Celebrating Uncertainty

Patrick Lonergan

Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics, by Anthony Roche, Palgrave Macmillan, 248 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1137274694

Half-way through Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics, Anthony Roche breaks off from his argument to make a brief confession – one that encapsulates perfectly the uniqueness of his book. The story he tells concerns Volunteers, Friel’s 1975 drama about a group of IRA prisoners who are forced to work on an archaeological dig. It’s not one of Friel’s better known plays, as Roche acknowledges. When it premiered at the Abbey Theatre, it was greeted with “blank incomprehension by the Dublin critics”, perhaps because it seemed to blend two controversies that audiences considered separate: internment in Northern Ireland and the construction of Dublin Corporation’s offices on the site of a Viking village on Wood Quay. Roche’s suggestion is that the play had to wait another twenty-three years for its “true premiere”, when it appeared in London’s tiny Gate Theatre in a production directed by Mick Gordon. “What made for the greatest difference” between the Dublin premiere and the 1998 London revival, writes Roche, was the set design for the English production. “Where the play on the Abbey stage placed the workers’ activities in a proscenium frame where it was difficult to discern the design in their comings and goings, the production in London … removed all distance and sense of separation by plunging the audience into the midst (and mud) of the dig itself,” he writes. Gordon’s production, in other words, involved the audience completely in the performance space by seating them in the dig: the action happened everywhere – around, behind, beside and before the spectators, heightening their emotional engagement and allowing them to identify better with the characters.

Roche reveals, however, that this directorial approach posed some dangers to the audience – especially to himself. “When I arrived at the last minute for the last performance clutching the last ticket, I managed in my haste to overlook the sign next to the door,” he writes. That sign read “You are now entering an archaeological dig, please tread carefully.” The result can be guessed: Roche didn’t “tread carefully” and so (in his own words) “promptly fell into the pit”.

This anecdote functions both as an image and as an example of Roche’s total immersion in Irish theatre during the last thirty years. One often has the sense while reading his book that he’s seen everything: not just productions of Friel in many different countries, but the countless other plays – Irish, British, American, Russian and so on – that formed the contexts in which Friel’s work was composed and received. The vastness of Roche’s theatregoing experience significantly enriches the quality of his analysis, as for instance when he writes that “I have only ever seen one production of Translations that took Friel’s directions seriously with regard to the weather in Act 3”. That production took place not in Dublin, London or New York, but at the Birmingham Shakespeare Festival (Birmingham, Alabama) in January 1987. It’s difficult to know which is more impressive: that Roche was in Alabama to see the show, or that he knew the play so intimately as to be able to spot that detail.

A major pleasure in reading this study, then, is Roche’s awareness that Friel writes not simply to be read, but also to be staged – and often to be staged in specific venues, by specific directors working with specific actors such as Stephen Rea, Donal McCann, Catherine Byrne, and others. Roche understands how these dramas function in a theatrical space, and thus is able to explain why a play such as Volunteers can radically change its meaning depending on where the audience is sitting when they watch it. The book’s subtitle – Theatre and Politics – is thus particularly important: although we have had many books that deal with the politics of Friel’s work, Roche’s emphasis on the theatrical offers a surprisingly fresh perspective.

Indeed, I was taken aback to realise that Roche’s is the first English-language study of Friel that uses the word “theatre” in its title (Martine Pelletier’s Le théâtre de Brian Friel: Histoire et histoires is the only other monograph that features that word). This despite the fact that well over a dozen books on Friel have appeared to date. The first, published in 1973, was DES Maxwell’s Brian Friel – a book that was somewhat unusual in dedicating a full-length study to a writer whose first major hit – Philadelphia Here I Come! – had appeared only nine years previously, in 1964. Subsequent authors seemed to think of Friel primarily as a literary artist, as suggested by the titles of Elmer Andrews’s 1993 study The Art of Brian Friel, Donald Morse and Csilla Bertha’s collection of essays Brian Friel’s Dramatic Artistry (2006), or Richard Pine’s monumental close reading of Friel, The Diviner – the Art of Brian Friel (1999). A second major tendency, especially from the 1980s onwards, was to see Friel as a political or postcolonial writer. In 1988, for instance, Ulick O’Connor published Brian Friel: Crisis and Commitment, while in 1999 FC McGrath gave us Brian Friel’s (Post) Colonial Drama: Language, Illusion and Politics. And from the late 1990s onwards, Friel’s status as a great figure in world drama became increasingly obvious from the number of books about his work that were geared towards student audiences: there was a casebook in 1997, a critical guide from Faber and Faber in 2000, and a Cambridge Companion in 2006, the last of which was edited by Roche himself. We’ve therefore seen research on Friel move through three overlapping phases: a first phase which presented him as a literary artist, a second which considers him from political perspectives, and a third which sees him lodged firmly in the classroom, as a classical and canonical figure.

