Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.5.13




By John Van Sickle, Brooklyn College (JVSBC@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU)

(New York: special to BMCR) IN THE GLOOM OF THE BAR, he looked the part of an Irish poet -- silver haired, ruddy complexioned, canny eyes glinting from under heavy brows, down at the end next to the slim, dark girl. Accosted as the "perpetrator of that splendid show across the street," Brian Friel temporized, "Which theater?" then admitted to authoring Translations in revival at the Plymouth [March 1995]. Warming to exuberant praise, he asked, "You want to bring students of Greek to see it: how many do you have?" Greek mostly gone in Ireland, some Latin in the church schools. Priests never knew much Greek. Where did he get the themes of Greek and Latin classics in the play? Not from professors. None up where he lives in County Donegal. His grandfather was a schoolmaster. So we liked the way he used Virgil? "That was my answer to Shaw, you know, Arms and the Man." Chuckling he turned back to his guest leaving us to mull over what sent us so exhilarated into the night.

We lucked in to a preview, attracted by the title. "Irish," replied the burly ticket clerk, "And a fine show it is." The time was the 1830s just before the potato famine finally decimated and dispersed the rural communities that still spoke Irish. The curtain rose on a ruinous barn where a dishevelled, bespectacled man was poring over a book. When he read aloud with triumphant glee, it was only natural to strain to catch the cadences of Irish. What gradually came across was a word here and there that sounded more like Greek. Glaukopis Athene? It had to be Homer -- a guess confirmed as the scholar translated, how the goddess "bright-eyed Athene" disguised her favorite Odysseus on his return home -- shrivelling his skin, wrapping him in a ratty cloak, reducing the hero to a figure very like the ragged reader himself.

What was Homer doing on these weird lips? Where was the Irish tongue? Other characters soon made it clear that, for the purposes of the play, their light brogue in English would stand for Irish and that the scene was a hedge school, where memories of Irish poets mingled pridefully with classical Greek and Latin. The school survived with voluntary pupils of every age and universally poor condition -- tenant farmers bullied by landlords and British soldiers, menaced by potato blight, but devoted to their classical culture, drilled on the parts of verbs, alert to citations from Virgil and Ovid by their master, old Hugh.

The master knows some English. He has been invited to apply to head the new national school, about to be imposed by the British government with English as the sole tongue in a campaign to wipe out the old culture. His learned lame son, Manus, a passionate teacher, has been called to Inish Isle to conduct a hedge school, promised a house, fuel, the yield of twelve acres, and forty-two pounds a year -- a regular salary unheard of at home, all of which lets him hope at last to marry Maire -- a diligent Latin scholar, with red-hair and hands that hurt from making hay, who pays for tuition with milk from the family cow, while dreaming of escape to a better life in Brooklyn.

Amidst these promises of orderly transition, the master's other son, Owen, returns from Dublin, employed as a translator by British army engineers under government orders to make the definitive survey that will regularize local boundaries and names -- the better to tax. When the British captain declares these brute facts to the school in English, Owen mitigates the harshness in translation. When the British don't get his own name right, he answers all the same and pockets the per diem -- again the regular wage beyond the local community's means.

Owen's particular charge is to translate place names. He knows better than anyone else which ones refer to some unrecognizable saint or story of a forgotten neighbor, drowned in a well long since filled up. The welter of names cherished by the community comes to strike him as heterogeneous and arbitrary, in need of regularity and system. But even as Owen breaks the spell of local tradition and community, his British counterpart in the toponomastic division, Lieutenant George Yolland, is feeling the charm.

George's quite unbritish passion for all things Irish pushes the plot to its first climax. Drunk on the local moonshine, poteen (pronounced "potcheen"), imbibed copiously in local fashion, he at last gets Owen's name right. He makes bold to attend a dance and declare his love to the learned milkmaid, who has had her eye on him in turn. In a whirlwind, comically sweet courtship, they manage to translate their mutual desire but not its mutually exclusive corrollaries. He sees her as a way to put down roots in Ireland. She sees him as her means to get out. No less did Homer's Odysseus and Nausicaa flirt at cross purposes, he to get help to return to his wife, she to keep him for a husband.

Their heady, flawed, translation tops the first act and sows the seeds of tragic reversal for the second. Translated, neither he nor she belongs anymore to their own. When Maire spells out on the map of England the names where George grew up, her erstwhile friends look puzzled and turn away. When George vanishes after the dance, plausibly killed by resistance fighters, the captain orders a search by red-coats fanning out across the county, jabbing bayonets into the earth. Bullying the students, hinting at rape, forcing Owen to translate, the captain lays down an ultimatum: if no one provides information about the Lieutenant's whereabouts, parishes will be laid waste, livestock slaughtered, stores, crops, and houses burned, tenants evicted. The violence with which the British rooted out the old Irish culture enters in the classic way of Greek tragedy, only described. The true face of British imperialism is made all the more vivid because the captain's manner is that of a Gauleiter in the SS. Over it all, the sickening sweet smell of potato blight wafts on the evening air.

As the debacle looms, the weird scholar rises from a stupor of poteen to announce that he will marry Pallas Athene, for companionship in his lonely cottage up the hill. As he prophesies the dangers of marriage outside the tribe, in Greek exogamein, which neither community will accept, he staggers like a shaman around the prostrate Maire, in unwitting commentary on her fall. After this delusionary hurrah of the old culture -- the hybrid of Irish and classic Greek, the more Roman schoolmaster Hugh has the last word. Although he, too, is steeped in moonshine, he can lucidly reflect how poverty may compensate itself with a culture rich beyond material means and how an ornate and highly regulated tradition may lose touch with new necessities. Forgoing Juvenalian satire that the headship of the national school has gone to an outsider who has the advantage of knowing how to cure bacon, Hugh turns to recalling a past dream, how he marched twenty-three miles to join the uprising of '98, only to turn without a fight back home to his newborn son. His mind turns to Virgil early in the Aeneid and he magniloquently begins -- Urbs antiqua fuit, 'A city there was, ancient...' -- but falters. Recovering the whole passage, he identifies its story of Carthage fated for destruction by Rome with his own case: 'A city there was, ancient, fated to be great if only another empire were not destined to come from across the sea'.

That is how Hugh's last speech plays for Brian Dennehy, who puts it movingly across, catching the climactic recognition in a plot constructed on classical lines. In the best kind of tragic plot, wrote Aristotle, recognition and reversal come together, as in Oedipus, enacting the change from happiness to the opposite, striking the audience with maximum force. Into this masterful structure, Friel grafts the Aeneid, read as a text where contrasting voices speak -- both the dominating rule of empire and the others, the defeated and displaced, not celebrating imperial regularity without reckoning the brutal cost. True to Virgil's dialectical vision, but from the viewpoint of the others, Friel shows how Irish history both resembles and falls short of classical heroism -- an irony underlined by Hugh's confession of his own less than heroic march. In Friel's telling plot, the cultural hybrid of Irish memory and classical authority snatches dignity from its demise, giving Hugh's recognition of reversal the heroic cast lacking in his life.