Cracking the Code by Measuring the Skull: Friel's 'The Home Place' Examines 19th-Century Homeland Security

By Spillane, Margaret | National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2005 | Go to article overview

Cracking the Code by Measuring the Skull: Friel's 'The Home Place' Examines 19th-Century Homeland Security


Spillane, Margaret, National Catholic Reporter


From the beginning of his career, Irish playwright Brian Friel has resolutely insisted on the capacity of his family's native County Donegal--rural, harsh, gorgeous, and for centuries impoverished by colonization--to be as suitable a setting for grand-scale narratives as any world capital. While his subject matter may be Irish, from the late 16th-century massacres that are the backdrop for "Making History" to the mid 20th-century economic stagnation in which "Philadelphia, Here I Come" takes place, Mr. Friel's storytelling consistently has global implications and applications. It is theater that's always scrutinizing the minute particulars of power relationships, whether between conquerors and colonized, or parent and child, or two lovers.

Even when he's dealing with war or imperialism, Mr. Friel never sets up his staged universe as a simplistic clash of civilizations: In their day-to-day existence, Mr. Friel's people flirt--culturally, romantically--across the lines that divide them. Even the characters who turn out to be military or intellectual thugs get caught taking pleasure in the place names or manners or music of the territory they'd come to subdue. Those characters on the receiving end of power also enjoy the allurements of cross-pollination from their colonizers and a variety of other sources: housemaids, farm laborers and rural schoolmasters nimbly absorb the in-drift of such elements as English nursery rhymes and Homer's "Odyssey" in "Translations," or Cole Porter and African theology in "Dancing At Lughnasa." And they're always reconfiguring the occupier's language into startling and graceful shapes the landlords could never have managed. What results, however, is no cordial multicultural pageant. Always in the shadows of such felicitous commingling lurks one fact: Whenever the people in power feel challenged, they can swiftly deploy the iron fist.

No Friel play in recent memory has laid out these terms so brilliantly as "The Home Place," directed with passion and precision by Adrian Noble. The play has just wrapped up at Dublin's Gate Theatre, is set to open May 7 at London's Comedy Theatre and will likely arrive stateside soon after. Though set in 1878 just outside of Ballybeg, the Donegal town of Mr. Friel's imagination where most of his plays take place, the events on display here may strike a familiar chord in 2005.

Elderly Christopher (Tom Courtenay) is the current head of the Gore family, a dynasty of Protestant landlords originating in England. Christopher would certainly think of himself as a "kinder, gentler" occupier and would consider that his presence weighed lightly upon the backs of his destitute Irish tenants. His 30-something son David (Hugh O'Conor) has never done a lick of work in his life, but is perennially concocting schemes for charging off to some faraway country he knows nothing about. One can imagine the senior and junior George Bushes, appropriately affable and useless, occupying these roles and this landscape.

"The Home Place" is set at the Gores' manor house in the last summer before the founding of the Land League, the formidable grass-roots movement that sought to loosen the clutches of those English landlords who held most of the property in Ireland. Leaguers agitated to ensure fairer rents and greater security of tenure to the impoverished rural laborers whose land had been expropriated generations earlier. Back then, such populist initiatives were springing up all over Europe, just as Europe's imperial capitals were consolidating their claims on colonies across the globe. …

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