That movement has had the regrettable impact of persuading some scholars that there isn’t much more to say about Friel. Such dramas as Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) are much-loved classics, and Irish audiences tend to think that they know those plays very well (perhaps too well, it might be argued). It’s also probably fair to say that many of the recent publications about Friel seem to cover very similar ground: individual scholars can be enlightening on matters of minor detail, but none has significantly altered our understanding of Friel’s oeuvre in its entirety since Pine’s Diviner. The repetitiveness in the scholarship has not been helped by the fact that Friel has produced only one full-length original play since the turn of the century (The Home Place, which appeared in 2005). For many readers and academics, then, the perception has been growing that the only scholarship remaining to be done on Friel is the re-evaluation of a small number of neglected works: plays like Volunteers, perhaps.

That said, there has been some evidence of a shift in perspectives recently. One important development was the publication in 2007 of Scott Boltwood’s Brian Friel: Ireland and the North. Its title is unusual in seeming to establish “Ireland” and “the North” as separate entities but, far from adopting a partitionist approach, Boltwood aims to establish the centrality of Northern Ireland to an understanding of Friel’s work. In that respect, he may seem to follow the overtly (and often reductively) political stance adopted by postcolonial critics, but one of the refreshing features of the book is its willingness to embrace the ambiguities and uncertainties of Friel’s drama. Boltwood successfully shows that, even if Friel’s artistry was formed by the Troubles, his ideology cannot be considered to represent directly one particular political outlook rather than another. That argument is bolstered and enriched by his attention to archival data, and in particular by his investigation of newspaper columns written by Friel in the early 1960s.

Another emerging strand in Friel criticism was evident in the selection of essays for Roche’s 2006 Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel. One of the virtues – and indeed one of the limitations – of most Cambridge Companions is that they present what is already known about an author or a movement: there is rarely evidence of a desire to challenge the received wisdom in the composition of such publications. The volume on Friel generally meets that formula, giving us a chronololgical survey of the author’s work which, for the most part, focuses on text rather than performance. Unusually, however, the book does feature some consideration of Friel’s stagecraft, with one essay on Friel and Performance History by Patrick Burke, and another on design by Richard Allen Cave. But that volume’s most surprising – and, in retrospect, its most significant – essay was by Anna McMullan. Entitled “Performativity, Unruly Bodies and Gender in Brian Friel’s drama”, McMullan’s essay considers the extent to which Friel’s characters are made physical: not by words on a page but by bodies on a stage. Her essay is relatively short – running only to twelve pages – but in asking us to consider how actors make Friel’s characters tangible and physical, McMullan seemed to open out a range of new possibilities for the study of Friel’s plays.

Roche’s own volume fully realises the potential offered by McMullan’s essay – and will, I believe, definitely push the study of Friel into a fourth phase: one that focuses on the performance history of his work. And Roche also expands significantly on one of Boltwood’s innovations: where Brian Friel, Ireland and the North had shown the value of exploring Friel’s non-dramatic writing side by side with the plays, Roche’s book makes extensive use of unpublished material, much of it found in the Friel archive at the National Library of Ireland. The book is thus exciting not just in terms of its methodology but also because of the new information about Friel that it reveals.

The innovative quality of the book is immediately obvious from its structure, which is only very loosely chronological. Roche begins with Friel’s earliest plays, most of which have never been published; and he proceeds to discuss the first great successes of the 1960s, including Philadelphia, Here I Come! We then move towards the political work of the 1970s which culminated with Translations in 1980 – plays that overlap thematically with Friel’s exploration of memory and uncertainty in Faith Healer in 1979, Dancing at Lughnasa in 1990, and several of his more recent plays. And we end with a brief description of the works of the last decade: the chamber piece Performances, the Chekhov-inspired Afterplay, and his last full-length work The Home Place. So there is a clear movement from the beginning of Friel’s career to the present. Yet the book’s main organising principle is thematic, with individual chapters on directors, Friel’s use of space, Friel’s relationship with contemporary British drama, and so on. Roche’s aim here, he tells us, is to “break up some of the more established categorizations of Friel criticism and look at the work anew”. His thematic focus achieves that aim admirably.

