This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  May 6, 2005

Cracking the code by measuring the skull

Friel's 'The Home Place' examines 19th-century homeland security

Dublin, Ireland

From the beginning of his career, Irish playwright Brian Friel has resolutely insisted on the capacity of his family’s native County Donegal -- rural, harsh, gorgeous, and for centuries impoverished by colonization -- to be as suitable a setting for grand-scale narratives as any world capital. While his subject matter may be Irish, from the late 16th-century massacres that are the backdrop for “Making History” to the mid 20th-century economic stagnation in which “Philadelphia, Here I Come” takes place, Mr. Friel’s storytelling consistently has global implications and applications. It is theater that’s always scrutinizing the minute particulars of power relationships, whether between conquerors and colonized, or parent and child, or two lovers.

Even when he’s dealing with war or imperialism, Mr. Friel never sets up his staged universe as a simplistic clash of civilizations: In their day-to-day existence, Mr. Friel’s people flirt -- culturally, romantically -- across the lines that divide them. Even the characters who turn out to be military or intellectual thugs get caught taking pleasure in the place names or manners or music of the territory they’d come to subdue. Those characters on the receiving end of power also enjoy the allurements of cross-pollination from their colonizers and a variety of other sources: housemaids, farm laborers and rural schoolmasters nimbly absorb the in-drift of such elements as English nursery rhymes and Homer’s “Odyssey” in “Translations,” or Cole Porter and African theology in “Dancing At Lughnasa.” And they’re always reconfiguring the occupier’s language into startling and graceful shapes the landlords could never have managed. What results, however, is no cordial multicultural pageant. Always in the shadows of such felicitous commingling lurks one fact: Whenever the people in power feel challenged, they can swiftly deploy the iron fist.

No Friel play in recent memory has laid out these terms so brilliantly as “The Home Place,” directed with passion and precision by Adrian Noble. The play has just wrapped up at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, is set to open May 7 at London’s Comedy Theatre and will likely arrive stateside soon after. Though set in 1878 just outside of Ballybeg, the Donegal town of Mr. Friel’s imagination where most of his plays take place, the events on display here may strike a familiar chord in 2005.

Elderly Christopher (Tom Courtenay) is the current head of the Gore family, a dynasty of Protestant landlords originating in England. Christopher would certainly think of himself as a “kinder, gentler” occupier and would consider that his presence weighed lightly upon the backs of his destitute Irish tenants. His 30-something son David (Hugh O’Conor) has never done a lick of work in his life, but is perennially concocting schemes for charging off to some faraway country he knows nothing about. One can imagine the senior and junior George Bushes, appropriately affable and useless, occupying these roles and this landscape.

“The Home Place” is set at the Gores’ manor house in the last summer before the founding of the Land League, the formidable grass-roots movement that sought to loosen the clutches of those English landlords who held most of the property in Ireland. Leaguers agitated to ensure fairer rents and greater security of tenure to the impoverished rural laborers whose land had been expropriated generations earlier. Back then, such populist initiatives were springing up all over Europe, just as Europe’s imperial capitals were consolidating their claims on colonies across the globe. At the same time, European scholars of race were building a support system of pseudosciences that made these geopolitical adventurers feel like reformers. For example, anthropometry taxonomized human potential according to physical appearance, which could give colonial governors the rationale for believing they were doing God’s own work in keeping the savages on a tight rein. The same white man’s burden school of science underwrote those 19th-century German scholars in Central Africa who created a hierarchy of physical types based on a Northern European model, which “proved” Tutsis superior to Hutus and made them carry little cards indicating who was who -- with a horrifying aftermath a century later.

Here in Ballybeg, Christopher indulgently sighs as his cousin Richard (Nick Dunning) commences a project of measuring the degree of “nigrescence” -- darkness of hair and eyes -- in the native Irish and of calibrating the circumferences of their heads and the angles of their noses and jaws in an effort to “crack the codes” allegedly inscribed upon their physiognomies. With a homiletic rapture worthy of Ian Paisley or John Ashcroft, Richard predicts that anthropometrics will create “signposts to an enormous vault of genetic information” to prove that different ethnicities are predisposed toward certain occupations -- from laborer to inventor to terrorist. It is hair-raising to watch Richard as he warms to the task of racial profiling, lining up the people he calls his “specimens.” Richard enthusiastically measures their cranial circumferences and bends their necks and limbs to fit his instruments.

Both the mild-mannered Christopher and the impulsive David are in love with flinty, percipient Margaret O’Donnell (Derbhle Crotty), housekeeper for the Gore family. She’s the daughter of Clement O’Donnell (Barry McGovern), the gifted, dissolute village choirmaster who has trained local children to create ethereally complex and sophisticated music by fusing Irish poetry to Continental harmonic structures. In an unusual situation for a servant, Margaret calls the landlord by his first name, dines at his table and spends evenings in conversation with him and his guests. But Margaret has neither fully embraced the people in whose home she dwells nor fully disowned the family she has left. Her ambivalence is not a flaw of character, but a political condition. Her vigorous intelligence propels her toward the idea of a larger life she cannot admit to or even articulate. Only the restlessness beneath her orderliness makes clear that she lives in a limbo not unlike that of the father she shuns.

Like her, the footloose Clement evades the injunction to be cataloged into either of the two strict rubrics of Ballybeg existence. His wit and grace, along with his ragged inebriation, compose a portrait of the artist straining to create within the strictures of a conquered province: the conductor whose music could talk to the globe as easily as to the village, but who must let it drift like smoke over pastures and thickets until it vanishes into the sky. Margaret scorns this broken father because to look him respectfully in the eye would mean reckoning with a troubling mirror image. Both father and daughter are casualties of peace -- the bogus peace imposed by conquerors who think they’re liberators.

Margaret Spillane writes frequently about culture and politics and teaches writing at Yale University.

National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: