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Studies on the contemporary Irish theatre

Jacqueline Genet
Elizabeth Hellegouarc’h

Truth and indeterminacy in Brian Friel

Nicholas Grene

Texte intégral

  • 1 Dates given for each play are those of first performance.

1Philadelphia Here I Come (1964)1, Brian Friel’s first major play, contains two mirroring illustrations of the workings of deceptive memory, the stories that the mind tells itself. There is one moment of happiness from his childhood which Gar O’Donnell clings on to, as it represents the possibility of a fulfilled relationship with his father which is so crucially lacking in his present life. Private Gar, the inner part of the play’s split persona, recalls it in an imagined conversation with S.B.:

Do you remember – it was an afternoon in May oh, fifteen years ago – I don’t remember every detail but some things are as vivid as can be: the boat was blue and the paint was peeling and there was an empty cigarette packet floating in the water at the bottom between two trout and the left rowlock kept slipping and you had given me your hat and had put your jacket round my shoulders because there had been a shower of rain. And you had the rod in your left hand – I can see the cork nibbled away from the butt of the rod – and maybe we had been chatting – I don’t remember – it doesn’t matter – but between us at that moment there was this great happiness, this great joy – you must have felt it too – although nothing was being said – just the two of us fishing on a lake on a showery day – and young as I was I felt, I knew, that this was precious, and your hat was soft on the top of my ears – I can feel it – and I shrank down into your coat – and then, then for no reason at all except that you were happy too, you began to sing: (Sings)

  • 2 Selected Plays, p. 82-83. This and all other quotations from Friel in this paper, except where oth (...)

2All round my hat I’ll wear a green coloured ribbono2.

  • 3 Ibid., p. 95

3Late in the play, on the point of parting from his father, Gar finally gathers up courage, and very diffidently reminds S.B. about this incident. But the father, in no unkind spirit, denies that it happened. He never knew that song – “‘All Round My Hat’? – that was never one of mine.” A blue boat? No he cannot remember a blue boat: “There was a brown one belonging to the doctor, and before that there was a wee flat-bottom – but it was green – or was it white3? ”. To Gar the failure to remember is devastating: with memory denied, meaning is destroyed. Very shortly after, however, when Gar has left the stage to hide his humiliation, S.B. recounts his treasured memory of his son’s childhood to the housekeeper Madge, a morning when Gar had refused to go to school, determined to stay behind and mind the shop in his father’s business:

  • 4 Ibid., p. 97

You tried to coax him to go to school, and not a move you could get out of him, and him as manly looking, and this wee sailor suit as smart looking on him, and – and – and at the heel of the hunt I had to go with him myself, the two of us, hand in hand, as happy as larks – we were that happy, Madge – and him dancing and chatting beside me – mind? you couldn’t get a word in edge-ways with all the chatting he used to go through4....

4But Madge refuses to corroborate S.B.’s memory just as S.B. had been unable to corroborate Gar’s. “A sailor suit? He never had a sailor suit”. The parallel episodes show us the freight of value memory carries for each individual, and the poignant failure of such memories to meet in a shared reality.

  • 5 Ibid., p. 77.

5All through his career as a playwright Friel has dramatised the fluid, shifting, indeterminate shape of memories, narratives, histories. Is it ever possible to tell life as it really was? Who can tell the truth of their own life? Who can truly represent the lives of others? The questions are asked again and again in Friel’s drama, at the level of the individual, of the family, and of the nation. The individual, like Gar O’Donnell in Philadelphia or the many other fantasisers in Friel, turns memory into consoling fiction. Gar, even at the point of leaving Ballybeg, his home village that so stifles and paralyzes him, knows that he is accumulating a treasure-trove of recollections: “Just the memory of it – that’s all you have now – just the memory; and even now, even so soon, it is being distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious gold5... ”. Frequently in Friel’s plays the focus has been on individuals as family members and their competing, conflicting or overlapping stories of themselves. In Aristocrats (1979), for example, Friel’s most Chekhovian play, the Big House fills with the accumulated reveries of the family, the oral folklore of its own past. In later plays Friel has turned from the life of the family to the national life. What for the family are memories, rewriting the shared consciousness of past experience each according to his or her prescription, for the nation becomes myth, the legends which misremember history for political purposes. Archbishop Lombard defends his idealised version of the life of the sixteenth-century Irish leader Hugh O’Neill in these terms in Friel’s 1988 play Making History:

