Brian Friel: Staging the Struggle with Nationalism

By Boltwood, Scott | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Autumn-Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Brian Friel: Staging the Struggle with Nationalism

Boltwood, Scott, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies

The problem is not simply the 'selfhood' of the nation as opposed to the otherness of other nations. We are confronted with the nation split within itself, articulating the heterogeneity of its population. (1)

Homi Bhabha


The critical responses to Brian Friel's work have long recognized the playwright's intention to explore, if not question, the hegemonic version of history and culture associated with Irish nationalism. Whereas only the most naive readers would consider Friel a loyal nationalist in the de Valera mode, F.C. McGrath's recent use of such terms as 'new', 'contemporary', and 'Northern' to characterize Friel's brand of nationalism in the nineteen eighties and nineteen nineties assumes that the playwright remains a republican at heart, albeit one whose specific ideology is difficult to assess. (2) Whereas this brief essay cannot pretend to explicate the evolution of Friel's relationship to nationalism as it has manifested itself over more than forty years of playwriting, I nonetheless hope to refine our understanding of Friel's ideological position immediately prior to the watershed events of the founding of the Field Day Theatre Company and its staging of Translations in 1980. Indeed, our ability to formulate the co ntours of Friel's 'new' nationalism presupposes the nuanced knowledge of the playwright's disposition at the start of this period, the tumultuous nineteen seventies. Thus, in this essay I will consider the ideological trajectory outlined in Friel's essays and interviews throughout the first half of his career, and how these statements lead us to recognize in Living Quarters (1977) Friel's critique of Irish nationalism on the very brink of the era in question.

In 'Self-Portrait', an elusive attempt at autobiography from 1972, Brian Friel offers more a thematic than a personal review of his life. While only lightly referring to the particular details of his education, family, and career, he uses the opportunity to explore the 'mixed holding I had inherited'; a phrase so aptly descriptive for him that he repeats it later in this brief work. In the first case, one can easily assume that he refers to his personal condition as 'an Irish Catholic teacher with a nationalist background, living in [the] schizophrenic community' of Northern Ireland in the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties. (3) This example alone would be noteworthy because of Friel's choice of the word 'mixed' to describe the union of nationalism and Catholicism, implying both a personal ambivalence towards the two ideologies as well as their blending. Yet, when Friel returns to this phrase a few pages later, this 'mixed holding I had inherited' acquires more generational connotations and is intended to illustrate 'how difficult it is for an Irish writer to find his faith' (p. 45). In this instance, one might assume that his oblique reference alludes to religion alone, or even to the difficulties associated with the sectarianism in the North, which had recently erupted in the Bloody Sunday murders. Or, in light of the earlier statement, one might even believe that Friel refers to the relationship of the artist to the Catholic Church and the doctrinal struggles of such Irish writers as James Joyce or himself. However, Friel soon reveals that his discussion of 'faith' does not pertain to religion, but to the nationalist idea of 'our Irishness'.

Friel is keenly aware of both the near-religious status of Irish identity and his own distance from 'the generation of Irish writers immediately before mine' who 'took their genetic purity for granted'. Clearly speaking for the children born after the 1916 revolution, he expresses the cultural dislocation that results when a nationalist ideology loses England as its defining opposite and contrastive enemy. For nationalists of the previous generation Friel implies that learning Irish carried the equivalent significance as speaking it from birth, and being born in Ireland allowed both Catholic and Anglo-Irish nationalists to assert an essentially equivalent 'genetic purity'.

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