The author of Ireland's fifth province


Ireland’s two most famous theatres are currently staging revivals of plays by Brian Friel. But the context of these productions could not be more different from the landmark event that was the original ‘Translations’ in Derry in 1980

THE STAGING of two radically different Brian Friel plays in Dublin this week showcases the diversity of one of Ireland’s greatest playwrights. The premiere of Brian Friel’s play Translationsin September 1980 was probably the most significant event in Irish theatre history since the foundation of the Abbey Theatre in 1904. Produced in a makeshift theatre in the imposing colonial garrison of the Guildhall in Derry city, the production unfolded against the backdrop of severe civil and political unrest in Northern Ireland. Critics travelling across the Border from the Republic for the occasion had their cars searched by British soldiers as they made their way to the theatre. For an audience watching Friel’s play, the fictional staging of Ireland’s cultural colonisation in 1833 had a more immediate resonance. They were living through the legacy of the translations and transitions documented by the play: a bloody civil war. The premiere of Translationswas not just a theatrical event but a symbolic act of cultural, even political, importance.

Friel was aware of the potential political ramifications of his play. Indeed, he had written Translationsas a direct response to the crisis in Northern Ireland. Having been brought up and educated in Derry, Friel was one of Northern Ireland’s Catholic refugees, moving over the Border to Co Donegal in the early 1960s, just before The Troubles intensified with the civil-rights demonstrations in 1968 and 1969.

He had written about the conflict directly in his 1973 play The Freedom of the City, which follows three protesters who find themselves trapped inside the Guildhall after one such demonstration turns from a peaceful parade into a violent riot. It was during the London premiere of The Freedom of the Citythat Friel met the Belfast actor Stephen Rea, who had been working in London for several years. Together they discussed the possibility of collaborating on a piece of theatre that might suggest an alternative way of approaching the political crisis in Northern Ireland.

They believed that in the theatre they might find an imaginative space where all cultural traditions on the island of Ireland – Protestant, Catholic, unionist or nationalist – might be accommodated. This idea called to mind the rhetoric of the Abbey Theatre’s original intention to create a theatre that would be “outside of all the political questions that divide us”. Richard Kearney, one of the thinkers later associated with the Friel-Rea enterprise, called the imaginative space they were seeking “the fifth province” of Ireland.

The 1980 production of Translationswas the first project of Field Day Theatre Company, which Friel and Rea founded in order to fulfil their shared ambition. They chose to stage the play in Derry precisely because of its central position in the ongoing civil conflict. In the divided city the play’s tensions between the English colonisers and the Irish villagers had a powerful relevance, but the central love story between one of the soldiers and one of the village girls struck an important note of optimism for reconciliation.

For Friel and Rea it was also vital that the play reach as broad an audience in Northern Ireland as possible. Translationswas a play about and for the people of the North. After the initial Derry run the production toured throughout the six counties, playing in parish halls and bingo centres when towns were too small to have their own theatres. They toured throughout the Republic too, and eventually internationally, raising consciousness of the profound effect the political and social problems in Northern Ireland were having on its people.

There was an integrity to what Field Day was trying to achieve with Translations, and this was acknowledged by the enormous attention it received. It was a good-news story in the midst of bulletins about paramilitary violence and hunger strikes. Mary McAleese, in an earlier, windswept incarnation as a journalist, reported on the production live from the Guildhall for RTÉ. But the event also had the glamour of international celebrity. Liam Neeson, who played the character Doalty, had begun to make a reputation as a film actor, and his girlfriend at the time, Helen Mirren, flew into town to see him perform.

Improbably, against a bleak climate of mass unemployment, economic recession and civil war, the theatre had become a site of national importance. A play had once again become the vehicle for reimagining Ireland’s identity, just as it had when Yeats and Gregory opened the Abbey in 1904 with the call to arms that was Cathleen Ní Houlihan.

The reaction to Translationswas largely positive from audience members of all political persuasions. Although the play’s central narrative theme, the decimation of the Irish language, might have been interpreted as a nostalgic nationalist lament for the cultural purity of pre-colonial Ireland, the key speech at the end of the play by the headmaster, Hugh, leaves the audience with a more measured resonance. Hugh proclaims that “it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language . . . We must never cease renewing those images, because once we do, we fossilise.”

Hugh’s words are a call against rigid definitions of national identity. It is these inflexible delineations of cultural difference, he believes, that have fostered sectarian strife.

Over the next few years, however, as Field Day began to combine theatrical enterprises with more overt political publications, the company’s political objectivity came under scrutiny. Critics did not question the cultural inclusivity of its endeavours – there were Protestants and Catholics on its prestigious board of directors (Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin and Seamus Deane among them), and the writers associated with Field Day (Stewart Parker, Thomas Kilroy) came from both religious traditions – but it was widely felt that there was an encoded nationalist bias to its voluminous output. Gradually the attention granted to Field Day’s artistic enterprises began to pale in comparison with that given to the political debates in which it was embroiled. Although Friel had continued to write original plays for the company, his involvement in it began to wane, and in 1990 he decided to submit his new play, Dancing at Lughnasa, to the Abbey Theatre for production.

Dancing at Lughnasawas to mark the beginning of a new phase in Friel’s work, in which he turned away from politics to explore more personal territory and history ( Lughnasais arguably one of Friel’s most autobiographical plays, and is dedicated to the memory of his aunts). This change in direction resulted in an enormous leap in his international reputation. When Lughnasatravelled to Broadway in 1992 it was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning three, and in 1996 it was given the Hollywood treatment in a film version starring Meryl Streep.

This success in the US must have been a huge relief for Friel, whose earlier work had received mixed attention when it travelled there. In particular, there would have been the memory of the failure of his play Faith Healer, which had premiered on Broadway in 1979 with James Mason in the starring role, but had closed after just 20 performances.

Perhaps Friel was thinking of Faith Healerwhen he began to write Molly Sweeneyin 1994, the same year he officially resigned from Field Day. Molly Sweeneyis Friel’s only other monologue play, and its structure recalls the interweaving confessions of Faith Healer. In many ways, however, Molly Sweeneyis a less complex play, depending on a more open form of storytelling than the contradictory truths offered by Faith Healer.

The story, however, is just as compelling, anatomising the relationship between the eponymous blind heroine, her husband and her doctor, as she is given the chance to regain her sight after a lifetime of blindness. It premiered at the Gate Theatre in late 1994, before transferring to the West End and finally to Broadway in 1996, where it was embraced by American audiences and critics, and won several awards, including a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best foreign play.

For Friel, who spent six months in 1963 at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and whose first play, Philadelphia, Here I Come!(1964), had looked to the US as a “vast restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past”, albeit somewhat ambiguously, there was a sense of career finally come full circle. The revivals of Translationsand Molly Sweeneythat open this week, at the Abbey Theatre and the Gate theatres respectively, give Irish audiences a chance to see his work at its finest and most diverse.

Molly Sweeneyopens at the Gate Theatre tonight and runs until July 23rd. Translationsopens at the Abbey Theatre tomorrow and runs until August 13th