Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Translations: A Play

I'm finally ready to get back to regularly keeping up with my blog.  I hope I haven't lost any of you while the blog was static because I am excited to start off again with this next piece of literature.  Up to this point, I have written almost exclusively about novels when discussing Classic Literature.  And while most of my favorites are novels, I do not think that they hold a monopoly on the classics.  So today I want to talk about one of my favorite plays: Translations by Brian Friel.

In general, I find it difficult to read plays and connect well with them on that level.  Indeed, plays are created in order to be performed, and I doubt that any playwright would be satisfied if people read his/her plays without ever watching them.  However, occasionally a script is so moving that I am captivated and satisfied just in reading it.  Translations is a story about language, which is exposed among the characters through compelling plot and meaningful insight.  It was written in 1980, so it borders on what I might define as a "Contemporary Classic," and although it is set in 1833, it speaks to a number of undeniably modern issues.  To summarize the plot quickly, a few English officers come into a remote part of Ireland in order to Anglicize the place names and culture.  One of these officers is an Irishman named Owen who grew up in this very town and yet has no qualms about the Anglicization.  Another officer is an Englishman named Yolland who ironically is more concerned about Ireland losing its culture uniqueness than Owen as he has fallen in love with the country and with one of its citizens, Maire.  This creates a typical Romeo-and-Juliet setup in which the opposing sides (English and Irish) are upset about the romance, and yet I believe that Friel nevertheless creates a fresh perspective on the drama.

The most significant aspect of the play is the role of language.  The characters all speak English in order for the audience to understand, but it is nevertheless clear in the story that they cannot understand one another.  Sometimes the language difference is such a barrier that the attempt at working together seems futile.  Yet in other scenes, the characters are able to transcend their language differences and understand one another on a deeper level, which is particularly evident in the interaction between Yolland and Maire.  It is only when language is threatened of extinction or becomes a barrier to one's life that we realize its powerful significance in our lives.  The way we speak - the words we choose and the expressions we utilize - becomes a part of our individual identities.  I am fascinated by linguistic study, which makes a story that emphasizes it of particular interest to me.

Now I recognize the potential cliches in the novel: the Romeo-Juliet romance I mentioned, the native who becomes a traitor figure in his hometown, the focus on the Irish language that Irish authors tend to enjoy, etc.  Nevertheless, I believe that the way Friel writes the story, including the stage directions, invigorates the plot with skill and wisdom.  For this reason, I rank it among other great works of Classic Literature.


Becky (Page Turners) said...

I dont think that I ever read aplay other than when required to do at school. It is a novel idea for me - to read a play but perhaps I might try this year. I am glad that you enjoyed this one so much

Amy said...

I agree; reading a play is tough. But I felt differently about this one, and maybe you will too. If you do end up reading it some day, come back and let me know!

the Crow himself said...

I agree with you on the vividness of the story. Even though the play doesn't have the same sorts of descriptions you might expect in a novel, the sorts of descriptions that would offer the reader a sharp and detailed mental picture, that was the experience I had reading 'Translations.' The characters were so brilliantly and specifically devised, and the setting of each scene plays such a critical role in the character interactions that the world is real even with the text alone.
I love this pick. I would definitely consider this a modern classic.

Amy said...

Thanks Carl. I appreciate your insight and am glad to hear that you enjoyed the play as much as I did!