Brian Friel - The Healing Art

  • 31 December 1984
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ON 6 JULY 1979, WHILE HE WAS WORKING on the play Translations, Brian Friel wrote in his "sporadic diary": "One of the mistakes of the direction which the play is presently pulling is the almost wholly 'public' concern of the theme: how does the eradication of the Irish language and the subbstitution of English affect this particular society? How long can a society live without its tongue? Public questions; issues for politicians; and that's what is wrong with the play now. The play must concern itself only with the exploraation of dark and private places of individual souls."  By Fintan O'Toole
From that tension between the private and the public Brian Friel's mature work, written mostly over the last eight years, has come. If his territory is "the dark and priivate places of individual souls", it is a territory mapped out by history and politics. From the political circumstances of his life - the fact that he is a Catholic, born in Omagh, brought up in Derry, tied by family and the imagination to rural Donegal where he now lives - he has inherited a sense of restlessness, of exile, of a shifting and uncertain world in which pieties, truths, and certainties shift under the eye and crumble at the touch. Being at home neither in the North nor the South, he has denied himself the comforts of home in his writing. "I think that if you have a sense of exile," he told me in 1982, "that brings with it some kind of alertness and some kind of eagerness and some kind of hunger."

Eagerness, "alertness, hunger - the words imply a sense of absent things, of an emptiness at the heart of everything that haunts the characters in Friel's plays and that drives his own constant search for new forms, his refusal to see his own work as anything other than a series of forays into the darkness. "You delve into a particular corner of yourself," he said in the same interview, "that's dark and uneasy and you articulate the confusions and the unease of that partiicular period. When you do that, that's finished and you acquire other corners of unease and discontent."

FRIEL'S THREE FINEST PLAYS, ALL PREmiered within a remarkable period of eighteen months between March 1979 and September 1980 - Faith Healer, Aristocrats and Translations - are imbued with a potent absence, a sense that "facts" are at the mercy of memories, people, ideas which are absent. Either in the past or the future there are events, inevitable predetermined events, which will completely alter "the meaning of what we are seeing. In Faith Healer it is the death of Frank Hardy, the central character, which asts a shadow over everything he tells us, a personal death ounterpointed by a communal death in the names of dying Welsh and Scottish villages which he chants at intervals. In Aristocrats it is the myth of the past - every piece of furniiture in the crumbling Big House in which the play is set is named after a famous visitor who mayor not have been associated with it, so that the great figures of Roman Catholicism become ghosts hovering behind the action. And in Translations the future is already devouring the past, as the British sappers rename all of the places around Ballybeg, so that the place that the characters believe they know so well slips from their grasp almost without their knowledge.·

Nothing in these plays keeps to its allotted place. Even the rituals of birth, death and marriage, the great occasions around which the individual, the family and society mark out their allotted span, refuse to function as they should. In Aristocrats, the planned wedding for which the characcters have gathered becomes a funeral when Father dies; in Translations the christening that Hugh is at in the first act turns to a wake in the third when the baby dies, counterrpointing the movement of the play itself from a ceremony of naming to an acceptance of death; and in Faith Healer the child born to Fran and Gracie is "black-faced, maceraated" and dead.

THE FAILURE OF THE RITUALS OF BIRTH, death and marriage is the failure of the public, social domain to accord with "the dark and private places of individual souls". These are the occasions on which private emotions are acknowledged by the community and the state. But for Friel the commuunity and the state are out of kilter with the emotions of the individual. He is profoundly unhappy with both the Norrthern state and with the South and his loyalty has been to the fictionalised Donegal town of Ballybeg, the imagined location of most of his plays. He has kept a careful distance from political statement, preferring to show through the homeless lives of his people the failure of social and politiical institutions to accord with their needs.

In the late sixties and early seventies, he has exhausted one stream of his work, his series of plays on the theme of love running from Philadelphia, Here I Come! to Crystal and Fox. He turned for a while to reasonably direct politiical statement, writing a satire on the southern state The Mundy Scheme and then a play about the events of Bloody Sunday, The Freedom of the City. But in the period of Faith Healer, Aristocrats, and Translations he has been concerned to examine politics, more obliquely, through the world that he himself inhabits, the world of language. He has been reaching towards something more mysterious.