  • 6 Brian Friel, Making History, London, Faber & Faber, 1989, p. 66-67.

People think they just want to know the facts; they think they believe in some sort of empirical truth, but what they really want is a story.... I am offering Gaelic Ireland two things. I’m offering them this narrative that has the elements of myth. And I’m offering them Hugh O’Neill as a national hero. A hero and the story of a hero6.

6The play as a whole exposes the fictive, fabricated quality of history, analogous to the fictiveness of the individual or the collective family memory.

7Friel is a characteristically modern playwright in his representation of indeterminate fictions. Chekhov has been an important influence on him, Chekhov with his vivid realisation of the self-sealed, colliding worlds of his characters’ egos. Other precedents for Friel’s practice are Pirandello’s sceptical illusionism and Eugene O’Neill’s piercing scrutiny of self-deception. Like so many modern writers, Friel sets up a radical doubt as to what true truth might be, whether such a thing exists. Perhaps there never can be anything but narratives, discourses, the fabrications of human beings fashioned by their own compelling needs. The most striking example of this comes in what many people regard as his most outstanding play, Faith Healer (1979). The four monologues by the three characters are each completely self-contained – there is no dialogue between them – and as it turns out, two of the three people are dead. First Frank the faith healer, then Grace his wife, Teddy his friend and business manager, and finally Frank again tell the story of their lives together. Each version is persuasive, each of the characters draws us into his or her narrative, and yet the continual discrepancies between the several stories expose the constructedness of the truths they purport to tell.

8Faith Healer could be taken to represent some sort of ultimate extreme of a scepticism that is everywhere in Friel’s drama. There are and can be, Friel seems to suggest, only competing narratives, nothing which can be determined or verified as demonstrably true. Yet there is also a strain in Friel which resists this principle of indeterminacy. His plays recurrently, in a variety of ways, crave the authority of truth. It is this need for truth and the different sorts of truth sought which I want to explore. Three types of truth, in particular, seem to me to figure in Friel’s drama as possible stays against the shape-changing relativities of narrative. The first is truth based on objective fact, documentary truth; the second is the truth of tragedy; and the third is mythic or poetic truth. Let me look at a number of illustrations of each of these verities to see how they function within the plays.

  • 7 Brian Friel, Lovers, Dublin, Gallery Press, 1984, p. 11.

9Story-telling is fundamental to Friel’s dramatic world. He took over from his first literary metier as short story writer many of the themes and techniques of fiction. Thus the monologuing characters of Faith Healer are what in a novel we would call unreliable narrators. The refractions and distortions of their unreliable narratives are used as the measure of the bends in the characters’ minds. But Friel has also experimented quite often with the device of reliable narrator figures, figures who supply an objective narrative counterpointing the subjectivities of the characters’ experience. In the first play of the two short pieces which make up Lovers (1967), for example, we watch the central young couple of the drama, Joe and Mag, flanked by a Man and a Woman who act as what Friel calls Commentators. They read from a script a scrupulously factual account of the actions of the lovers as it might be a court deposition. “Their reading, the stage direction specifies, is impersonal, completely without emotion: their function is to give information. At no time must they reveal an attitude to their material7.” The designed effect of the drama is to afford a continuing contrast between the bleak, clinical, fact-based narration of the Man and Woman, and the living, spontaneous, volatile action of Joe and Mag in love. A somewhat similar technique is used in Aristocrats where the upper-middle-class Catholic family of the Big House is observed by Tom Hoffnung, an American historian, who is writing a dissertation on just exactly this sort of social class. Tom is constantly consulting his notebook, checking his facts as a good researcher should, and trying with some bewilderment to verify the accuracy of the rich array of family anecdote he is served. He acts as a control in the play, a means of marking off the wilder of the characters’ fictions as fictions. The contrast here, as in Lovers, is between the sort of truth which history or chronicle tells, dispassionate, neutral, true to verifiable facts, and the shifting and elusive textures of human experience. The documentary truth-telling is made to seem inadequate to the understanding of the human action; and yet there is a presupposition that such objective truth-telling, limited as it may be, is possible, that it does represent truth of a sort.

