This startling and imaginative work focuses on a tiny southern Indiana town in the 1930's. It is the story of a disturbed young man and his friendship with a disenchanted preacher. Both men struggle with events from their past, until the inner turmoil of one life is fused with the childhood trauma of the other in the play's explosive climax.
Living with these characters for just a few weeks can make one shy about describing their play. The Irish characters are enviably gifted, or more precisely - skilled with a speaking vocabulary that accommodates the many curious overtones that can resound from each spoken idea. Their native language, Irish not English, is described by one of the characters as "full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception"; and in 1833 these people learned to read and write in small rural hedge-schools by studying the words and the wisdom of Latin and Greek authors. The English language was understood only by a few of the people in Ireland, and is referred to in this play as a language best suited to "purposes of commerce." The idea resounds.
The only Irish (Gaelic) most of us may have ever heard is "Erin go bragh", but with this play the playwright creates a convention in which the actors use only English, for the benefit of the audience even though the characters are actually speaking in two different languages. Only the schoolmaster, Hugh, and his two sons, Manus and Owen, are fluent in both languages; and Manus usually refuses to submit to the use of English. Each instance of this imaginative theatrical device resounds with overtones because we can understand the characters even though the British and the Irish can't always communicate to each other.
Several centuries before Henry II of England sought to impose Anglo-Norman rule over Ireland, Irish scribes created the distinctive artwork which illuminated the Gospels in The Book of Kells and The Book of Durrow. The style of artwork in these books has become emblematic of the ancient Irish culture, and we honor this heritage with reproductions from these books which we have hung behind our hedge-school. For after these works were created, King Henry would come to Ireland, and then King John would come, and later Queen Elizabeth, and King James, and so forth; and the hedge-schools would be replaced by national schools where subjects would be taught in English, and Bridget's worst fears would be realized when the potato famine would also come to Ireland resulting in the loss of much of the native population either to hunger or emigration to America. The history resounds with overtones of our own dominant American cultural influence around the world along with the deep resentments our dominance has provoked.
If Mr. Friel has written about nations he has certainly done so by writing about a few ordinary people. Early in his play Manus gives a shy young woman with an impediment the courage to speak; and throughout the play the inestimable value of the gift of language resounds from those who wish to express love, or friendship, or betrayal.