Noticed a sudden hankering for Guinness? Find yourself prone to a spontaneous jig? It’s not surprising – you can’t seem to escape the influence of the Irish on campus these days. It’s all thanks to Leonard Milberg ’53, who donated an enormous collection of Irish theater to the University in honor of Paul Muldoon. The collection, which opened on Friday, includes over 1,000 plays and pieces of theater memorabilia pertaining to the last 160 years of Irish theater. Among these items is Sean O’ Casey’s “The Cooing of the Doves,” an unpublished play long believed to have been lost.
This past weekend’s “Players and Painted Stage” symposium was held to celebrate the collection. The events included a reading of the O’Casey play and a series of lectures on various aspects of Irish drama. The department of Theater and Dance will stage J.M. Synge’s classic, Playboy of the Western World in November, and a production of Translations, written by contemporary playwright Brian Friel and directed by the renowned Garry Hynes, is currently running at McCarter. In short, if you are a theater aficionado at Princeton, you will have a difficult time escaping the Irish.
And if the events of this weekend are any indication, you won’t want to. The symposium brought together renowned artists and scholars, including actor Stephen Rea, Fiach Mac Conghail (director of the Abbey Theater, Ireland’s national theater), Garry Hynes (the first woman to win a Tony for Directing), and Emily Mann (McCarter’s Artistic Director). Fiona Shaw and Gabriel Byrne were even slated to appear, but alas, they did not. Still, you’ll hear no complaints from me – the panelists who did make it out were worth giving up a beautiful Saturday for, and I was impressed with the scope of the event. Though the symposium was overwhelmingly attended by geriatric community members rather than university students, it was a step in the right direction for advancing the arts at Princeton.
Stephen Rea, a former member of the revolutionary theater group Field Day, spoke about the intersection of art and politics with cultural commentator Luke Gibbons. In the 1970s, the Field Day Group infused Irish literary arts with a national consciousness, and brought theater to the entire country. With the group, Rea performed in the first production of Translations. Gaunt and restrained, Rea quietly emphasized theater’s ability to be an agent for change, and its important critical and intellectual capacity.
Garry Hynes, Emily Mann, and Fiach Mac Conghail engaged in a discussion about direction. Mac Conghail and Hynes talked about their attempts to make active theater that creates change. The directors compared Irish theater to American theater, touting the diversity and locality of theater in the U.S. but harshly denouncing our lack of arts funding. “Shameful, shameful,” Mann muttered. She attributed a decrease in the output of “serious, challenging work” to inadequate government aid. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the discussion of cultural difference occurred when an audience member asked Hynes if she had considered toning down the actors’ accents in Translations so that the American audiences could better understand. Hynes politely noted in her lilting accent that Americans often made such requests but fail to appreciate that the work is, at its core, from another culture. She said that she would sacrifice clarity to maintain the essence of the work, words that rang so true as to make us all a little ashamed of our insensitivity.
The day ended with a roundtable discussion of the past, present, and future of Irish drama, moderated by Michael Cadden, head of the department of Theater and Dance, and Paul Muldoon. The panelists discussed the new globalization of Ireland, and the need to reinvent the Irish identity, especially in the face of increased immigration. Contemporary Irish crises of faith put the theater at an exciting crossroads, and call for writers to investigate the cultural changes.
The symposium ended Sunday afternoon, but I would strongly advise anyone with any interest in theater, Irish or otherwise, to check out Translations at McCarter. Though I admit to knowing embarrassingly little about Irish history, I fell in love with the show, both as a literary work and as a production. The play takes place in Northern Ireland in 1833, during a British occupation to map the area, and investigates the tensions that arise between the two nationalities. Though he had feared being too overtly political, playwright Friel maintains the fine balance between the specific historical context and the more universal idea of identity construction via language. He delicately weaves the theme of language throughout the play: how it empowers and limits us, how it unifies and divides us.
Hynes’ production does justice to this literary masterpiece. During the symposium, she remarked that she has grown more committed to the belief that less is more, and she holds true to that in this production. Nothing is over the top, and this simplicity brings out the power of the language that is indeed the focus of the play. The acting is top-notch. It is to the actors’ credit that, though the play is entirely in English, we do feel that there are two distinct languages being spoken. More importantly, each character seems aware of his or her place in the play, making for a well-balanced ensemble effort. The only possible downfall is the ending. Although the idea is apt, it comes off as a bit lofty and esoteric.
For anyone who has ever wondered about how art and politics could co-exist peacefully, how truly beautiful art could also raise awareness and incite change, Translations is a must-see. This is the sort of show that, as Rea put it, makes the crowd that comes to see it leave as a unified group. We may not be the exact group Friel was writing for, but the power of the piece is evident – even in Princeton, even in 2006.