Perhaps the richest example of Roche’s blending of a theatrical awareness with a thematic approach is the book’s second chapter, on Friel and the director. Friel famously – but, as Roche shows, simplistically – has a reputation for being hostile to directors. That reputation is founded to a large extent on a programme note written by him in 1999, in which he described directors as “interlopers” who “attempt to usurp the intrinsic power of the play itself”. Friel sees the director as  a person who takes “necessary tasks from the other people involved: actors, producers, etc”. But he tells us, “he has never been offered a ‘unique interpretation’ of any of his plays by a director [and] has seen the contributions of great actors sapped rather than enhanced in directorial hands”.

These lines are frequently quoted by scholars of Irish drama but, when applied to Friel’s career in its entirety, they can obscure important features of his work. As Roche points out, the remarks were written shortly after Friel himself had directed two of his own plays: experiences which by all accounts were rather unhappy. He directed his play Molly Sweeney in 1993 for the Gate Theatre, but had little advice to offer his three performers. As Roche states, when Catherine Byrne (the actress playing the eponymous heroine) asked Friel “how she should physically play the part of a blind woman, he replied that she as an actress best knew how to interpret the role”. Similarly, TP McKenna in the same play was also told to trust “his own instincts as a performer when it came to his interpretation” of his part. Nevertheless, the play was a commercial and critical success, perhaps because it featured three interlinking monologues and thus did not require much direction from Friel. However, when Friel next directed a play – Give Me Your Answer Do! in 1997 – the results were widely perceived as being disastrous. Roche quotes Patrick Burke’s statement that Friel’s “direction of a notable team of actors was amateurish, especially in poor blocking and masking”. That assertion is not contradicted in the book, so one assumes that Roche shares Burke’s misgivings; in any case, the accusation that the direction was “amateurish” captures well the critical reaction to Friel’s production at the time (though Roche shows elsewhere in the book that Give Me Your Answer might, like Volunteers, have had a “true premiere” in England some years later).

A second reason to mistrust Friel’s apparent dismissal of directors is that his early career was dominated – in mostly a positive way – by the influence of two directors: Tyrone Guthrie and Hilton Edwards. The Anglo-Irish director Tyrone Guthrie had encouraged Friel early in his career, writing a letter of introduction to him after reading one of his short stories in The New Yorker in 1960, and then providing a detailed written critique of his first play for the Abbey Theatre, The Enemy Within (1962). In the following year Friel brought his family for a six-month visit to Minneapolis, where he sat in on rehearsals at the theatre Guthrie had recently founded there. That visit proved essential to the young writer’s development, as Roche shows when he quotes from a “Self-Portrait” written by Friel a decade later:

I found myself at thirty years of age embarked on a theatrical career and almost totally ignorant of the mechanics of play-writing and play-production apart from an intuitive knowledge … [At the Guthrie Theater] I learned a great deal about the iron discipline of theatre [and] these months in America gave me a sense of liberation – remember, this was my first parole from inbred, claustrophobic Ireland – and that sense of liberation conferred on me a valuable self-confidence and a necessary perspective so that the first play I wrote immediately after I came home, Philadelphia Here I Come!, was a lot more assured than anything I had attempted before.

Surprisingly, however, Guthrie chose not to direct the premiere of Philadelphia, despite his admiration for Friel’s work (and, incidentally, Roche uses archival material to reveal definitively that Guthrie was actually invited to direct the play). Instead it was directed by Hilton Edwards, who had co-founded Dublin’s Gate Theatre with Micheál MacLiammóir in 1928. Roche points out that Edwards was an ideal choice for Philadelphia, which “utilized all of [his] directorial strengths: controlled histrionic action with a blend of the performative and the realistic; a choreographic precision of overall movement … and an unparalleled technical skill in lighting to convey the atmosphere of a play”. That collaboration was a success: Philadelphia was one of the hits of the 1964 Dublin Theatre Festival and found its way to Broadway two years later. Roche persuasively shows that Friel’s first international success could not have been possible without Edwards’s work on the play.

The collaboration between Friel and Edwards persisted up to 1970, and resulted in three further productions: Lovers, The Loves of Cass Maguire, and Crystal and Fox. Friel would later write of that relationship in positive terms:

My education with Hilton and Micheál began in 1963 … I like to think that I came into their lives at a point when they were ready for something new. I know they came into my life at a point when their practical skill and their vast experience and their scholarship were of most value to me. I am not aware that I have any theatrical pedigree; but if I had to produce documentation I would be pleased to claim … that I came out from under the Edwards MacLiammóir overcoat.

