- Brian Friel, Ireland, and the North
With Brian Friel, Ireland, and the North, Scott Boltwood offers a rangy, deeply researched, and interpretively savvy examination of Friel's oeuvre. Boltwood carries out his mission for the book – to understand Friel's work as subaltern, rather than as reductively "Northern" or nationalist – both by carefully considering the political and social dynamics at work in and around Friel's drama and by examining Friel's less-well-known non-dramatic works, including essays and interviews. Boltwood does so not to stabilize some notion of writerly authority or to uncover the writer's aims but rather to suggest rifts and tensions in Friel's work and attitudes in order to animate discussions about the political stakes of his contributions to the Irish literary canon. A comprehensive account of the political positionings and repositionings in Friel's works emerges, one that avoids erasing or neutralizing contradictions. Indeed, Boltwood understands these ambivalences as both symptomatic and constitutive of a fraught Irish identity.
Especially welcome are Boltwood's insightful readings of Friel's amusing, sometimes breezy, sometimes folksy, sometimes earnest essays published during 1962 and 1963 in Dublin's Irish Press. In these occasional pieces, Friel crafted a playful, dynamic, and decentred writerly persona, whom Boltwood calls "Brian" – an often ironic, self-deprecatory spokesperson for a fraught Northern-Irish-Catholic-sometime-Republican experience. As Boltwood demonstrates, Friel uses journalistic writing as a way of opening the distance between authorial experience and representation in language. As a result, "Brian" emerges as a surrogate-cum-trickster, always testing the boundaries of experience and fact and, as often as not, subverting [End Page 415] assumptions about Northern or Catholic or Republican experience. In resisting the twin temptations of identifying the persona-in-print with the man Brian Friel, on the one hand, and of privileging one conception of author/ persona over another, on the other, Boltwood allows authenticity and authority to emerge as rhetorical performance-effects in Friel's writing. This attention recognizes what Friel himself would acknowledge in his 1991 program note to Making History: that "[h]istory and fiction are related and comparable forms of discourse" and that "a historical text is a kind of literary artifact" (qtd. in Hohenleitner 241).
This deconstruction of authorial identity and of historical facticity lays the groundwork for reading the tactical ambivalences in Friel's staged pieces. Particularly effective are Boltwood's analyses of two Irish Press essays: "In the Waiting Room" (9 February 1963) and "Brian Friel's Troubles with a Rat in the House" (11 August 1962). In the first, "Brian" recounts the series of events precipitated by his receipt of a Ministry of Health letter acknowledging his death; and, in the second, he rationalizes being victimized as the butt of a practical joke when, as a Northerner visiting Donegal, he is given deliberately poor advice about exterminating a rat in his borrowed digs. Boltwood reads these as symptomatic of Friel's double- and sometimes treble consciousness, subject to the competing ideologies of empire, nation, and church: Friel's mistaken death signifies his invisibility to the state because of his over-determined cultural identities; his victimization belies his status as outsider, even among those with whom he feels a political and religious kinship.
Attending to Friel's essays seriously and methodically gives Boltwood the critical purchase he needs to make his original case concerning Friel's drama: namely, that it enacts and re-enacts contradictions and complexities in Irish identities that do not neatly fit religious or national categories. Boltwood argues for understanding Friel's body of work as a whole as enacting a peculiar kind of relationship to history, family, language, memory, and politics. In focusing less on the coherence of the socio-political themes of Friel's work and more on the flexional and fraught positions his plays represent, Boltwood presents an understanding of Friel's work as enacting, rather than espousing, the politics of ambivalence. The difficulty Boltwood faces in doing so lies at the very heart of the problematic of the subaltern...