First produced here in 1981, Translations is probably Brian Friel’s best play, telling with stark yet cunning power a parable, about war and the ways it can erase tradition. That makes it an especially informative work to have onstage just now, with our increasingly lethal adventure in Iraq approaching a political watershed. Yet Translations is also not a simplistic propaganda piece; if anything, thanks to the tricky strategies and ironies Friel has layered into it, it’s a notoriously difficult piece to make clear. Focusing on aspects of Irish history probably unfamiliar to most Americans, its text contains a fair amount of Latin and Greek, with translation generally but not invariably supplied by the characters. Additionally, one of Friel’s most daring tricks, not always brought off successfully, is to use English dialogue to represent both Gaelic (when the locals talk amongst themselves) and English (when they address the British officers who have occupied the area). His principal irony, in fact, is to provide several major scenes of “translating” in which all the words we hear are in plain English. We outsiders understand everything; it’s only those involved who don’t comprehend one another. (As a topsy-turvy counterweight to this, he provides a love scene in which, when boy and girl finally reach an emotional understanding, they both speak Gaelic, a language one of them doesn’t know.)
The convention is of course the point. People caught up in a situation can never understand it wholly, especially when the situation is as fraught with tension as the presence of British troops in the Irish hamlet of Ballybeg circa 1830, where Translations takes place. Total comprehension is left to the gods and the hindsight of history; the compliment Friel pays his audiences by placing them in that godly position doesn’t stop the play from communicating the situation’s considerable anguish. Whether Americans, quagmired in Iraq, deserve the compliment just now is an arguable point; George W. Bush’s review of Translations would make interesting reading.
Friel lines up his Irish and English characters to provide a panorama of opinion about the redcoat occupation. The setting is a rural “hedge school,” where the rudiments of civilized education—mathematics and literacy in the Greek and Latin classics—are taught to the local young by Hugh (Niall Buggy), an alcoholic, self-aggrandizing man living on the glory of his status as one of the district’s few thoroughly educated folk and one of its even fewer English speakers. Assisted by his younger son Manus (David Costabile), lamed in infancy by Hugh’s drunken fall over his cradle, Hugh rides herd paternalistically over an ever-shrinking circle of students, mostly female; the young men are understood to have left the troubled area, either seeking work in the big cities or going underground to battle the British troops. Manus, bitterly resenting his dependence on his domineering father and no longer sure the hedge-school’s brand of education serves any useful purpose, longs to escape but is held there by his infatuation with the beautiful Maire (Susan Lynch), who has no interest in marrying a man of Manus’s nonexistent prospects and longs to learn English.
When Hugh’s elder son Owen (Alan Cox), now Dublin-based, returns home serving as translator to a team of military surveyors sent to provide the army with accurate maps of the region, Maire promptly falls in love with his buddy Lieutenant Yolland (Chandler Williams), whose passion for everything Irish becomes the source of both the play’s comic moments and its ultimate tragedy. Friel perceives that tragedy as one not of simple right and wrong, but of cultural connections just barely missed—lost in translation, as it were. In the end, everybody loses: the army a good man, the teachers their hope, the young girl both her love and her marital prospects, and the region its very existence. The ultimate scathing effect is a final scene of “translating,” in which the Anglicized names the cartographers have created convey a brutal double significance, of cultural as well as material loss. The only happy person left is Jimmy (Dermot Crowley), a half-demented perpetual student, whose mind has given way, under pressure, to the delusion that he is about to marry the goddess Athena.
Garry Hynes’s production, for Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway season at the Biltmore, is the most lucid and carefully balanced of the three New York has seen, making the multiple values of Friel’s puzzle-piece structure easy to read, a fine way to tap into the play’s power. But the care of Hynes’s balancing act reveals an odd phenomenon: Translations doesn’t spring to vibrant life in the audience’s heart unless there’s someone onstage whose strong presence can arouse passionate empathy; otherwise the clarity only serves to keep onlookers at a perturbed distance. In Joe Dowling’s original MTC production back in 1981, that focal figure was the late Barnard Hughes, who made Hugh a touching emblem of helpless, defeated pride even when tyrannizing his offspring. In Howard Davies’s more uneven Broadway production of 1995, the focus was on Rufus Sewell’s Owen, tragically racked by divided loyalties. Hynes gets strong, sharply drawn performances from her whole cast, but the passion that could lure us into the play’s heart never quite emerges. Buggy’s Hugh is scarily mean in his helplessness; Williams’s Yolland no more than goofily likeable; Alan Cox’s Owen grimly reticent rather than pain-racked. Only Lynch, when Maire’s desperation rises, comes close to providing the hook that can tug Translations from embittered gravity into the sense of pity and terror—Hugh and his students would understand—that the ancient Greeks called catharsis.