Translations, Brian Friel

I have now read two of Brian Friel’s plays (this one on the recommendation of my theater-savvy coworker) and I have determined that I am strongly in favor of him. Ordinarily I do not seek out the Lit’rature of Ireland, ancestral home though it is.1 Because the Lit’rature of Ireland seems terribly depressing, and even when it is Breakfast on Pluto and produced both that darling little film with Cillian Murphy and the excellent line about “his disagreeing face, disagreeing because it is as if he is saying ‘you can say this is happening but I don’t agree with you'” — um, yeah, even then, it is depressing.

Brian Friel does sad without being depressing. I’m not sure where the distinction lies here, but Translations is melancholy, not grim, a romantic tragedy, with jokes (if I may steal Tom Stoppard’s description of Arcadia which, by the way, may not have mentioned this yet, I saw. Twice!!). It is about a small town in Ireland in the earlyish 1800s, and the British officers who come to Ireland to make maps of it and change all the Irish place names into English ones.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Translations that makes it so lovely. A crucial element is the wordplay and language-play. Many of the scenes take place in a small village school, where the teacher and pupils toss around Latin and Greek but decline to learn English and don’t always believe they will need to. Along comes the British soldier, young eager Yolland, who understands not a word spoken to him by most of the villagers, but who finds that he loves Ireland and its language and its traditions and its people (one in particular).

Friel does something that must be difficult to stage, which is to imply to the audience that his characters are speaking two different languages, when in fact they are all speaking English. Thus a British character speaks in English, and he’s actually speaking English, but an Irish character, also speaking English, may translate, and the audience is to understand that the Irish character is actually speaking Gaelic. I’m not explaining this very well. Lo, an excerpt!

Lancey [the British dude]: His Majesty’s government has ordered the first ever comprehensive survey of this entire country – a general triangulation which will embrace detailed hydrographic and topographic information and which will be executed to a scale of six inches to the English mile.

Owen [the Irish dude, translating]: A new map is being made of the whole country.

(Lancey looks at Owen: Is that all? Owen smiles reassuringly and indicates to proceed.)

Lancey: This enormous task is being embarked on so that the military authorities will be equipped with up-to-date and accurate information on every corner of this part of the Empire.

Owen: The job is being done by soldiers because they are skilled in this work.

And so forth.

It’s a meditation on the use of language to preserve tradition, or to discard it. Friel’s plays seem generally to be interested in the capacity of language to destroy or to build, to help or to harm, which I, with my lifelong crush on words, always love. And Translations has got a hell of an ending too. Just as we begin to feel that things might go well for the characters, Friel turns around and wallops you with the implications of the linguistic games the British and Irish characters have been playing throughout. Then it ends with the teacher quoting the Aeneid, and even better, lines I remember from the Aeneid. Yay!

By the way, I’ve become desperately worried that I will miss seeing something amazing on Broadway, just because I haven’t read enough plays. So if you have any recommendations of good plays, please toss them my way. Imagine if this breathtaking production of Arcadia had come to New York, and I hadn’t cared about it! Well, let’s not imagine that, it makes me sad. But that’s what I want to avoid. Thoughts?

Also, happy birthday, Rachel! I hope you are having a lovely day!

  1. Dear Everyone In Britain, I know you hate it when Americans say their families are from Ireland or Germany, because you think those connections are too distant (being, generally, multi-great grandparents who actually moved from Ireland to America) to make any difference. But in fact it makes a noticeable difference. Holiday meals with my New York Irish relatives are very different to holiday meals with my Louisiana German relatives, and funerals with each group of relatives are even differenter. Hence I carry on saying my people were Irish. Because they were. I promise. They were. xoxo, Jenny.
  • Mumsy

    I really need to read more plays. I used to enjoy reading plays SO MUCH, and then I just kind of forgot about them. This one sounds lovely.

  • Oh Jenny you are too sweet, thank you!!

    You have made me love plays more and I am definitely going to read Arcadia now – how fantastic was that?!

    But I will still invoke my right to be cross when Americans claim to be British when they are NOT! They have British ancestry. They are not British. There is a difference!!!

  • This does sound like a lovely play, and I am especially interested in how the author uses that technique of the players speaking two different languages, but really speaking English. It sounds like something to be looking out for.

  • Lu

    I had this whole rant written about about people calling themselves Irish or German or Italian (in favor of it), but I deleted it, haha. I think that’s something that’s definitely a very American thing culturally, but one that’s slowly drifting away. At one point in time it was enough to define you. For example, my dad was the first person in his family to marry someone who was not Irish-American. My maternal great-grandmother didn’t speak English. (AND that is why it is so important to keep up languages in the US! My family lost Italian in ONE GENERATION. /rant.) Food, traditions, songs, names… all are connected to our ancestry and in a country full of people who are from somewhere else…well, it matters to a point. But so do many other things, like where you grew up and whether you are a mountain person or a beach person (this is something real in my head, but I’m not actually sure it is something in real life). Okay, so I just rewrote my rant.

    Anyway… I really don’t read enough plays. Thank you for bringing this one to my attention, I might have to look it up 🙂

  • Sarah

    Translations is really a wonderful play. I read it in an undergrad seminar and it spawned some really interesting conversations on mapping, landscape, language, and identity. And I remember the ending being a real kick in the gut—the best kind 🙂 However, it doesn’t take place in the 1970s, as you wrote. I don’t remember the exact date, but it’s definitely pre-Famine, as there are references to the sickly sweet smell of potato blight in the air at one point. 1830s, perhaps? In any case, it makes the ending all the more haunting.

    (Well, guess I know what I need to reread next!)

    • Yeesh, thanks for pointing that out. I have no idea why I wrote that, the play was obviously not set in the 1970s. Obviously I was not paying attention to what I was writing.

  • Jenny

    This sounds like a wonderful play.

    I just spent a conference talking to a Scotsman, and I hesitated a long time before telling him that I have a lot of Scots ancestry (I do! my grandmother was BORN there!) for the very reason you mention. But I finally told him, and he said cheerfully that the Scots like to hear that sort of thing because there are far more people of Scots descent than there are people in Scotland and it’s a sort of diaspora and they can lay claim to all our nifty accomplishments. So there you are.

  • Oh! I saw this performed, at Stanford! But I forgot what it was called or who wrote it, so thanks for the reminder.

    The two-different-languages-performed-as-English thing actually worked really well on the stage, as I recall. And I think your description of “sad but not depressing” is a good one—I certainly left the theater feeling the tragedy of the thing, but there was also a lot of humor that enabled me to connect with the characters. One thing we were all curious about: there was a lot of rose and rose-petal imagery in the production I saw (characters passing around a rose; communicating non-verbally by transferring it from person to person, each time altering the meaning somewhat). Was that written into the stage directions, or something added by the director? It was effective, anyway.

  • One of the things I love about theatre ushering is that I get to see all sorts of plays I never would have known about or thought I needed to see–and then I fall in love with them.

    If you’re getting interested in Irish theatre, you should make a point of checking out something by Conor McPherson or Enda Walsh if you get a chance. I’ve seen a couple of plays by each and they were fascinating. They’re loopy and weird and I’m not sure I understood them, but I’m glad to have seen them.

    Tarell Alvin McCraney is another favorite–he’s not Irish, but a lot of his plays are set in Louisiana, so you might like that. His Brother/Sister Trilogy is remarkable.

  • anna

    heheh, they are very different, the two families. Very, very, very different.

  • My college performed this play when I was a freshman and because they were performing it, my Introduction to English Studies professor also assigned it for our class. I remember liking both the play and performance. One of the main cast members is now a playwright herself. I don’t read many plays though. I never really cared for reading Shakespeare for example but I’ve enjoyed seeing Shakespeare performed. Have you seen the show “Slings and Arrows”? It’s a fantastic Canadian show about a troupe of actors in a Shakespearean theater company.

  • She

    Ireland/Germany/enter name of country is totally capitalizing on the fact that Americans have such strong ‘identities’ — They host heritage tours that cost buku bucks. I suppose those folks can’t hate us distant relations too much. ;p

  • Katy

    This isn’t by a woman or a person of color, but I love Shaw’s play Saint Joan. It’s kind of like Arcadia in that you expect it to just be clever because that’s what the author is known for, and then it turns out to be hearfelt and moving as well as clever.

  • My husband, an Irish Piper, played for a production of Translations at a local theatre–Dido’s Lament was the bit of music that sticks most clearly in my mind.

    I saw it several times, and it did not grow less moving.

  • I read this for my Irish Drama class a few years ago (which I really, really miss) and also enjoyed it a lot. Have you read any Martin McDonagh? I read him for that same class and I remember much awesomeness.

  • I must admit I read very few plays and very little Irish writing, but it’s fine for you to claim ancestry from there or indeed any part of the British Isles. I’m cool about that! I think the plays I have read for pleasure have mostly been by Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, but you’ll know all about them! Oh and I like Sartre’s plays, too – it was his best genre, I think.

  • If I were near NYC, I’d be going to off-broadway shows like O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten, Hwang’s Chinglish, Kaufman’s One-Arm (based on an unproduced Tn Wms play), Ruhl’s Orlando* or Kushner’s The Illusion or The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…

    On Broadway, I’d be at The Importance of Being Earnest!!!! Also The House of Blue Leaves and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

    You missed your chance at The Scottsboro Boys, I think.

    *Sarah Ruhl is a great translator/playwrite and I’d pick her Orlando over the others if I had to make a choice.

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