An American in Ireland: The Representation of the American in Brian Friel's Plays

By Germanou, Maria | Comparative Drama, Summer-Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

An American in Ireland: The Representation of the American in Brian Friel's Plays


Germanou, Maria, Comparative Drama


Twentieth-century Irish theater has been traversed by recurrent binarisms pertinent to the countrys specific political and historical condition such as those between Catholic and Protestant, Irish and English, North and South, Nationalist and Loyalist. Such conflicting contrasts, crucial to the understanding of Irish identity during the colonial and early postcolonial period, fade gradually as Ireland moves out of its seclusion, in an effort to embrace a more intercultural perspective from which to perceive its own identity. Aware of the need to transcend absolute boundaries without losing a sense of origin, identification, and belonging, Brian Friel seems to be moving in this direction, albeit cautiously. (1) Deeply concerned with the impact that globalization enacted under the auspices of the United States can have, (2) Friel uses the Irish/American relationship to investigate the intricacies of identity and culture just at the time that Ireland has to become engaged with a global economy and the power relations that define it.

This article will focus on the representation of the American in three plays by Friel, The Freedom of the City (1973), Aristocrats (1979), and Give Me Your Answer, Do! (1997). All three plays dramatize the conflicts and exchanges between the American, always an intellectual, who tries to understand Ireland by constructing her as an object of investigation, and the Irish who define themselves against the national other and its image of them. The analysis of this juxtaposition has a twofold function: first, it reveals the relationship between power and knowledge as the American attempts to define and thus immobilize Ireland; second, the principle of permanent and absolute cultural difference is dismantled as the American occasionally desires and ultimately finds in Irish culture what is missing from his own; in the process a split self emerges. But the Irish, too, are occasionally involved in this gesture of the divided self; they too discover secret affinities with the other, and challenge the coherence of fixed identities against any sense of essentialism or cultural homogeneity.

The action in The Freedom of the City is set in Derry City, Northern Ireland, in 1970, and derives from the Bloody Sunday events in 1972. It was then that thirteen unarmed civilians, participating in a banned march for civil rights, were shot dead by the British army, which was subsequently relieved of any responsibility for the shooting; the investigations that followed the events determined that the victims had been armed. Friel appropriates the events to demystify the objectivity of scientific discourses associated with those in power, primarily the English judge and an American sociologist, Dr. Dodds, who delivers three speeches about poverty as an economic, social, and psychological problem. To achieve this demystifying effect, Friel reverses the traditional function of documentary form--its promise of factual truth as a discourse that verifies reality. This reversal occurs when two levels of dramatic action--the realistic and the documentary--are juxtaposed. The first level deals with the fictional action dramatized in the mayor's parlor in the city's guildhall, where three marchers from the poor Irish Catholic community, Skinner, Michael, and Lily, have taken refuge from the assault of rubber bullets. The second level enacts the investigation that follows the events and the responses of public voices representing larger social groups: the Priest, the Constable, the Judge, Dr. Dodds, the Balladeer, an Army Press Officer, and the others. It is here that the playwright makes use of documentary devices such as reports, eyewitnesses, statistics, speeches, direct address to the audience, and scientific information. By blending the fictional with documentary rhetoric, the writer transgresses the conventional boundaries that separate these two categories. In doing so he challenges both the fictional nature of drama, which is no longer exclusively associated with the imaginative, and the factual nature of documentary information, which can no longer be understood as a value-free category.

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