“Since the fateful year of 1968, everything [Friel] has written has been imbued, however obliquely or indirectly, with the events of the northern crisis.”
Seldom in my experience has a topic such as the one I intend to address here been, at the same time, both so straightforward and so mired in complexity. Even if Fintan O'Toole had qualified the above assertion about the Northern crisis inflecting everything Brian Friel has written since the later 1960s to include only the two plays to be discussed here - The Freedom of the City (1973) and Volunteers (1975) - the matter would be far from settled. Much of the difficulty originates in the phrasing “Friel and the Northern Ireland 'Troubles' play,” a title that implies clear relationships between author, contemporary history and dramatic form and, as a result, situates these plays on a horizon of expectations Friel seemed determined to disappoint.
The Freedom of the City concerns the killing of three innocent civil-rights marchers in Derry by British soldiers, a scenario that parallels the events of “Bloody Sunday” on 30 January 1972, when thirteen civilians were shot by British paratroopers. The similarly doomed protagonists of Volunteers are five internees for whom the term “volunteer” possesses a double resonance in recalling the nationalist commitment of heroes in Ireland's past and commenting ironically on the prisoners' decision to work on an archaeological excavation in Dublin, an unpopular volunteerism which has motivated fellow detainees to plot their murder when they return to their prison block. Like “Bloody Sunday,” internment was in the forefront of political consciousness in the early 1970s after the Special Powers Act was enforced in 1971, leading to the immediate arrests of several hundred men suspected of involvement with the IRA. In part because of this extra-textual reality, this relationship to real historical events, The Freedom of the City and Volunteers seem to elicit greater critical attention - and, especially at the times of their inaugural productions, sharper detraction - than other plays by Friel, and they are often linked together, as they will be here.
“Any account of American drama must begin by noting the casual disregard with which it has been treated by the critical establishment. There is no single history of its development, no truly comprehensive analysis of its achievement. In the standard histories of American literature it is accorded at best a marginal position.”
As disconcerting as it may be, C.W. E. Bigsby's observation about the “casual disregard” American drama has suffered is true, perhaps even understated. Indeed, writing just a few years earlier than Bigsby, Susan Harris Smith more pointedly characterized American drama as an “unwanted bastard stepchild,” the most “maligned” and “unjustly neglected” area of American literary studies. She's right. Consider, for example, the paradoxical situation in which well-known critic Harold Bloom found himself in introducing two books on Arthur Miller, whose plays Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953), among others, remain central to the American theatrical repertory. In his “Introduction” to a 1987 collection of critical essays on Miller, Bloom identifies what he regards as the “half-dozen crucial American plays”: Death of a Salesman, which he disparages as reading “poorly”; Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1939, first produced, 1947) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1939-1941, first produced, 1956); Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and Edward Albee's The Zoo Story (1958). This list is striking not only because of its brevity, but because of the implication that no drama prior to the 1940s - the decade in which four of these six plays had their premieres - is “crucial” to the American stage. Bloom wonders aloud how a country that can claim such novelists as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner, and poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Wallace Stevens can “offer us only O'Neill, Miller, and Williams as its strongest playwrights.”
[A] thing that endures – that is the sole redress we have, against history and all its crimes.
The longstanding notion that Irish melodrama before the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre is scarcely worthy of our attention is a well-worn myth. Like many clichés, this one about popular drama is minimally informed by fact, for there were no Shakespeares or Molières plying their crafts for popular audiences during the last half of the nineteenth century. In the past two decades or so, however, popular genres like Irish melodrama once dismissed as ephemeral or culturally negligible have been reclaimed. Equally important, as these once-neglected texts expand our purchase on turn-of-the-century Irish culture, they also enhance our understanding of greater, more canonical plays and playwrights. This essay, then, although focused on nineteenth-century melodrama, necessarily concerns both the popular and the more 'literary'.
Until recently, melodrama was regarded as too insignificant to inform serious discussion of modern Irish drama. Hugh Hunt, former Director of Plays at the Abbey Theatre, writes in the ‘Prologue’ to his 1979 history of the theatre that popular playwrights of the nineteenth century represented Ireland as largely ‘a mythical land of blarney and blather’; hence their names – he mentions J. W. Whitbread, John Baldwin Buckstone and Fred Cooke specifically – and the plays they wrote are ‘best forgotten’.
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