How does Brian Friel establish the theme of language Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 7 July 2017

How does Brian Friel establish the theme of language

How does Brian Friel establish the theme of language and its effects on communication, power and identity in Act one?

In the play Translations, language and its effects is clearly one of the central themes. This is evident because the characters all show what language means to them ranging from Hugh who uses his knowledge of languages as a form of power over the British to Owen who does not show any concern for his language and identity and allows the British to call him Roland. Furthermore the title of the play Translations is ironic because although one of the themes of the play is keeping your identity the book itself looses its identity. This is because although the play is written by an Irish author and set in Ireland, it is written in English. Thus the title foreshadows the outcome of the play.

One of the ways Brain Friel establishes the theme of language is by using Sarah as a device to convey the bare minimum of language. Her limited knowledge of language limits her communication. However this could also be a benefit to her as she is able to have secrets without being expected to share them. Sarah is first introduced in the play by the stage directions which say “Sarah shakes her head vigorously and stubbornly” this is because Manus wants her to speak so she has an identity in the world. This could foreshadow that the Irish, who do not want to speak English will be forced too for there own good as it will help their country prosper.

The character Sarah can be interpreted as the symbol of Ireland due to the play opening with her trying to claim her identity by saying “My name is Sarah”. This achievement of Sarah saying her name at the start of the play shows just how powerful language can be as just a few words can turn you from someone who is unknown to a person who has status in the world. Manus understands this and reacts by saying “nothing’ll stop us now”. This can either be interpreted as nothing will stop Sarah from learning Gaelic now or that the “now” in the quote refers to all of Ireland and that as long as people are still learning Gaelic the British will not stamp out their language.

The character Manus is Hugh’s eldest son and is a teacher at Hedge School. The relationship that Manus has with his father is made very clear by Brain Freil when Hugh first enters the play as he treats Manus like a slave by handing him his hat and coat “as, if to a footman”. Brain Friel shows that due to Manus’s lack of communication with his father and his willingness to do all the things his father asks of him, that he has become a servant. Out of all the characters in the play it is only Manus who really sees the British as an enemy in the First Act. This is likely to be because Manus clearly loves his country and his language and sees these two things as part of his identity.

Also although the play is not overtly political, political issues do run under the surface. For example when Dan Doalty moves the British’s poles Manus says this is just a “gesture” to indicate a “presence”. However when analysing Doalty’s character it can easily be seen that it is highly unlikely he was doing it for this reason and was more likely just looking to make fun of the British. Furthermore Manus is the only one who sees Owen’s job as traitorous to Ireland. All the other characters do not even mention it. However although Manus feels this way about Owen, he himself is guilty of betrayal as he “ignores” Sarah when she tells him that she said her name. As Sarah symbolises Ireland’s identity ignoring her is like a betrayal to Ireland.

The character Jimmy, although contributing to the comedy in act one when Doalty and Bridget are making fun of him. I believe also that this represents just how different the British and Irish culture was in the nineteenth century as his character reveals that in Ireland even the most poor man can speak Greek and Latin. In England it is most likely only the richer upper class people would be able to speak these languages revealing that language doesn’t represent status in Ireland. Furthermore Jimmy’s character is also the only character that stays true to his identity as he is unable to speak English and shows know signs of wishing to learn English “I have only Irish”.

However although Jimmy shows know signs of wanting to learn English his love of Latin and Greek have caused him to be unable to communicate properly with other characters as they only speak Gaelic. Thus Jimmy portrays what could happen to Ireland if they do not learn English as they will be cut off from the world. Additionally Jimmy’s character also uses his knowledge of languages as a power over the British as he mocks captain Lancey for not being able to speak Latin “Nonne Latine loquitur?”.