Roche is excellent in evaluating the impact of Edwards on Friel’s career and his developing aesthetic, pointing out the influence of the Gate’s European “style” on the young writer – not to mention Edwards’s insistence on a “firm commitment to professional standards in the theatre”. Edwards could also be a strong ally, as Roche shows when he describes Edwards’s blistering response to a negative review of Philadelphia, Here I Come! by Frank O’Connor – a man who appears never to have forgiven Friel for abandoning the short story form with which he’d made his name in the 1950s. So, as well as being a useful guide to Friel’s plays of the 1960s, this chapter also calls attention to the need for a major study of the Gate Theatre of Edwards and MacLiammóir – even if, as Friel himself remarks, “for all the theatrical stylishness it contributed to the Irish stage, ‘the Gate never produced a major writer”’. Roche debunks that assertion by pointing out that the Gate was responsible for the development of Denis Johnston, but his book also shows how that theatre might justifiably take some credit for having produced Friel himself: he was, after all, only fully admitted to the Abbey Theatre repertoire after Edwards and MacLiammóir had made him an internationally famous dramatist.

Another chapter that makes significant use of Roche’s awareness of theatricality is the book’s fifth, which explores the use of space in Friel’s plays of the 1970s. A huge amount of scholarly attention has been given to Friel’s 1980 play Translations and to his foundation in the same year of Field Day Theatre Company, both of which have often been described as having been based on the notion of theatre operating as a “fifth province”. The idea underlying that phrase was that the theatre could operate as a neutral space where the Northern Irish conflict about territory – about the relationships between Ireland’s four geographical provinces – might be depoliticised through the use of metaphor, and thus considered from new, potentially liberating, perspectives. Roche does not deal in much detail with Field Day (wisely, since it’s been the subject of numerous books and articles already – some very good, many very poor). But he does show how the “fifth province” idea can be traced to Friel’s experimentations with stage space from The Mundy Scheme onwards.

That 1969 play has rarely been considered by academics, and one senses that Friel himself is not particularly proud of it (although he published the play in New York in the early 1970s, has never allowed The Mundy Scheme to be reprinted). Yet on the page it’s a very likeable work, brilliantly satirising the Fianna Fáil government of the day by developing a plot in which a fictitious Taoiseach decides to sell off large parts of the west of Ireland for American tourists to use as a burial ground. To read the play in post-bailout Ireland is to be aware of how prescient a writer Friel has always been: he showed more than forty years ago how precariously our sovereignty was poised, and how easily it could be undermined by political mendacity, parochialism and excessive dependence upon multinational investment. It seems, in other words, like a play whose day has come again. Yet despite its topicality, it has not been revived since its premiere – something that often puzzled me until I read Roche’s pithy explanation for its neglect. The Mundy Scheme, he writes, is “physically inert”: it reads well on the page and might even make a good radio play, but in performance its satire would be undermined by the absence of any dynamism in movement or design.

Roche seems to consider The Mundy Scheme as having been a kind of blind alley that Friel needed to work his way out of. He began to do so with The Gentle Island, a 1971 play about the evacuation of an off-shore Irish island – and also one of the first explicit treatments of homosexuality on an Irish stage. The play is also an investigation of the interplay between many different kinds of space: the public and the private, the offshore and the mainland, the savage and the civilised, the male and the female – and like all island plays from The Tempest onwards it gains a lot of metaphorical traction from the contrast between the fixity of land and the fluidity of sea. But it also explores anew one of the key tensions in Friel’s work: that between the interior and the exterior. He’d already developed that tension in Philadelphia, Here I Come! by splitting the main character into two selves, one private and the other public – but The Gentle Island extends that idea from the personal to the geographical by showing how private and public places overlap and intersect on the same stage space. It is fascinating that, at a time when the situation in Northern Ireland was fast deteriorating, Friel re-imagined the clash between public and private in terms of territorial rather than psychological space.

