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  • Forging a Usable Past:Brian Friel's Making History
  • Marilynn Richtarik

Brian Friel, one of Ireland's best known and highly regarded playwrights, surprised the theatre establishments of several countries in May 1980 when he announced that his next play would open, not in Dublin, London, or New York City, but in Derry, Northern Ireland, a city so disadvantaged that it lacked a dedicated theater building. The production of Translations later that year launched the Field Day Theatre Company, founded by Friel and actor Stephen Rea. Immediately hailed as a national classic, Translations was soon claimed as a seminal work of postcolonial literature as well, and Field Day, a critical as well as an artistic enterprise, proceeded to set the agenda for cultural discussion in Ireland for more than a decade, attracting both fervent support and fierce criticism.1 Making History, Friel's last script for Field Day, premiered on 20 September 1988. By then, Field Day openings were well known for their ability, against a backdrop of civil unrest, to attract political, religious, artistic, and media celebrities from both sides of the Irish border, Britain, and places even farther afield to Derry's Victorian Guildhall, which took on for these occasions "an aura of first-night magnificence" at odds with "its total unsuitability as a … performance venue."2 Among the dignitaries assembled that night in September were two Derry natives integral to the peace process already tentatively underway.3 One, Friel's friend John Hume, was a member of both the British and European parliaments and would be a principal architect of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland. The other, Sinn Féin vice-president Martin McGuinness, had formerly been an IRA commander but would later serve as deputy first minister in a power-sharing Northern Ireland government. Let their mutual inclusion in Field Day's audience serve as a reminder, if one is needed, that the literary and political realms of Irish public life, like the natural and supernatural worlds of Irish folklore, lie close together and frequently intersect—and that those seeking to understand both must examine them together. [End Page 1089]

Making History's original reception can be fairly described as overwhelmingly positive, a fact that makes it hard to account for the curious reputation it has acquired in academic circles as "a problem play."4 Much of the responsibility for this persistent assessment lies with influential critic Fintan O'Toole, who pronounced the play "not sufficiently dramatic" in a review of the Field Day production for the Irish Times and expanded his critique in a later essay, insisting that "Making History is so reflexive that it ceases to have any dramatic tension or much theatrical force."5 F. C. McGrath views it as "a staged treatise on poststructural history" that fails as theatre, and Ulf Dantanus, author of a seminal monograph on Friel, describes Making History as "a play of ideas that fits nicely into the Field Day program and the context of the revisionist 1980s in Ireland" but "does not do justice to [Friel's] creative powers" as "a piece of dramatic literature."6 Aidan O'Malley, who examines the play in the context of a comprehensive study of the Field Day project, seems to endorse such analysis but acknowledges, in a note, that "transcripts of … brief interviews with audience members after the first performances of the play in the North … would tend to dispute the dominant critical view of the play, as the audiences show a great appreciation of the complexities of the drama," with most seeing it "as a salutary act of historical demythologising" and reflecting on "its connections with the 'Troubles.'"7 Yvonne Lysandrou suggests a plausible reason for the discrepant reactions of scholars and general audience members, arguing that "[i]t is because many critics … treat Making History as essentially a staged poststructuralist text that they give a largely negative assessment of it as drama. Focusing attention on what is being said in the play rather than on what it projects in its entirety through the dramatic medium, critical opinion effectively misses the play's artistic force."8

Making History is...


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