Brain Friel also shows that due to Jimmy’s reading of Greek stories such as the “Odyssey” he has created an alternative reality for himself in which figures of myth are as real to him as the people he sees everyday. This is revealed as he imagines situations when he would have to choose between Athene, Artimis and Helen. Due to these fantasies Manus calls Jimmy “a bloody dangerous man” suggesting that living in the past is dangerous. Thus foreshadowing that Manus, who does not embrace the English language in his country, may be dangerous as he is still living in the past

The characters captain Lancey and Yolland although both working for the British army have very different views on what they have been ordered to do in Ireland. This is apparent by the way that they act when they first meet the Irish people. Captain Lancey who clearly symbolises England as his manner is polite and imperative, is very patronising when he talks, thinking that if he just talks slow and loud as if to a child the Irish will some how be able to understand him “a picture- you understand picture?”.

However even though he uses this patronising tone it is clearly unjustified because when jimmy asks him “Nonne Latine loquitur?” he mistakes it for Gaelic showing that he is not as intelligent as them. Furthermore the language used by Lancey although already in English is very political and imperialistic and it is likely some British people wouldn’t understand what he was saying. In comparison Yolland although a soldier has few characteristics normally associated with the military as he is shy and awkward. This is shown when Yolland says “I – I – I’ve nothing to say – really -“. The quote reveals that he is not uncomfortable being in Hedge Schools as he stutters. Furthermore unlike Lancey, Yolland is uneasy about not being able to speak Gaelic as he says “Sorry – sorry” when he can’t understand Maire. Additionally Yolland shows very clearly that he values language and identity as he wishes to learn Gaelic.

The “strong-minded, strong bodied women” Maire is a very pragmatic character as she will do things to better herself. This is shown by her willing to embrace the future and learn English so that she can move to America as it is the land of opportunities. This reveals that learning English to Maire is a form of power as it will allow her to escape her poor life in Ireland.

However although she desires this, there is a clear uncertainty in what Maire wants as she speaks approvingly of “modern progress” but on other occasions finds comfort in the belief that things will never change. This is shown when she talks about Baile Beag’s potato crop never failing. The repetition of the word “never” suggests that her willingness to embrace the future is idealistic and selective showing that she wants some things to change while finding a misplaced assurance in the belief that something’s will never change. This could suggest that although she is willing to give up part of her identity, she is comforted by the fact that it is unlikely to happen.

The character Owen is Hugh’s youngest son an presents a striking contrast to Manus, as he is lively and charming. Furthermore although Owen is the son who left his father to pursue his own ambitions he is treated more warmly then Manus. This could be why Owen and Manus’s relationship is uneasy. Owen can either be interpreted as a traitor or as a pragmatic character like Maire. This is because although Owen is helping the British “standardise” Irish place names, he could just be doing this as he believes embracing English is the only way Ireland will prosper.

However due to Owen allowing the British to call him Roland, which is a common British name it is likely that the former is true. This is further apparent as when questioned by Manus about why the British call him Roland he replies with “It’s only a name. It’s the same me isn’t it?”. This quote reveals that Owen places know value in his identity. Owen’s translation of what Lancey is saying on pages 31/32 also show how Owen uses his ability to communicate with the English as power over the Irish. This is because his mistranslation of what Lancey is saying to the Irish allows Owen to make it seem that the British are in their country to help them, not remove their language.

The character Hugh although conveyed as a figure of dignity in Baile Beag is ironically a heavy drinker and is shown little respect by characters such as Daolty as he mocks him behind his back by impersonating the way he acts. Hugh, who is fluent in English, Latin, Greek and Gaelic is very critical of the British language referring to it as a language for traders. Furthermore the distain with which he speaks of Lancey for not knowing any Gaelic, Latin and Irish shows how he uses his knowledge of languages as a weapon against the British as he is able to show his superior intelligence.

In conclusion Brain Friel’s uses characters, dramatic setting and many other devices to show how language plays a key role in this play. Furthermore his use of characters in the play to convey the bare minimum of language (Sarah) and the height of language (Hugh) add to the effect of how he uses language.

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