- Brian Friel, Ireland, and the North
In this recent contribution to the Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre series, Scott Boltwood adds to existing scholarship on acclaimed Irish playwright Brian Friel as he endeavors to reinterpret Friel’s literary canon amid what he sees as the playwright’s “ideological revolution” (7) from the 1960s to 2005. The transformation Boltwood charts is tied to Friel’s complex Northern Irish identity as a Catholic minority, with family roots both inside and outside the Irish Republic, and a personal history of living in both regions. Interspersed throughout his close readings of the plays, Boltwood explores the contradictory characteristics at work in the playwright, compelling Friel to continually reexamine and rearticulate his personal, professional, and sociopolitical positions as he straddles the ideological and physical space between the Irish Republic [End Page 150] and the British state in Northern Ireland. Boltwood’s methodical study begins with an in-depth examination of select Irish Press essays written by Friel during 1962–63, followed by four chapters— each one dealing with the plays of approximately a decade—culminating with Friel’s last published play to date, The Home Place (2005). As he reconsiders Brian Friel the writer and the man, Boltwood challenges accepted postcolonial and nationalistic ideological analyses of Friel’s work, searching for a more complex contextualization to illuminate his enigmatic subject.
Boltwood’s introduction reassesses prominent Friel scholarship, acknowledging the depth of work already done while emphasizing how our understanding of Friel might be re-imagined through the two key focuses of the book: 1) a different point of entry into Friel’s biography as playwright; and 2) eschewing traditional postcolonial concepts commonly ascribed to Friel in favor of a distinct subalternity. Boltwood utilizes fifteen of Friel’s fifty-nine essays written as weekly columns for the Irish Press to lay the groundwork for the thematic threads of alienation, resistance, politics, and inner-conflict present in his plays. One of the obstacles scholars and students encounter when grappling with Friel’s work is the playwright himself. Two published collections of essays and interviews by Christopher Murray and Paul Delaney, respectively, provide opportunities to witness Friel artfully elide self-definition with the political aspects of his plays. Boltwood is indebted to these collections and to his own archival research, which gives us the young, albeit familiar, voice of Brian Friel the journalist both at home and abroad during his formative years as a writer.
Friel’s newspaper columns are rich, amusing, and complicated. Boltwood successfully mines this material for alternate and earlier traces of Friel’s experiences as an outsider in Derry, Donegal, and during his visit to the United States to work with Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis. One such column, “In the Waiting Room,” finds Friel in receipt of a letter from his doctor stating that “the Minister of Health claims that you are dead” (20). When Friel subsequently arrives at the doctor’s office in the hope of being comforted with the truth of his aliveness, he grows increasingly anxious about his invisibility in a waiting room where no one appears to see or hear him. Boltwood reads this narrative through the “psychological affects of subordination” (20) akin to those described by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin (1986), revealing Friel’s persistent self-awareness that “[a]lthough he can alternatively hide from or pass among Protestant society, Friel cannot dispel the perception of his ostracism projected on him by Protestant ideology” (21). Boltwood later threads the Northerner’s conflicted identity (as it appears in the essays) into his analyses of Friel’s plays, a strategy manifested in the section on Friel’s comedy, The Communication Cord (1982). In this section, Boltwood examines parallels between the author’s biography and his characters, and he suggests that the characters of Claire and Jack subvert their alienated status in society by pursuing their desires.
The second major focus of this text is Boltwood’s retreat from a postcolonial reading of Friel in Northern Ireland in favor of situating...