#170: TWO IRISH PLAYS. Some plays depend on a central conceit so ingeniously worked out that they color all our later memories of the work. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, for instance, weaves back and forth between the early nineteenth and late twentieth century until, in the last act, the characters from both periods are on stage together, occupying the space but still separated in time. In Brian Friel’s 1980 play Translations, the characters are separated by something perhaps every bit as potent as time. Though the actors speak throughout in English, the conceit is that some of the characters are speaking in Irish and some in English and are for the large part incomprehensible to each other. The play is set in 1833 in the imagined town of Baile Beag (in English, Ballybeg; or, more exactly, Smalltown) in Irish-speaking Donegal, which is the setting of several of Friel’s plays, Donegal being about as far from the English-speaking pale of Dublin and environs as you can get with dry feet. A teacher, his son, and their adult students in a local hedge school are toughing out their lessons, when the return of the teacher’s other son reveals that a troop of English soldiers are soon to arrive, with the task of making an ordnance map of the area—a map which will give makeshift English equivalent names to the nearby towns. In the course of the play we will hear of the proposed arrival of a national school system, which will put paid to the old tradition of hedge schools, as well as hints of the oncoming famine; we will see, in the play’s most enchanting moment, a love scene played out by a young couple who do not speak each other’s language; and we will be given one of the most vivid and pointed images of—not cultural appropriation but the opposite: cultural imposition? substitution? The horror of it sneaks up on you—a culture, already reduced to beggary, losing its town names to another language. It’s like watching someone steal the shoes off a pauper. This quietly devastating play was the first production of the now-famous Field Day Theatre company, and has entered the standard repertoire; it deserves its place. Read it, see it, and you’ll never see the map of Ireland with the same eyes again.
Sebastian Barry’s 1995 play The Steward of Christendom was, in turn, one of a series of works on “forgotten hidden people” from his family’s past—in this case, a most embarrassing ancestor, a great-grandfather, a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, who led a baton charge against one of James Larkin’s Trade Union agitations, in the process arresting Larkin and causing four men’s deaths. The play opens a decade after that act, when this man, Thomas Dunne, has been displaced from his profession, reviled as a loyalist, lost a son to World War One, seen his relationships with his daughters flounder, and finally been placed in a county rest home after bouts of madness. In the course of the play we see his past’s constant bereaving intrusions into his present, his attempts to grasp what has happened, and his attempts to stave off insanity, all mixed with his trying to come to terms with what has happened to Ireland politically. From Dunne’s first incoherent mutterings, Barry works with a master’s clarity to get his themes in place and set us up for the emotional landslide of the second act’s revelations and monologues.
My sense of the play will always be conditioned by my wild good luck in having seen the Dublin revival of the original production, with Donal McCann in the title role—one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on stage. It’s a titanic and wildly demanding role, with Dunne onstage virtually throughout the play (“Even Lear gets to have a piss,” McCann complained to Barry). With McCann’s presence—his own clarity in the presentation of Dunne’s emotional muddle—and the structure and surety of Barry’s writing, the final effect was both controlled and vertiginous: clear sight in the harrowing whirl of a storm. And having reread the play just recently, the effect was hardly less. Once again the final monologue took me over the coals: “And I would call that the mercy of fathers.” The Steward of Christendom, one of those works which has become a personal possession for me, has been compared with the best of Synge and O’Casey, but in rereading its last pages my mind stretched further out still, to the last pages of James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” which I consider one of the greatest passages in the English language. If you can think of a higher compliment let me know.