Brian Friel: A Sociological Appreciation of an Irish Playwright

Article excerpt

With the advent of peace in Northern Ireland, however tenuous, a sense of evil and despond has lifted as life returns to normality. It is too early to speak of the writing of history of this period of an undeclared civil war. Apart from commemorating all the dead, part of the task of a retrospection will be to discern saving graces from such a culture of suffering. One compensation has been the contribution to poetry, from Ulster poets such as Derek Mahon, Tom Paulin, Paul Muldoon and of course Seamus Heaney, whose writings form part of the English curriculum for secondary schools in the United Kingdom. The terrible trickle of death and injury seemed to offer no political or cultural solution, no other option bar poetic introspection at the tragedy of it all, the terrible waste.

Somehow, the placing of sociology in the context of the tragedy of the recent history of Ulster seems worthy, an analytical necessity, but unproductive of any lasting insights that would clarify with reason a tribal war based on unreason. As other disciplines, sociology stands before this field of strife, mute, inglorious, expected to be there, but to what end?

These dilemmas came into practical focus when teaching a course in a sociology department to almost exclusively English students who felt they ought to know more about a tragedy sprung before their birth. The difficulties of teaching such a course can be mythological. The students were deeply interested, produced some splendid essays, had no problem weaving a web through the intricasies of Irish history, and like young Europeans, were appreciative of learning of another culture, that of Ireland. But something seemed to be missing that would form a fulcrum point for their concerns, that would exemplify what they sought to understand. To respond to this interest, one had to reach outside the strict contours of sociology, to culture, to religion, but also, and not unexpectedly, to literature.

Literature supplies a feel for Irish character and culture that can be refracted by sociology. For instance, David Thomson's Woodbrook provides an indispensible means of linking English consciousness with Irish awareness. His encounter with the cultural and historical landscape surrounding a Big House in the northwest of Ireland caught admirably the liminal nature of the Anglo-Irish and their relationship to a brutal past, one which the native Irish sought to veil from innocent English eyes such as those of Thomson. This study allowed contrasts to be drawn with other communities, for instance between the virtual absence of a national history intruding on a Suffolk village, in Blythe's Akenfield and the dream sequence of a similar Big House in Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes. The amount of history condensed into Woodbrook is remarkable. It provides a sense of place, where the past is more than an issue of nostalgia. It is a property implicated in a dangerous tradition which the present finds difficult to exorcise. It suggests that the past is very much part of a foreign country. In Irish dealings, its study conveys a sensibility of difference important to the young sociological mind. The site, the field, carries a biography in relation to its occupants, who live with a heightened awareness of what had come to pass, that was recessed in their identity in a way strangers find difficult to grasp.

About five years ago, a student on the course did a startlingly brilliant essay on the text of Translations by the Derry playwright Brian Friel. Later course essays on his plays suggested that this playwright struck an unexpected sociological chord. This was an Irish voice that spoke in an accent capable of being heard by young sociology students. Apart from Tom Stoppard, one can think of few other playwrights who could carry easily the worries and concerns of philosophy, and in this case sociology, so naturally into dramatic form.

Within Friel's plays, sociologists can find a basis of self-recognition. …