  • 8 Selected Plays, p. 175.

10The fullest development of the device of a trustworthy controlling narrator is to be found in the play Living Quarters (1977). Living Quarters is subtitled “After Hippolytus”, and there is a recollection of Euripides’s play in so far as the plot turns on a love affair between Ben, the son, and Anna the young stepmother of the central character Commandant Frank Butler. But in Euripides the tragedy is controlled by the warring goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis to whose wars Hippolytus, Phaedra and Theseus fall victim. In Friel’s play we have instead the character of Sir, the neutral stage manager of the action, who is, according to the stage direction “always in full control of the situation, of the other characters, of himself. His calm is never ruffled. He is endlessly patient and tolerant, but never superior. Always carries his ledger with him8.” This ledger is the true and accurate record of what happened in the one tragic day in the life of the Butler family which began with a hero’s welcome home for the soldier father Frank and ended with his suicide. The drama is a drama of memory as the characters relive the events of this day governed by Sir, whom the characters have invented, as they have invented the ledger. Sir himself explains:

  • 9 Ibid., p. 177-178.

In their imagination, out of some deep psychic necessity, they have conceived this (ledger) – a complete and detailed record of everything that was said and done that day, as if its very existence must afford them their justification, as if in some tiny, forgotten detail buried here – a smile, a hesitation, a tentative gesture – if only it could be found and recalled – in it must lie the key to an understanding of all that happened. And in their imagination, out of some deep psychic necessity, they have conceived me – the ultimate arbiter, the powerful and impartial referee, the final adjudicator9.

11Part of the strategy of the play is to show us how each of the characters tries to revise his or her part in the story, only to be forced back to the truth as recorded in Sir’s ledger. The device is not altogether successful theatrically, but it is significant in terms of Friel’s concern with dramatic truth. There is in Living Quarters a true story of what actually happened; all the characters know that, even though equally all of them try to retell it to improve or revise their roles in it. The true story has the relentless inevitability of the unchangeable past. In place of gods and goddesses, Friel substitutes narrative itself as fate, a narrative of interlinked family self-destructiveness leading to tragic catastrophe.

12Nothing in this life is certain, the old saying goes, but death and taxes. Friel does not show much interest in taxes, but he is much preoccupied by death as the one certainty we know and never know. In The Freedom of the City (1973), the play Friel wrote in anger and indignation after Bloody Sunday, the day in 1972 when thirteen unarmed civilians were killed by the British Army in Derry, death is the starting-point. The play opens with three dead bodies, the bodies of the three central characters, and then cuts to the tribunal investigating their deaths. At the time of first production the tribunal represented a vitriolic satire on the British judicial enquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday conducted by Lord Widgery, which many people in Ireland felt produced a travesty of justice in exonerating the soldiers responsible for the shooting. It was Friel’s first fully political play, and it was very severely criticised in England as polemical propaganda. However, there is much more to it than merely a political protest at a specific event. The play tells the story of three unrelated marchers on a Civil Rights demonstration, Lily, Skinner and Michael, who acciden-tally end up in the Guildhall – Derry’s equivalent of a French mairie – and get shot because it is assumed they are revolutionary terrorists. This is the reality which is enacted on stage, the actuality which is there before us, contrasted with the various political misappropriations to which it is subject.

