Many happy returns, Mr Friel

Jan 9th, 2009 | By | Category: Ireland

A friend from a rural county of Ireland, probably not much given to reading drama, went to see Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come.

He had it perfect . . .  That’s the way we were”.

Brian Friel is a national treasure.  It seems odd that he should have reached the age of 80 today.  He should forever be of an indeterminate middle age in order that he might live on and on, in order to interpret us to ourselves.

In the space of a year or so, I saw stage productions of his plays Philadelphia, Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa; read the scripts of both of them, together with Translations; saw his production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler; and even bought a DVD of the film version of Dancing at Lughnasa last Christmas.  Each time, there is something else to notice.

On a day when the unemployment figures have shown the biggest increase ever recorded; when the year ahead will drive us back upon the old resources of community and friendship; when there will be more coping than prospering; it is important to understand the Ireland Friel describes.

It was an Ireland devoid of wealth; an Ireland often trapped in its own company; an Ireland of flawed and frail and fragile characters; but there seems, somehow an extraordinary resilience of spirit; a capacity for happiness rooted in nothing more than imagining what might be.

Dancing at Lughnasa can be deeply depressing, the few moments of light relief not dispelling the gathering gloom, yet it concludes with magical words.  Memories of that August in 1936 cannot but be bleak, yet the closing speech of Michael Evans, the narrator of the story who is remembering the moments from his childhood, has a transcendent beauty:

But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. In that memory, too, the air is nostalgic with the music of the 30’s. It drifts in from somewhere far away-a mirage of sound-a dream music that is both heard and imagined; that seems to be both itself and its own echo; a sound so alluring and so mesmeric that the afternoon is bewitched, maybe haunted, by it.

And what is so strange about that memory is that everybody seems to be floating on those sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete isolation; responding more to the mood of the music than it its beat. When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to the movement-as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.

“What fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact”, he says.  The facts were uniformly oppressive, yet, in his mind, he is able to rise above the facts; able to find poetry in the most prosaic of times.

It is such genius for being able to rise above the facts that is required in the next few years.  May Brian Friel live to beyond 100 – we need him.

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