- Modernity, Community, and Place in Brian Friel’s Drama by Richard Rankin Russell
The concept encapsulated in the term “the gathering” is traditionally thought of in Ireland as an agricultural event signifying the relationship between people and the land, when at the close of the harvest season the farming community would gather its crops, rejoice in the fruits of hard labor, and mark the moment that closes the summer and enters autumn. That idea of the gathering literally and conceptually frames Richard Rankin Russell’s recent publication on Brian Friel’s major plays, but, importantly, the book approaches it in a wider sense to also suggest travel, machines, ritual, fertility, festival, community, family, and place.
Brian Friel, arguably one of the world’s greatest living English-language dramatists, continues to be researched, studied, and performed internationally, and Russell’s book-length study of five of Friel’s major plays is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding “Friel studies.” Language, community, exile, memory, place, ritual, violence, and individual and cultural identity are familiar concerns related to the body of research on Friel’s work, and Russell’s book is not different in this regard.
What it is, however, is a comprehensive study of place and space in five of Friel’s critically acclaimed plays and the impact these have on community. Acknowledging the contributions of philosopher René Descartes, and drawing on phenomenologist Edward Casey’s notion of place and its resistance to modernity, Russell takes his understanding of “modernity” and “modernism” as a movement pervading all areas of knowledge, where rational insights produced homogenous accounts of natural events and human experience over dogmatic tradition.
This is Russell’s third monograph on a Northern Irish writer (one on Bernard McLaverty in 2009 and another on Michael Longley in 2010), with a forthcoming one on Seamus Heaney in 2014. He has essays on Stewart Parker, Brendan Behan, and Friel, and two edited collections: on Martin McDonagh, published in 2007, and on Irish poet Peter Fallon, in 2013. Across his publications, his research [End Page 318] reflects a strong interest in borders and boundaries, between inner and outer worlds, always moveable and forever fragile, which signal concerns with cultural erosion, loss, and displacement in various ways.
Modernity, Community, and Place in Brian Friel’s Drama contains five chapters, each dedicated to a major play: Philadelphia Here I Come!, The Freedom of the City, Faith Healer, Translations, and Dancing at Lughnasa. Each chapter expands on the author’s identified elements of modernism in the five plays and how they impact and relate to the immediate and distant communities in their environments as well as to each other. What is most interesting, despite Russell’s narrow modernist paradigm and his choice to represent Friel by writing on just five of his most popular works, is his discussion of how Friel assimilated aspects of modernity and modernism into environments in his works but did not fully accommodate them.
Russell argues that the onslaught of modernity is responded to both creatively and with great resistance in Friel’s works, demonstrating how different versions of modernity coexist within Ireland’s cultural landscape. However, the author’s examination of modernity does not offer a nuanced enough reading of the developments of modernity and modernism as they swept through Europe, Britain, and Ireland at different speeds and with varying impact on countries and regions, to include a broad range of issues such as economies, nations, trade, citizenship, belief systems, capitalism, educational reforms, and so on. Thus, there is a repetitive feel to the modernist trajectory and its bearing on the concerns in the plays throughout. Surprisingly, Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and Gay McAuley’s Space in Performance, important books that connect the real and imagined space in making meaning in theater, are not part of the research.
Russell’s book is compelling nonetheless. It proposes a new angle on the profound implications of Friel’s varying, built environments discussing the many signs of human existence, sometimes invented in Friel...