Irish playwright Brian Friel is probably best known, at least to American audiences, as the author of Dancing at Lughnasa. I first became aware of him when I stage-managed a production of his translation of Turgenev’s A Month In the Country. It was those experiences, and the synopsis in the Shaw Festival’s season brochure, that prompted me to choose this play. I am so glad I did.
Friel’s play, which premiered in 1979, is a three-character drama. In individual monologs Frank, a Faith Healer; Grace, a woman who shared his life, and Teddy, their former manager, describe their memories of their shared experiences. The play is structurally unusual in that the characters never appear on-stage together. There is no physical action, just four monologs (the title character has the first and last) describing memories that are common to all but not really shared. In Rashomon-like fashion, the memories vary with the perspective of the character telling them.
This play is hard work. It must be exhausting for the cast; only slightly less so for the audience trying to grasp the content. In addition to exploring the relationship between these three, fascinating characters, it explores the meaning of memory; not just interpreting the recollections of these three people but the broader function of memory in our lives. It also explores the subjectivity of truth. If two, or in this case three, people interpret the meaning of a past experience differently, are two of them necessarily wrong? Perhaps truth lies in all three. Perhaps it is only found by putting their three perspectives together to form a single three-dimensional image.
There is an essay in the program by Ann Saddlemyer in which she quotes the playwright recalling a day spent fishing with his father which; “is a fiction. Have I imagined the scene then? Or is it a composite of two or three different episodes? The point is – I don’t think it matters. What matters is that for some reason…. this vivid memory is there in the storehouse of the mind. For some reason the mind has shuffled the pieces of verifiable truth and composed a truth of its own. For me it is a truth.”
Of course characters in plays, as in life, sometimes lie. If I didn’t know it before, I certainly learned that the first time I visited an on-line chat room. I always find that fascinating because people often reveal more about themselves with the things they choose to lie about than they would in simply telling the truth.
I need to read this play. There was simply too much in it to fully comprehend by seeing one performance. So far I have been unsuccessful in locating a copy in any of my usual sources on this trip. If all else fails I will order one online after I get home. I am sure it will not be an easy read. For me that is usually a good sign.