That move towards the political led Friel to a trio of plays that are now sometimes dismissed by critics as being too explicitly bound to the Troubles: The Freedom of the City, Volunteers, and Living Quarters. The first of those plays remains Friel’s most controversial, because it continues to be seen by some as a crudely polemical response to Bloody Sunday and the subsequent Widgery Report. In the play, a trio of protesters inadvertently find themselves in Derry’s Guildhall when they take shelter after a Civil Rights march turns violent. The security forces determine that the trio are occupying the Guildhall for political purposes – and when they emerge, they are shot without warning by the British army. So the conflict between the interior and exterior runs through this play too, as evident in its dramatisation of the difference between the real motivations of the protesters inside the hall, as compared with the motives attributed to them by everyone outside – from academics to news media to maudlin republican balladeers to the British legal system. Roche charts a clear trajectory from Gar Public and Private in Philadelphia to the protesters in Freedom, showing how both plays reveal the difference between how we see ourselves and how we appear to others. Crucially, this difference between interior and exterior, or private and public, is not just thematic or political: it also functions spatially on the stage, determining where characters are placed, how the set is designed, and who stands where on the stage. Hence, there is something mildly subversive in Friel’s staging of The Freedom of the City, which places the three protesters (literally) centre-stage while locating those who judge them on the margins – a direct reversal of the power relations that functioned in Northern Ireland at the time of the play’s premiere. I was initially surprised when I read Roche’s revelation from his archival research that Friel had been planning The Freedom of the City long before Bloody Sunday took place – but his analysis quickly rescues the play from those who see it as propaganda, or (more kindly but no less dismissively) as having been written too much in the heat of the moment. Roche instead defines the place that Freedom has in the development of Friel’s ideas about stagecraft, and reveals how the play allows stage spaces to be mapped on to public spaces.

Readers familiar with Friel’s works will quickly apply Roche’s ideas about space to the play that most directly explores that theme: Translations. The book sidesteps expectations, however, by taking the play’s politics as read, and dealing with another important theme in that drama – uncertainty.

Ambiguity and the unknowable are central to Friel’s dramaturgy. That theme is evident in his earliest plays – most obviously so in Philadelphia, which ends with the words “I don’t know”, thus leaving in doubt the question of whether its protagonist will indeed emigrate to America. And it’s evident too in his more recent work, most intriguingly in Give Me Your Answer, Do!, which outlines what one character calls the “necessary uncertainty” needed for artistic creation.

Uncertainty for Friel seems closely related to authorial curiosity – the impulse that many writers have to keep writing in order to find out what will happen next. Friel shows a fascination with dreamers, or – as Roche calls them – “fantasists”: men whose creative and imaginative impulses cause them to become disassociated from reality; men who usually prefer the uncertainty of the imaginative world to the certainty of cold fact. Friel’s funniest fantasist is the figure of Casimir in the 1979 play Aristocrats – a man who claims to have met WB Yeats despite being born after the poet’s death, and who speaks constantly about a German wife – who, most audiences assume, does not exist. Again drawing on (at least to me) hitherto unknown archival data, Roche shows that Friel was far more sympathetic towards Casimir than many of his audiences would be: “Friel’s notes to the play suggest that he always considered Casimir’s German wife a reality; at one point she was to accompany her Irish husband on his return home for [a] wedding,” he tells us. Friel also shows enormous sympathy for Frank Hardy, the faith healer in Friel’s 1979 play of that name – a man who chooses death in order to escape chance and uncertainty. For Friel one of the torments – and one of the joys – of writing is the uncertainty that Frank speaks of in the play: the anticipation that something miraculous might transpire, and the fear that nothing at all will happen.

Yet uncertainty also has a major impact on Friel’s relationships with his audiences, forcing us always to consider the basis of what we know and believe. In plays like Dancing at Lughnasa Friel shows how memory can distort our sense of the real – how members of the same family can have radically different recollections of shared events from the past. Uncertainty thus is shown to have a role in determining our sense of self: if my sense of who I am is based on a memory that is not shared by others, then my sense of self becomes precarious, Friel shows. Yet uncertainty can also have a political impact – and in Translations Friel sets out to ask how we can ever know anything for definite. In doing so, his play has the power to undermine the political convictions that we hold to be self-evidently true.