In his "sporadic diary" for Aristocrats he gives a sense of the mysteriousness of what he is trying to capture, a sense far removed from the stance of a public man fashionning a manifesto: "November 7 (1976). I think I've got a scent of the new play. Scarcely any idea of character, plot , movement, scene; but a definite whiff of the atmosphere the play will exude. Something stirring in the undergrowth. At the moment I don't want to stalk what may be stirring there. No. I will sit still and wait. It will move again. And then again. And each time its smell will become more disstinct. And then finally when that atmosphere is confident and distinctive, I and the play will move towards one anoother and inhabit that atmosphere."

That play, Aristocrats, is essentially about the difference between public appearance and private reality, looking at a family which has status but no function, whose public past "administering the law for anyone who happened to be in power" is all but dead but still holds a grip on the life of the family. In Faith Healer and Translations, the difference between appearance and reality is located in language. In these plays Friel is examining his own profession, both the words he uses and the process of creation itself. "The whole issue of language is a very problematic one for us all on this island. I had grandparents who were native Irish speakers and also two of the four grandparents were illiterate. It's very close you know - I actually remember two of them.

And to be so close to illiteracy and to a different language is a curious experience. And in some ways I don't think weve resolved the problem. We flirt with the English lannguage but we haven't absorbed it."

In Translations, language itself is shifting as Irish gives way to English; in Faith Healer it is meaning, the power of language to describe reality, which is under question. In the four monologues which make up the play, three diffeerent people give three different versions of the same events. In the midst of the contradictions only one thing remains - the mysterious power of the faith healer to heal, a power that may be a blessing or a curse, a sacred tryst or a charlaatan's trick. And around that power there is only emptiness and hunger. It is Friel's metaphor for his own craft, for the hunger that drives him on, for "the element of the charlatan that there is in all creative work", for the necessary selfishhness of the writer.

Frank Hardy in Faith Healer has the same restlessness which drives Brian Friel, and what Gracie says of Frank in the play has relevance to Friel also: "I'm sure it was always an excellence, a perfection, that was the cause of his resttlessness and the focus of it." There is in Friel a search for a home, for a place and a state to which he can give his loyallty. To some extent, the particular corner of Donegal into which he has concentrated his work, reflecting its intense family and tribal relationships, has provided such a base. Unlike so many other Irish writers, he has never moved from his home base, never lived in Dublin or London or Paris or New York. He has seen the world from the persspective of a confined locality, playing out his dramas again and again in Ballybeg. But his attitude to his own place is too ambivalent for it to be a home in the broader sense. In Field Day, the theatre company which he formed with actor Stephen Rea in 1980, he has sought an alternative, imaginative, environment.

But the restlessness can hardly abate. The experience of Brian Friel's plays is that definitive statements, achieved positions, are impossible. He is essentially a writer dealing with change. Everything in his plays is in flux, and hardly anything is as simple as it should be. His characters live by acceptable fictions, which often become unacceptable and in need of reconstruction. He himself has managed to keep the public and the private in flux, to avoid the selftance of definitive statements while constantly reing his own art.

In spite of the achievements of the last eight years, Friel has no laurels to rest on. Each play is an approach to a new perspective, and when it is over there is another approach to be made. Translations, hailed as a masterpiece, was followed quickly by The Communication Cord, a rement of Translations as a modern farce, undercutting all of the pieties which that play evoked. There are no masterrpieces for Brian Friel. A finished play is already in the past. On 9 October 1979, just as he finished the first two acts of Translations, he wrote in his diary: "I'm not sure what has been achieved. I am more acutely aware of what has been lost, diluted, confused, perverted, than of what has been caught and revealed. A sense too that on occasion I have lost faith in the fiction and shouted what should have been overheard. But there is still time."