Lionel Pilkington, ‘Getting a feel for Friel’, review of Anthony Roche, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel,
in The Irish Times (3 Feb. 2006), Weekend, p.10.

From Skibbereen to Seattle or Surrey to Saskatoon you are almost certain to encounter somewhere the writings of Brian Friel. Whether as a forthcoming play in production, part of a university or secondary school English literature syllabus, or in the drama section of the local bookshop, for the contemporary English-speaking world Friel’s work exercises a formidable cultural appeal.

Friel’s attraction lies in his persuasive accessibility: the neo-naturalistic theatricality with which his writing deals with a widely shared transnational experience, the impact of capitalist modernity on a traditional society. Additionally in Ireland, the sheer extent and prodigiousness of Friel’s writing since the late 1950s - two short story collections, 24 original plays and seven adaptations - comprises a cultural history of the present. It chronicles, that is, some of the effects of Ireland’s transition from a political system based on ideas of economic independence and national unity in the early 1950s to what is now a much- trumpeted orthodoxy: a consumer and profit-oriented export economy based on low tax, down-graded public services, and multinational inward capital investment.

From the beginning, Friel’s work tends to concede - albeit elegaically or sometimes scathingly - the absolute inevitability of this transition. Ireland’s surrender to late capitalist modernity is shown as regrettable (“We are no longer even West Britons", he wrote in 1972, “we are East Americans"), but also as a philosophical and emotional necessity. The young male protagonist in Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) feels compelled to emigrate from Co Donegal not so much for economic reasons but in order to reconcile the public and private parts of himself; at the end of Translations (1980) the audience is left in no doubt as to the necessity of adopting English as Ireland’s vernacular because this is part of the inexorable progress of history and the only escape from retaliatory violence and republican irredentism. And in Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) we are left with the sad incommensurability of modernity and the traditional, broken world of the Mundy sisters.

Characters’ efforts at resistance either are ostentatiously ineffectual or exacerbate their subjection. Moreover, the plays themselves are often written and produced in the teeth of vibrant contemporary political opposition to such changes: one thinks, for example, of Philadelphia, Here I Come! and of the contrasting optimism of Fr James McDyer’s socialist-oriented co-operative movement in Donegal in the early 1960s. This alone is a strikingly important reason why Friel’s work requires rigorous interrogation. To no small extent, understanding Friel’s literary achievement is very closely bound up with how we in Ireland understand ourselves.

Anthony Roche’s Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel offers a collection of 14 essays that examine all of Friel’s plays from a variety of exclusively literary and theatrical perspectives. Roche’s decision to include consideration of all of Friel’s drama, from early unpublished work such as The Francophile (1960) to recent plays such as The Home Place (2005), leaves the reader with a helpful impression of the scope and consistency of the Friel oeuvre. Similarly effective is the inclusion of two exuberant and perceptive essays by Thomas Kilroy and Frank McGuinness, Patrick Burke’s usefully encyclopedic account of Friel in performance, and Richard Allen Cave’s outstandingly incisive demonstration that Friel’s dramaturgy is informed by an acute spatial awareness.

With one exception - Anna McMullan’s probingly intelligent examination of gender and performance - the remaining essays in the collection offer a variety of close readings, with Nicholas Grene’s study of Faith Healer as easily the most illuminating and adept.

For anyone interested in the relationship between Friel’s plays and Irish history, however, McMullan’s essay is the most instructive. She argues that while the subjected male protagonists of the plays often attempt to resist the pressures of socio-political conformity by adopting the role of trickster or joker figures, this is hardly ever the case for Friel’s women. Even when female characters do produce performances that offer some liberation from confining gender roles (as in the dance scene in Dancing at Lughnasa (1990)), the overall impact of such performances is to reinstate a gendered construction of women as non-rational.

But what makes McMullan’s essay so important for a historical and political reading is that she relates this gender discrepancy to Friel’s overarching formal reliance on mimetic verisimilitude. Friel’s claim that all representation is a construction - and thus that any form of political expression is, at best, a distorting approximation - underlines his plays’ political pessimism. But, McMullan points out, such an assumption is contradicted not only by the fixity of gender roles in Friel’s drama but by a neo-naturalistic theatrical style that insists resolutely on its own truth and authority. Finding a way out of the blanketing effect of the plangent political inevitability that Friel’s plays so often induce, therefore, is difficult, but not impossible. In what is fittingly one of this collection’s concluding contributions, Anna McMullan’s essay points to the need for a more rigorous and historically-based criticism of Friel’s drama. Crucial as a starting point is an exposure and critical examination of the historical absences and constitutive contradictions that are central to Friel’s formidable literary achievement. [END]

[Lionel Pilkington is a senior lecturer in English at NUI, Galway and author of Theatre and the State in 20th Century Ireland: Cultivating the People (Routledge, 2001). The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel edited by Anthony Roche Cambridge University Press, 177pp. £17.99.]

 

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