Uncertainty runs through Translations in many ways. There are, for instance, the Donnelly twins, characters who are often referred to but who never appear on stage: people who may – or may not – be responsible for various acts of violence. And there is also the status of Lieutenant Yolland, the charismatic Englishman who disappears shortly before the end of the play. Friel never tells us exactly what happened to Yolland: interestingly, the scholar Marilynn Richtarik has shown that Irish audiences tend to assume that he has been killed by the Donnelly twins, while English audiences usually assume that he will eventually show up unharmed. Roche’s focus here is on the features of the play that allow it to elicit two contradictory interpretations – and what his argument implies is that we shouldn’t see one of those interpretations as wrong and the other as right, but that both can be right at the same time. It is not too fanciful to say that we can see in this play the seeds of the Good Friday Agreement: it too sets out to create a space in which apparently contradictory views of national identity can co-exist peacefully, after all. Where many dramatists of the twentieth century would see ambiguity as a sign of political indifference or complacency, Friel shows that uncertainty – a refusal to fix firm categories – can have enormous political power. In looking at the play from this perspective, Roche rescues Translations from the multiple misinterpretations of it that have arisen since its premiere.

There has been a great deal written about Friel’s politics in relation to the Northern Irish Troubles, but this book is likely to inspire further work on other kinds of social issues present in Friel’s drama. Roche, for example, regularly points out the significance of homosexuality in the plays. As mentioned earlier, that theme is present explicitly in The Gentle Island – but Roche also draws attention to what he calls a “gay subtext” in the premiere performance of Philadelphia, Here I Come! Again drawing on his knowledge of performance history, Roche points out how that subtext was drawn out by Hilton Edwards, especially in his casting of Patrick Bedford in the role of Public Gar. As Roche writes:

Bedford was, in [Christopher] Fitz-simon’s words, “Hilton’s particular friend” … By 1964 Edwards and the younger Bedford had been in a relationship for almost ten years … In his response to Edwards’s production of Philadelphia in 1964, Guthrie said in relation to acting [that] “Paddy Bedford did very well, I thought and wasn’t nearly so queeny as I’d feared – indeed not really queeny at all”. Clearly, there had been an expectation that Bedford would respond to the “camp” aspects of Private Gar by giving an overtly gay performance; Guthrie’s comments suggest that they gay subtext was subtly conveyed … His letter makes clear that all involved in the production …, the author included, were alert to this aspect of the play in performance.

The book also proposes a similar subtextual reading of Translations, detecting in the relationship between Yolland and his Irish companion Eoin some homoerotic tension.

Roche also points out that Friel was alert to other aspects of Irish sexuality from an early stage of his work. In his analysis of The Loves of Cass Maguire from 1966, Roche shows that Friel’s presentation of a priest was informed by an awareness of how the Catholic Church dealt with the sexual transgressions of its clergy. The play, writes Roche, “associates the sexual molestation of a minor with the young clergyman and suggests a motive for his being repeatedly moved from religious order to religious order other than mere personal restlessness”. Friel’s earlier work is often criticised for being commercially orientated, too keen to please the crowd – yet Roche reveals that the work actually has great courage, a willingness to point out truths that would not openly be acknowledged in Ireland until almost forty years later.

What emerges most clearly from the book is a sense of Friel’s international importance. A chapter comparing him to the British dramatists John Osborne and David Storey liberates his works from some of the confines that Irish scholarship restricts him to – at once revealing that it is often very funny while also showing clearly its universal significance. Remarks made in passing also highlight his indebtedness to such writers as Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter (and, interestingly, his disdain – at least early in his career – for the works of Beckett). We also gain a much clearer sense of Friel’s immersion in the theatre, and of the importance of his relationships with directors and actors. This is evident in the discussion of Edwards and Guthrie, but also appears in the important revelation that Friel added a third monologue to Faith Healer (the play many regard as his greatest) upon the suggestion of the actor Niall Toibin. The overall effect is to take him out of an Irish context: a context which has been a source for some very rich scholarship in the past but which has also shut off many important ways of seeing the work.

In describing Roche’s book, then, we might return again to the metaphor of the archaeological dig. Brian Friel – Theatre and Politics is an important excavation of material from Friel’s archives, and as such points the way forward for other scholars: as Roche shows, an enormous amount of material in the Friel archive remains unread and unexplored, and his study should send anyone with an interest in Irish drama straight back to the National Library, where Friel’s papers are stored. But the book is archaeological in another sense: Roche does the essential task of stripping away the layers of reputation that have accumulated around Friel, revealing new ways of looking at his work, returning us not only to the plays’ essential characteristics but also hinting at what may lie beneath their surfaces. This is an exciting, engaging work – and it will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of Friel scholars to continue the work Roche begins so brilliantly here.

 

Patrick Lonergan teaches drama at NUI Galway. His most recent book is The Theatre and Films of Martin McDonagh.

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