13We see not only the tribunal judge blatantly prejudiced in his enquiry, but also the republican balladeer who turns the characters and their misadventure into instant legend, the journalists who make headlines out of them, the priests and the politicians who manipulate the deaths for their own ends. And for good measure, Friel adds in a totally extraneous professor of sociology giving a lecture on the sub-culture of poverty whose academic remarks make for an ironic commentary on the realities of these three Deny people’s lives. The play exposes the inauthenticity of a whole range of interpretative languages against the elusive realities of lived experience.

  • 10 Ibid., p. 149.

14And yet Friel wants there to be some final truth, gives to his characters at the point of death insights into their lives which they could never have had. As they face annihilation, they are each allowed to sum up, in non-naturalistic speeches marked off in the text by their lack of resemblance to their normal speech: “they speak calmly, without emotion, in neutral accents10.” Lily’s speech is especially significant, Lily, the warm-hearted, garrulous, politically naive working-class woman. “In the silence”, she says,

  • 11 Ibid., p. 150.

Before my body disintegrated in a purple convulsion, I thought I glimpsed a tiny truth: that life had eluded me because never once in my forty-three years had an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening been isolated, and assessed, and articulated11.

15It is as though Friel needed to endow his characters with the dignity of tragedy and with the eloquent self-definition typical of the tragic protagonist at the end. “Soft you, a word or two before you go”. The tragedy of these people’s life and death is in fact that it was without significance, that they were accidental victims, martyrs to no cause, absurdly, purposelessly killed. In that consists the anger of the play. But the demand for meaning persists. And so, as an act of author’s grace, Friel articulates for his characters a significance beyond their understanding, gives them a last glimpse of what it is they have failed to understand, to deepen them towards tragedy.

  • 12 On this subject, I recall a brilliant lecture by Frank McGuinness here in Caen in 1987 on “The Iri (...)

16For Friel the truest narrative is the tragic narrative that has already ended in death. In play after play of his – Lovers, The Freedom of the City, Living Quarters, Faith Healer, Dancing at Lughnasa – some or all the characters are dead before the action starts. He inherits from Yeats and from Beckett a tradition of what Yeats calls “dreaming back”, the reiving, more or less frequently and obsessively repeated, of the tragic matrix of the dead life12. It is in Faith Healer that this pattern is put to most telling use. The narratives of the three characters, as I said earlier, constantly go over the same events, the same highs and lows of their relationship with one another, and their stories never tally. But all three converge towards one final event, their return to Ireland, to the little Donegal town of Ballybeg which is the imaginary setting of so many of Friel’s plays, where Frank Hardy, faith healer, was murdered. Though each of them recounts the details of why and how they came to Ballybeg, each blames the other for the idea of a return to Ireland which Frank had always avoided, for each of them the night in Ballybeg is waiting at the end of the story. And so when Frank appears to perform his second monologue, when we know (as we don’t during his opening speech) that he is in fact dead, we also know that the monologue will consist of a climactic account of that death.

  • 13 Selected Plays, p. 334.

17I saw the play again just before Christmas, having seen the first Dublin production in 1979, and was struck again by how strange and powerful a text it is. Each of the three actors is very much alive there before an audience, each of their performances is compelling – while it is being enacted we are completely engrossed by it. And yet two of the three characters, Frank and Grace, are dead and all three must be lying, fictionalising, more or less. With its individual actors on an eerily empty stage, few plays demonstrate so vividly what theatre does in making us believe in what is not there and not true. Yet with all its vrituoso display of the mutability of narrative, the play is drawn towards the absolute completion of death and tragedy. The action of Faith Healer, such as it is, is concerned with the problem of Frank Hardy and his strange gift. All three, not least Frank himself, restlessly return to the question of what sort of man he was, and what degree of spuriousness or authenticity there was in his faith healing. As he says in his first monologue, “they persisted right to the end, those nagging, tormenting, maddening questions that rotted my13.” Clearly faith healing is some sort of metaphor for writing and the play is partly about the self-doubts and self destructiveness of the creative artist. But it cannot simply be translated thus into allegory, reduced to a one-for-one correspondence of this sort. The image of the faith healer has its own complex resonance which resists metaphoric interpretation. It brings with it a possibility of the mysterious, the supernatural even, which prepares us for the sense of fatedness in the play’s end.

