Found in Translation: Brian Friel’s Irish Soul

020507 article heilpern Found in Translation:  Brian Friel’s Irish SoulIt’s a pity that Brian Friel’s wonderful Translations at the Biltmore Theatre is talked about as particularly “relevant” to the Iraq War. Relevance has become a nagging mantra of our times, as if topicality counts for everything. Mr. Friel, Ireland’s greatest dramatist, is a poet whose enduring plays aren’t overtly political. They point to the wound, not the cure.

Translations is his masterpiece. To be sure, he had imperialistic wars in mind when he wrote the play in 1980, during what the Irish call “the troubles.” The war with the British occupiers (or peacekeeping army, depending on your point of view) was then at its height. But the much bigger drama that Mr. Friel actually wrote—dared to write!—is an inspired parable about nothing less than the death of the Irish language and therefore of Ireland itself.

The soul of this extraordinary, lyrical play is its case for the decency and tradition of vibrant language and what it means to Ireland’s cultural history and national identity when its words are forcibly turned into neutered, standardized English. Mr. Friel’s concern springs from the linguistic theatrical tradition of Synge and Yeats, as well as from the fruits of a nation of natural talkers, romantic nationalists and impossibly articulate bullshit artists. Only the Irish can make tragedy teeter comfortably on the edge of black farce. Translations thrives on different, colliding levels, and some of them will make you laugh at the absurdity of life, and others will break your heart at the pain of being alive.

This intimate play is set in a makeshift rural school in Mr. Friel’s mythical Ballybeg, an Irish-speaking community in County Donegal. In the 1830’s, the British Army Engineers Corps carried out an ordnance survey of colonized Ireland, eventually anglicizing every place name in the country and destroying Gaelic as a barrier to modern progress. The bleaching of Ireland’s vivid outer expression and communities is the pretext of the play—though, as always with Mr. Friel, lost souls in exile from their country, or themselves, play a central role.

Only a drama of this high order would open with Jimmy Jack, an elderly, unwashed gent known as the Infant Prodigy, spouting his three languages—Latin, Greek and Gaelic—and saying to pass the time, “I was just thinking to myself last night: if you had the choosing between Athene and Artemis and Helen of Troy—all three of them Zeus girls—imagine three powerful-looking daughters like that all in the one parish of Athens!—now, if you had the picking between them, which would you take?”

He would go “bull-straight” for Athene, no disrespect to the other girls. “By God, sir, them flashing eyes would fair keep a man jigged up constant!”

For the Infant Prodigy, the ancient myths are real and life is bearable in the escapist, exalted company of the gods. He’s someone in scholarly exile from his wretched self. So is his cynical, bright, pompous friend Hugh, the drunk master of the school that meets in a disused barn. As a matter of blustery nationalistic pride, he will scarcely utter a word in English—though if Mr. Friel hadn’t written his play in English, we wouldn’t understand him.

“Yes, it is a rich language,” Hugh informs the naïve army lieutenant about the appeal of his nearly obsolete Gaelic, “full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception—a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes: our only method of replying to … inevitabilities.”

The Irish language promises possibility—a noble, defiant defense against the hardness of desolate, dirt-poor lives and the comfortless certainty of defeat. In a fantastic drunk scene that comes late in the play, Hugh (the excellent Niall Buggy) and the old Infant Prodigy (a terrific performance from Dermot Crowley) laugh together until one of them collapses weeping. Only those who understand life’s insanity know how to laugh like them. The pair reminded me forcibly of Beckett’s tramps in the wilderness, or a mad Lear and blind Gloucester on the heath.

Among Mr. Friel’s other principal characters, a schoolgirl named Sarah can scarcely pronounce her own name. She’s literally speechless. Owen is the headmaster’s charming prodigal son, who returns home from Dublin as a newly hired translator for the British Army. Renamed Rowland by the snobbish Brits, he’s a divided soul who, in truth, has no home: He’s a collaborator. And there’s Manus, the lame, ineffectual older brother and unpaid teaching assistant who’s infatuated with beautiful Maire and hasn’t a prayer. She’s desperate to escape backwater Ballybeg for a new life in America, just as the tormented young hero of Mr. Friel’s early Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) sought exile there.

Maire and Lieutenant Yolland have one of the great, touching love scenes in all of drama. He’s the naïve, decent English romantic who falls in love with Maire and pastoral Ireland. (He will be assassinated by Irish rebels.) They don’t speak the same language, declaring their love for each other without benefit of translation via miscommunication and incoherence.

“I’ve made up my mind,” Yoland declares firmly in English.

“Shhhh.”

“I’m not going to leave here …. ”

“Shhh—listen to me,” she says in Gaelic. “I want you, too, soldier.”

“Don’t stop,” he replies. “I know what you’re saying.”

“I want to live with you—anywhere—anywhere at all—always—always,” she adds.

“Always?” he asks. “What is that word—‘always’?”

“Take me away with you, George …. ”

I’ve always found Translations an awesomely sad play. It’s ultimately about the death not only of language and Ireland, but the loss of all goodness and hope. And yet, each time I see the play, I’m elated. It helps that this is an outstanding Manhattan Theatre Club production directed by the exceptional and caring Garry Hynes. But even work as first-rate as this doesn’t account for my heady response to such a tragedy of existence.

Seamus Deane, the Irish poet and friend of Brian Friel, provides an explanation. “Paradoxically,” he writes, “although his theme is failure, linguistic and political, the fact that the play has been written is itself an indication of the success of the imagination in dealing with everything that seems opposed to its survival. What is most characteristically tragic about the play is the sense of exhilaration which it transmits to the audience.”

Our sense of tragic loss—of words and culture, of love and even reason—is redeemed by the artistic miracle of the play itself.