By the summer of 1892, the people of the West of Ireland must have been heartily tired of being poked, prodded, measured and photographed. As early as 1870, John Beddoe had travelled around Ireland, looking at hair, and “subtracting the red hair from the dark hair plus twice the black hair” to come up with his Index of Nigrescence”. In the years that followed, a trail of pioneering ethnographers followed in his wake, including Professor A. C. Haddon, who arrived on the Aran Islands in 1892 armed with the latest equipment for measuring skulls: an anthropometer, two craniometers and a camera.
The image of an English ethnographer measuring Irish skulls forms the basis of Brian Friels latest play, The Home Place . The idea has been with Friel for some time now. More than a decade ago there were rumours that he was working on a play about Victorian racialists who believed that physical characteristics were the visible signs of moral and intellectual differences. Watching The Home Place (which marks a triumphant return to form after Friels disappointing Performances last year) it is easy to see why he would be fascinated by this pseudo-science. Several reviews have called the play Chekhovian, but this misses the point: The Home Place is the mature work of a major writer who has, yet again, found an intrinsically theatrical language (which draws only partly on Chekhov) for interests that have been remarkably consistent for more than forty years.
Friels major plays all grapple with a concern that is simultaneously philosophical and theatrical: the fundamental solitude of human beings, the gulf between the way in which we appear to others and the life of the mind. His first major success with Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) opened up this territory with a simple theatrical device: he split his central character in two, so while the taciturn young Gar ODonnell tries awkwardly to talk to his father, his private self gambols in vigorous solitude beside him. Later, in Faith Healer (1979), three characters tell the same story in ways that overlap, but never quite add up to a single reality, while with Translations (1980) the gulf of incomprehension between English Ordnance Survey cartographers and the Irish speaking inhabitants of Donegal in the 1830s clarified the political dimensions of the problem. “I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar”, says the schoolteacher, Hugh, in that play. “But will that help you to interpret between privacies?” Christopher Gore, the central character in The Home Place, puts it more simply: “We dont share a language”.
In this respect, The Home Place is something of a companion piece to Translations . Set in 1878, the year before the Land League was founded, the action takes place over a long summers day in a country house in the fictional village of Ballybeg, the setting for most of Friels plays. A country house poised for destruction, its walled garden in ruins, its trees, planted a century before, in need of felling: the comparisons with Chekhov are obvious. However, the situation more closely echoes Friels own Translations than The Cherry Orchard . In Translations, the attempt to map the Irish countryside triggers the cataclysm that will destroy a traditional Irish-speaking community. In The Home Place, the efforts of the local landlords English cousin to measure the skulls of the local “specimens” mark the beginning of the end for a Donegal country house which has been home to generations of the Gore family (who nonetheless continue to refer to the family seat in Kent as “the home place”). Woven around this scenario are a medley of themes that have never been far from Friels work: memory, exile, language, the transcendent power of music - and confusion.
In The Home Place, the English racialist Dr Richard Gore (Nick Dunning) has absolute certainty about his beliefs - ironically so, given that his own social class is on the brink of the extinction that he prophesies for lesser breeds. Equally certain of his purpose is the Irish Land League organizer, Con Doherty, in a firmly understated performance by Adam Fergus. Tom between these certainties is the landlord, Christopher Gore, played by Tom Courtenay in a mesmerizing performance that will set the standard for all future productions of this play. Courtenay constantly gives the impression of being off-balance, his glance landing just off-centre, his legs ready to buckle, at moments throwing out his arms like a falling tightrope-walker, as if the stage had just shifted beneath him. It is masterful physical acting, and all the more so for not unsettling what is essentially an ensemble piece, particularly in the scenes with his housekeeper, Margaret, whom Derbhle Crotty invests with a majestic stillness. Indeed, the director, Adrian Noble, makes the best of a fine cast, with Barry McGovem turning in a richly detailed cameo as Margarets father, and Pat Kinevane having wry fun with the role of Richard Gores robotic manservant, Perkins.
Brian Friel is now in his seventy-fifth year. In The Home P lace, we see a writer who has crafted a world whose political and philosophical concerns go to the heart of the theatrical experience, and whose elements he is now free to unravel and weave together again in new combinations from threads that extend back over four decades. It is time we stopped calling this particular theatrical world Chekhovian and gave it its proper name: Frielian.