18Frank is killed by the three friends of a young man in a wheelchair whom he tries and fails to cure of his paralysis. He has met the men in a bar in Ballybeg, as they returned home from a wedding, and has spent the evening drinking with them. The scene has been conjured up for us several times with variations by Teddy and Grace and Frank himself, before, in the final monologue, Frank remembers the last details of the early morning encounter with the men who are to murder him:

  • 14 Ibid., p. 375-376.

I walked across the yard towards them. And as I walked I became possessed of a strange and trembling intimation: that the whole corporeal world – the cobbles, the trees, the sky, those four malign implements [the tools with which they beat him to death] – somehow they had shed their physical reality and had become mere imaginings, and that in all existence there was only myself and the wedding guests. And that intimation in turn gave way to a stronger sense: that even we had ceased to be physical and existed only in spirit, only in the need we had for each other....
And as I moved across that yard towards them and offered myself to them, then for the first time I had a simple and genuine sense of home-coming. Then for the first time there was no atrophying terror; and the maddening questions were silent.
At long last I was renouncing chance14.

19This is once again tragic narrative as fate: chance is renounced once the certainty of death is accepted. But much more is attempted here than that. This is a visionary affirmation of some ultimate life of the spirit in which, if only in extremis, a truth beyond imagining can be known.

  • 15 Ibid., p. 77.

20Let me go back to my starting-point with Philadelphia before ending up with Friel’s most recent play Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). I want to quote again Gar’s words about his action of storing up recollections of his home which he is about to leave: “Just the memory of it – that’s all you have now – just the memory; and even now, even so soon, it is being distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious gold15...” Memory, as we see again and again in Friel, edits, distorts, remakes the past, but that process is also conceived as distillation, purifying down to essences. Whatever the realities of life in Ballybeg as the play exposes them to us, mean-spirited, crude, impoverished and repressed, Gar will make of them in memory touchstones of the past. Friel treats these remembered consolatory fictions with tenderness and respect. His illustrations of the imaginary nature of memory do not merely expose self-deception and illusion. For Friel rather, memory and imagination are twinned. If the imaginative writer claims significance for his poetic vision, then he must allow potential validity to the remembered fiction also. Even if Gar’s father never did have a blue boat, even if he never did sing “All Around my Hat”, that day’s fishing continues to live as a class of truth.

21Dancing at Lughnasa is also a memory play, Friel’s most thorough-going memory play yet. It is mediated through the remembering consciousness of the adult narrator Michael looking back at his childhood and the lives of five women, his unmarried mother and her equally unmarried four sisters who all lived together. As so often in Friel, the pastness of the past, the knowledge given to the audience of how the stories ended, bears down on the stage life of the present. Michael spares us nothing of the brutal realities as he tells what he managed to find out about the afterlives of Rose and Agnes, his two aunts who ran off to London:

  • 16 Brian Friel, Dancing at Lughnasa, London, Faber & Faber, 1990, p. 60.

The scraps of information I gathered about their lives during those missing years were too sparse to be coherent. They had moved about a lot. They had worked as cleaning women in public toilets, in factories, in the Underground. Then, when Rose could no longer get work, Agnes tries to support them both – but couldn’t. From then on, I gathered, they gave up. They took to drink; slept in parks, in doorways, on the Thames Embankment. Then Agnes died of exposure. And two days after I found Rose in that grim hospice – she didn’t recognize me, of course – she died in her sleep16.

