“Danny Boy” running through your head? Find the off switch. Stomp on the shamrocks until you can’t tell one of the forty shades of green from the other and tell Michael Flatley (the Riverdance/Lord of the Dance guy) to stop flapping his legs about like a demented rooster. Pack up the leprechauns and, if you must hold onto that cast iron pot full of fairy gold, at least put it to some practical use – somebody probably needs something more comfortable than a theatre seat to sit on.
If you brought Lucky Charms to snack on, there’s no hope for you, so please try not to crunch and let the rest of us get on with the business at hand.
All of this is to make the point that, whatever expectations of “Irishness” you bring into the playhouse with you tonight should be drowned in a nice, foamy pint of Guinness.
Historically, Irish dramatists from J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey to Tom Murphy and Marina Carr are notorious for burning away the cultural fog of nostalgia with the harsh rays of truth, rays that give birth to what Yeats (another Irish dramatist) called “a terrible beauty.” And all this despite vocal, sometimes violent resistance from even their native audience. (The premieres of The Playboy of the Western World and The Plough and the Stars both induced their audiences to riot).
Brian Friel, author of tonight’s drama and, arguably, Ireland’s greatest living playwright, works in the same unsentimental tradition. Don’t be fooled by the lilting accents, the rural setting, or the strains of Irish fiddle and Thirties dance music that drift in over the “Marconi,” Friel’s Ballybeg (from the Gaelic baile beag or “little town”) partakes of nostalgia only as a slow-acting poison. For all its familiar trappings, nurtured by generations of Hollywood conjuring and St. Paddy’s Day saccharine, the Donegal inhabited by the five Mundy sisters is not a static reality, frozen in memory, but a cultural landscape in the midst of catastrophic change.
Looking around at America, circa 2010, we should all be able to relate just a bit to what that feels like.
Enjoy the show.