Though written in 1980, the play is set in the fictional Irish-speaking town of Baile Beag in a hedge school in 1833, purposely before The Troubles have become prevalent. Friel is able to bestow his considerable political and philosophical knowledge upon the reader in this allegorical form. As is to be expected from one of the world’s most accomplished playwrights, the characters also display strikingly individual meanings.
The main characters are Manus, the lame school teacher, his brother Owen, who is hired by the British Army to translate place names, Maire, a strong independent woman who is open to the idea of accepting a new language, and Yolland, a soldier in the British Army who alongside Owen works to give ‘correct’ spellings of place names. Other characters consist of Jimmy and Hugh, both well-educated and sophisticated older men, who often bring a comedic element in their drunken escapades; and Sarah, a young woman who suffers from a speech defect, is unable to speak for herself and so is labelled ‘dumb’ by her fellow townspeople.
Friel sets the scene as a close-knit community, connecting over education and intellectual progress, but any hope of a progressive and positive outcome is dashed by the introduction of English officers who inform the people of Baile Beag that they will soon have a part of their national identity destroyed, conveying the attitude that the British are set to ruin anything in their path they don’t agree with: “Where there’s doubt, they’ll be anglicised.” The play introduce further negative undertones, for example about the IRA, potential of a war, death and violence. It made me evaluate my outlook on the world and made me appreciate our present-day circumstances a little bit more. By the end of the drama, we are left to contemplate the idea that we as a nation have a habit of tearing down things that we don’t understand because they scare us.
The characters embody the themes and motifs that Friel religiously comes back to in his work: the voiceless Irish citizens, the savagery at the hand of the British, the tensions between nations who are all too similar and could use their passion and drive to achieve positive things yet won’t out of pride. Throughout Friel meditates on the importance of language and how it shapes identity. We see the crisis faced by characters who are ighting to find their sense of identity, relying on language to do this, and often falling short. Pride in each person’s own cultures dominates many of the characters’ perspectives, causing conflict not only in this fictional world, but as in our own. Friel creates a sense of irony, but also tragedy, in fashioning a love story between two characters who are polar opposites on the surface but deeply connected on a level beneath or beyond language. Still, external factors get in the way, and Friel displays the inevitability of conflict and sadness where The Troubles are concerned.
The dramatist’s own background comes through in this work, but not to a point where his emotions get the better of him. He has made his point in an extremely sophisticated and informed way. This further develops my admiration for him, his ability to put the audience’s own feelings before any impulse to educate. He is able to express his morality and appeal for peace, without becoming condescending in any way. This play is a metaphorical olive branch, Friel reaching out to humanity to see whether or not its heart is truly still beating. Translations not only a play, but an experience.