University of Vigo, Spain
Saarbrücken: Lap Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011.
Érase una vez Ballybeg. La obra dramática de Brian Friel y su repercusión en España (2011) is the result of the painstaking doctoral research carried out by the author, María Gaviña Costero, who successfully defended her dissertation at the University of Valencia in the spring of 2011. As the introduction makes clear, we stand before a work that owes its existence to the author’s long time engagement with the study of a playwright who, despite enjoying the status of celebrity in the English speaking world, is virtually unknown in Spanish theatrical circles. In the opening pages Gaviña explains that, although Brian Friel’s plays have been staged in theatres in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, San Sebastián, Pamplona and Alicante, the reviews published in the national newspapers after the premières revealed a regrettable lack of in-depth knowledge of the Northern Irish playwright. The author claims that this neglect is also characteristic of the Spanish academic world, where the very few scholarly articles published so far are, for the most part, limited to discussions of the play Translations (1980).
This is indeed an extremely ambitious book, born with the laudable aim of attempting to make up for a most unjustifiable lack in the field of Irish Studies in Spain. Curiously, the ambivalence of the title, La obra dramática y su repercusión en España, (emphasis mine) is misleading since, as the table of contents makes clear, there is only one relatively short chapter, “Friel en España” (350-468), which specifically addresses what proves to be a fascinating field of study in itself: Friel’s Spanish reception. Thus, rather than a study of Friel and his influence in Spain, prospective readers must be warned that the book is largely a general discussion of Friel’s work with a final section focusing on the translation and adaptation of Translations (1980), Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), Faith Healer (1979), Afterplay (2002) and Molly Sweeney (1994). Despite this minor flaw, it must be said that the book succeeds in providing an insightful analysis of the playwright and his world, complemented with a final suggestive examination of his reception in our country. Among its most obvious merits is the fact that it provides an exhaustive and systematic discussion of plays written between 1964 and 1999 (from the early Philadelphia, Here I Come (1964) to the more recent Give Me Your Answer, Do! (1999) which are introduced and analyzed against the background of Friel’s own development as a multifaceted artist in the often controversial context of Northern Ireland.
The book is clearly structured following a chronological approach. After a couple of short introductory sections with information on the historical and cultural context of Friel’s Ireland, we find four chapters devoted to individual discussions of each of the eighteen plays selected, followed by the chapter addressing Friel’s reception in Spain and the final conclusions. Drawing closely on Seamus Deane’s (1984) and Elmer Andrews’ (1995) proposals, Gaviña distinguishes an early phase (1964-1970) characterized by the influence of the director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, and a second stage in the 1970s marked by the period of political violence in Northern Ireland. She identifies also two later phases which correspond with the decades of the 1980s, with the emergence of The Field Day Company, and the 1990s, a time when Friel presumably found his inspiration in philosophy, rituals and autobiography. The progression of Friel’s development is, thus, presented through an engaging combination of historical and political contextualization, plot discussion and formal analysis, together with a revision of Friel’s work’s critical reception. Although the author announces in her introduction that, given the complexity of the unstable connections between language, territory and identity in Northern Ireland, her approach will be necessarily informed by her readings of Homi K. Bhaba, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, she does not establish obvious links with postcolonial (or other) theoretical frameworks as expected in her subsequent reading of the plays. Admittedly, Gaviña’s methodology is eclectic and her analysis oscillates between the discussion of political motifs, formal strategies, dramatic techniques and themes that reverberate throughout the plays. Her invocation of the central tenets of postcolonial theory becomes only evident in her discussion of the troubled relationship between language, memory and politics in Northern Ireland and in her analysis of Friel’s alertness to such issues in emblematic plays like Dancing at Lughnasa and Translations.
Given that Translations creatively problematizes the complex relations between language and identity, often crucial elements in the history of the different territories and regions of Spain, it is not surprising to find out that this particular play has been the source of considerable attention among the so-called “small nations” within the Spanish state. Thus, we learn that Translations in the original version premièred at the “Teatre Nacional de Catalunya” in 2001, with Catalan subtitles projected on a big screen above the stage. The author interestingly remarks that spectators received a brochure in Catalan explaining that, although the language spoken by the actors was English, the actual mother tongue of the Irish characters would have been Gaelic. She also observes that the publicity of the play in the Catalan press included a reference to the quotation “Qui perd els orígens perd la identitat”(416) (If one loses one’s origins one loses one’s identity”, my translation) from the song Jo vinc d’un silenci (“I come from a silence”, my translation) by Raimon, one of the most popular singers of the protest song movement of the 1960 and 70s and also an emblematic former representative of Catalan cultural and linguistic movements. Ultimately, as the author astutely remarks, both the publicity campaign and the press focused on the linguistic question at stake in the play, thus insisting on a significant parallelism between Ireland and Catalonia.
If Translations was publicized as a play dealing with linguistic identity among the Catalans, in the Basque Country, where a bilingual version in Basque and Spanish (Basque for the Irish characters and Spanish for the English soldiers) was staged as early as 1988, the play was, as translation theory would have it, “manipulated” (Lefevere 1992) and “domesticated” (Venuti 1992) so that it allowed the producers to voice relevant issues to a contemporary audience. Interestingly enough, the author tells us that the title, “Translations”, was not rendered literally in the Basque production, but rather interpreted in the context of language (and identity) loss and transformed into Agur, Eire … agur (“Good Bye Eire … Good Bye”).
Certainly, in this particular section Gaviña’s painstaking research proves extremely fruitful as she presents readers not only with exceptionally original and pertinent information, including unpublished interviews, but also with rich visual materials, such as the reproduction of the poster through which the play was advertised in the Basque Country (a picture showing a young woman whose mouth has been erased). In this respect, since the strength of this chapter lies precisely in the fact that it incorporates a vast amount of original research with an extraordinary potential for discussion on translation-related issues, it remains a little disappointing to discover that the author avoids reflecting on theoretical aspects which are so obviously and interestingly connected with current perspectives and theories on translation. Recent scholarly trends in Irish Studies have approached translation as a suitable concept which can help explain the construction of Irish cultural identities, mediated both by the processes of colonialism and the pressures of nationalism. In this context, Friel’s work and more specifically Translations has often been invoked by well known Irish scholars like Michael Cronin who famously argued that “translation is our condition” (1996: 199). Understandably, though, in such a comprehensive book, one is doomed to find questions that necessarily remain unaddressed.
Overall, Érase una vez Ballybeg. La obra dramática de Brian Friel y su repercusión en España draws on a more than impressive range of materials and proves to be a useful and illuminating resource not only for those in Irish Studies seeking an introductory approach to Friel’s work, but also for translation scholars in search of interrelationships and convergences yet to be explored in full.
Andrews, Elmer. 1995. The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Dreams nor Reality. London: Macmillan.
Cronin, Michael. 1996. Translating Ireland: Translation, Languages, Cultures. Cork: Cork UP.
Deane, Seamus. 1996 . “Introduction”. Brian Friel: Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 11-22.
Lefevere, André. 1992. Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London: Routledge.
Venuti, Lawrence (ed). 1992. Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology. London: Routledge.