- Modernity, Community, and Place in Brian Friel’s Drama by Richard Rankin Russell
Home is a quietly contested place, full of liminal spaces and Richard Rankin Russell has given us a monograph on how the matter of home is handled in Friel’s major plays. Russell offers thorough analyses of the Donegal playwright’s most-loved, well-known, and most-often produced plays: Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), The Freedom of the City (1973), Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1980), and Dancing at Lughnasa (1999). Friel was to begin his career as a short story writer, but soon found his métier in the theater. He moved from short fiction to experiments in radio drama. It was the success of Philadelphia, Here I Come! that truly set him on his path, and sixteen years later, Translations propelled him to international acclaim. Not all of his creative endeavors gathered laurels; his fame often fluctuated due to the unevenness of his work.
Russell traces the extraordinary impact of place on Friel’s protagonists. His characters seem perpetually to be looking for ways to temper, tolerate, or escape Irish culture; whether their reponses are against the fixed ideologies of nationalism and British imperialism, American modernization and reductivism, or the forced politicization of communities, Friel’s major plays all question the very nature of home. Russell is especially interested in how communities are impacted by modernity in the plays. His contribution adds to recent studies that investigate place and space in Irish theater, such as Helen Hausner Lojek’s The Spaces of Irish Drama (2011) and Chris Morash and Shaun Richards’s Mapping Irish Theatre: Theories of Space and Place (2013). Moreover, as Russell points out, Friel engages with more than local culture and community. He sets his plays in urban, public, and personal spaces, including the spaces of mind and body. The idea of place is fluid in Friel’s most poignant characters, including Frank Hardy, Maire and Yolland, and the Mundy sisters; indeed, Russell shows how characters create “place through their invention of community.”
The first chapter focuses on the character of Gar in Philadelphia, the story of a young man intrigued by the promises of America, especially as he has seen it in film, which present a world seemingly wholly unlike his home. Hoping to escape a motionless Irish culture, Gar emigrates to follow the seductive promises of modernity. Yet the result is ironic: the Ireland of the 1960s that Gar leaves behind will transition to a newly dynamic and modernizing state, while Gar’s decision leads him to remain in his aunt and uncle’s apartment in Philadelphia, rehearsing the same stereotypical memories of the small island. The chimera of glamor that came to him by way of American films actually serves to divorce Gar from what truly makes him free, the sense of place he knows in his rural Irish community.
In Chapter two, Russell uses Derrida’s theory of “hauntology” to illuminate [End Page 155] the stories of three very different protestors caught in Derry’s Guildhall in The Freedom of the City. These dispossessed tenants have been sacrificed—seized by the events of myth—while their ghosts form a community based on shared space. Like intersecting planes, the bodiless tenants interrogate past events and reveal their stories. The modern bullet of the brigadier comes to symbolize the conflict between the erosive idiolocalities of Irish nationalism, British imperialism, and western modernity.
Chapter three explores Friel’s preoccupation with ideas of exile and homecoming. A secondary focus is the theater’s ability to create community, which Russell finds on full display in Faith Healer. Most critics read the central character of Frank Hardy as the artist or sage. In a daring twist on this, Russell interprets Frank’s death as a ritualized sacred communion—though some readers may have a hard time accepting his reading of the violent dismemberment of Frank’s body as positive. Modernity’s extreme opponents, personified by the Irish farmers who literally dismember Hardy with modern implements, enable Hardy to...