22This implacable narrative is almost unbearable in the theatre as it is juxtaposed with the immediacy of the characters living in a spontaneous present, innocent of their own terrible future. And yet, at the same time, the mediated nature of the drama we watch gives it a lyric translucence, a poetic grace which it would not have if it were not known to be a remembered past. This is rendered in Michael’s final speech in the image of dancing. He tries to sum up the nature of his memories of this one summer of 1936:

  • 17 Ibid., p. 71.

When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement – as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary17...

23This image of the dance bears the weight of meaning at the end because of its multiple associations through the play. The dance of the five women together in Act I a principal climax, a great theatrical moment of grotesque celebration. It is linked to the harvest festival of Lughnasa, to the sense of pre-Christian seasonal rhythms which underpin the communal life. The returned missionary priest who has gone native, the women’s brother Jack, is used to add another dimension to the pattern when he recalls African rituals he has witnessed.

  • 18 Ibid., p. 48.

We light fires round the periphery of the circle; and we paint our faces with coloured powders; and we sing local songs; and we drink palm wine. And then we dance – and dance – and dance – children, men, women, most of them lepers, many of them with misshapen limbs, with missing limbs – dancing, believe it or not, for days on end! It is the most wonderful sight you have ever seen18!

24In Dancing at Lughnasa Friel, like Synge before him, attempts to uncover a primitive pagan structure of life lying below the repressive social conformism of Irish Catholic Christianity. And in that final meditation of Michael, through the idea of the dance, the individual memory of the past is fused with the race memory of ritual, the poetic is made one with the mythic.

25Let me conclude briefly with a context for what I have been saying about truth and indeterminacy in Friel. “We were the last romantics” said Yeats of himself and the other leaders of the Irish literary revival. But they weren’t. Romanticism is still endemic in the Irish literary, and the Irish theatrical tradition. Friel’s need for truth, his resistance to relativising indeterminacy can, I think, be related to this remaining romanticism. In some ways he looks like a modernist, even a post-modernist writer, in his awareness of narrative and metanarrative. But however ironised they may be, the claims to sovereignty of poetic truth persist in his plays as the legacy of the romantic doctrine of the imagination. Similarly the romantic need for spiritual significance remains in a world emptied of any orthodox system of the supernatural. On the edge of Friel’s bleakly pessimistic humanism, there is often the sense of a religious dimension just out of reach – something much more obviously there in Beckett. Finally there is the simultaneous disposition to trust as well as to distrust language which seems to me so typical of the Irish theatre and its romanticism. In some ways the final line of Dancing at Lughnasa is a sort of wish-fulfilment ideal for Friel: “Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary”. There should be a truth beyond language, beyond the ambivalences and frailties of words, their treachery, their liability to rhetoric. And yet how does Friel give us this vision of meaning beyond language? Not through the dance itself, but through the eloquently persuasive, poetic, speaking voice. In the beginning was the Word. And in the end too.


1 Dates given for each play are those of first performance.

2 Selected Plays, p. 82-83. This and all other quotations from Friel in this paper, except where otherwise stated, are taken from Brian Friel, Selected Plays, London, Faber & Faber, 1984.

3 Ibid., p. 95

4 Ibid., p. 97

5 Ibid., p. 77.

6 Brian Friel, Making History, London, Faber & Faber, 1989, p. 66-67.

7 Brian Friel, Lovers, Dublin, Gallery Press, 1984, p. 11.

8 Selected Plays, p. 175.

9 Ibid., p. 177-178.

10 Ibid., p. 149.

11 Ibid., p. 150.

12 On this subject, I recall a brilliant lecture by Frank McGuinness here in Caen in 1987 on “The Irish Theatre: the Living and the Dead”.

13 Selected Plays, p. 334.

14 Ibid., p. 375-376.

15 Ibid., p. 77.

16 Brian Friel, Dancing at Lughnasa, London, Faber & Faber, 1990, p. 60.

17 Ibid., p. 71.

18 Ibid., p. 48.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1991

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