Friel and the Politics of Language Play

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Author: Richard Kearney
Editors: Jeffrey W. Hunter and Deborah A. Schmitt
Date: 1999
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,558 words

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[(essay date Autumn 1987) In the following essay, Kearney speculates on the political and social dimensions of language as text and subject matter in Friel's Translations and The Communication Cord.]

Brian Friel's drama has sometimes been accused of engaging too directly in Irish nationalist politics. In a recent issue of the Belfast magazine, Fortnight, Brian McEvera offers a typical example of this accusation: "Friel's work is directly political in its implications," he charges, "and its 'awareness' is one-sided. The 'shape' observed is a nationalist one--and a limited partial view of nationalism at that." McEvera concludes with the hope that the "more overt political element will disappear from (Friel's) work."

Such charges of political propaganda are, I believe, quite mistaken. Several of Friel's later plays do indeed have a political content--in the sense that they address the nature of Irish nationalist ideology in both its historical and contemporary guises. But they do so in a way that is profoundly anti-propagandist. One of Friel's primary concerns in such recent plays as Translations and The Communication Cord is to explore the complex relationship between political ideology and the problematic nature of language itself. Like most artists influenced by the modernist movement, Friel is deeply preoccupied by the workings of language. And like most genuine artists he is aware that language does not exist in a timeless vacuum but operates in and from a specific historical situation. It is not surprising then that Friel should display a particular attentiveness to the ways in which different political ideologies--i.e. those of British colonialism and Irish nationalism in particular--have so often informed or deformed the communicative function of language. Those who accuse Friel of propagandistically supporting the cause of political nationalism are grossly misconstruing his work. For they fail to appreciate that his overriding concern is to examine the contemporary crisis of language as a medium of communication and representation.

I will confine most of my remarks to Friel's most recent play, The Communication Cord, for it is here arguably that the rapport between language and nationalist politics is most critically explored. Friel has stated that The Communication Cord should be read in tandem with Translations. While the latter highlighted the way in which language was used by the British to exploit (both culturally and politically) an indigenous community in County Donegal, the former shows how language may be used by this same Irish community some hundred years later in order to exploit each other. But it should be pointed out that already in Translations, Friel was aware that a narrowly nationalistic attitude toward language could be invoked as a refusal to communicate with others. The callous murder of the British officer, Yolland, by the Donnelly Twins is represented as just such a refusal. And the Gaelic hedge-school master, Hugh, recognizes the necessity of translating from the old language into the new when he agrees to teach English to his pupil, Maire, or when he declares, "We like to think we endure around truths immemorially posited,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100004225