Bararus hic ego sum quia non intelligor ulli
"I am a barbarian in this place because I am not understood by anyone." – Ovid
is perhaps the best play by contemporary Irish
playwright Brian Friel
. It debuted September 23, 1980
and was the first production of the Field Day
Theater, a company started by Friel and actor Stephen Rea
, who starred in the play.
The play is set in August 1833
in the town of Baile Beag, Ireland
and focuses on a microcosm of eight Irish men and women. Their world is disrupted when the British come calling. They are in town to do a general survey of all of Ireland, a survey which is symbolic of the cultural and linguistic colonialism practiced by the British.
"Ireland is privileged. No such survey is being undertaken in England. So this survey cannot but be received as proof of the disposition of this government to advance the interests of Ireland."
Beware of Brits bearing gifts. Intentionally or not, the survey is cultural genocide
. The cultural legacy of Ireland is being destroyed as places and landmarks are stripped of their Irish names and given English names. Thus, Baile Beag becomes Ballybeg
. Soon enough Gaelic
will be replaced in schools with English.
The British are condescending in such matters of language, personified by the arrogant Captain Lancey. He begins his speech to the Irish in pidgin English, thinking they cannot comprehend the ideas instead of merely not understanding the words. When Owen, acting as translator, condenses the speech, Lancey shoots him a look, surprised that what he thinks of as his complicated English ideas could be transmitted by such a few words of Gaelic. The irony
is that the monolingual English look down upon these Irish people, many of whom are multilingual. Jimmy, responding to Lancey’s condescending pidgin English, replies "Nonne Latine loquitur
("Does he not speak Latin
?"), and Lancey mistakes it for Gaelic!
Captain Lancey is accompanied by Lieutenant Yolland. As opposed to the businesslike Lancey, Yolland is enchanted with the country and daydreams about living there. Much like all the modern-day tourists flocking to Ireland, he has an idyllic vision of the island but no conceptions of the realities. He knows no Gaelic, but enjoys his conversations with Maire regardless. Yolland mentions he is a neighbor of William Wordsworth
(whom the Irish are unfamiliar: "No I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. .... We tend to overlook your island."), appropriate since Yolland is the quintessential romantic
. But Yolland has never actually spoken with the poet. Yolland is all surface, no substance, all romance, no reality, in love with an idea, not a place.
Despite all the love he professes for Ireland, he is participating in its destruction. Eventually, he becomes somewhat aware of what he’s doing and tries to preserve some of the Gaelic names, but he does not become conscious enough to fully break out of the role society has cast him in. It is his love for Ireland that makes Yolland a greater and more subtle threat to the Irish. Lancey is an obvious tyrant, a figure that can be lampooned and resisted. Yolland is the kind face of the conqueror, professing his love for the country while working to deliver it into the hands of his masters.
The reactions of the Irish characters are mostly ones of flight and capitulation. They retreat into the countryside, to America
, to books and the bottle. Only one takes up arms. They (and I’m not doing them justice in this wu, I know) represent a microcosm of Irish reactions to English colonialism, but they are all still round, fully realized characters, individuals who act upon realistic motivations and not just vague stand-ins for particular ideas or viewpoints.
An interesting feature of this play is that while the characters speak three different languages during the course of the work, all the dialogue is in English, and Friel skillfully makes it clear what language is being spoken when without the use of clumsy cues or subtitles.