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.