical pursuits. Muir's documentary suggests that Friel's decision to offer Dancing at Lughnasa to the Abbey rather than Field Day marked the beginning of this decline, but there were a variety of other internal differences and external factors - including the changing political climate - that led to Field Day's waning influence.

Even so - and despite a variety of productions as diverse as Friel's translation of The Three Sisters, Athol Fugard's South African play Boesman and Lena, and original work by Stuart Parker - Field Day has become uniquely associated with a particular vision of Irish cultural identity.

Critics have condemned their artistic interventions as proto-nationalist, patriarchal, and an ideological contradiction of their ideal of a cultural identity that would transcend political and religious divides. However, it was in their publishing remit - launched in 1983 with a trio of pamphlets by Deane, Paulin and Heaney - more than their theatrical productions against which most criticism was directed.

One of their strongest critics, the Belfast-based academic Edna Longley, remains vocal in her criticism of Field Day's ideological agenda. "There were two ways in which I began to be unhappy with their project," Longley says. "First, Field Day was putting itself out there as exemplifying something that already existed. Second, Field Day prevented awareness and diversity of an already existent cultural energy, by projecting it in a limited way. And then [they were] purporting to speak for all of Ireland, not just the North. That's not to deny the importance of that articulation, they just didn't exemplify all that they claimed to and they were reluctant to engage with debate."

This criticism of what Longley calls "Field Day's hegemonic ideological interests" came to a head in 1990 when the three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing was completed, without having duly considered the Irish feminist movement, which had had a particular significance on political events in the first 30 years of the 20th century, or women's writing.

Even now, despite the publication of a two-volume appendix edited by women and devoted to women's writing, Longley still criticises what she calls "the problematic ideological direction into which the whole anthologising enterprise was directed, towards a particular version of Irish history and politics".

IN THE FACE of the broader cultural implications of Field Day's activities, Rea remembers that "there was a sense that it was okay for people to write individually, but to suddenly coalesce into a group was threatening. Ideas started coming out with a lot of weight because they'd been forged through discussion, and that was worrying to some people. But it actually took a long time for that opposition to build up, because the energy surrounding the company as we moved through the North and all over Ireland was undeniable." As the company toured throughout the island, plays such as Friel's The Communication Cord, Tom Paulin's version of Antigone and Tom Kilroy's Double Cross packed out school auditoria, parish halls and traditional theatres.

However, one of the criticisms levelled at the theatrical enterprise - despite its success - was that the plays Field Day produced did not openly address the sectarian conflict with which they professed to be engaged.

Deane deflects this criticism, saying that Field Day "sought to create contexts for the local conflict, not by remaining immersed in it, but by discovering from what perspectives it could be viewed that would allow for a more nuanced, fertile reading of it".

Rea agrees. "I don't necessarily think you confront sectarianism by having two Protestants and two Catholics in a room together. The Troubles were bad enough without having plays about it. And I don't really like balaclava plays. They're so embedded in the actual present that you can't really get a dramatic lift-off."

The plays that Field Day produced most successfully, Rea says, approached the foundational issues of cultural identity - that is history, language, religion - on a larger dramatic canvas. However, Rea does not necessarily believe that the ideological agenda the pamphlets set out was the root of the criticism that accompanied the plays. The controversy was, perhaps, more inevitable than that.

"That is the problem about the North. If Brian Friel writes a play about the loss of the Irish language and the re-naming of places, it's said that the nationalists are moaning again. Well, are you supposed to not write the play? In fact I think they were saying 'No, you're not supposed to write the play', even though Hugh [the main character in Translations] says at the end that we have to move on."

In fact Hugh's words are a compelling reminder of Field Day's original interest in using theatre to interrogate the troubled political and cultural landscape of the 1980s. But they also remind us of the dangers of ideological entrenchment which Field Day themselves have had to struggle with in terms of their own cultural and political vision. "It is not the literal past, the 'facts' of history, that shape us," Hugh says, "but images of the past embodied in language . . . we must never cease renewing those images; because once we do, we fossilise."

The Story of Field Day is on BBC1 next Monday (Oct 16) at 10.35pm