Translating a Means to an Ending

Posted on February 21, 2010

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I went to see my local drama group perform Brian Friel’s Translations on Thursday night in Wexford. A play I’ve loved since, pretty much opening the first page, it was great to finally see a stage version of it, not to mention an excellent one.

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Such is the nature of life, I didn’t get to go for an after show drink until yesterday and ended up getting into a discussion in the pub about the ending of the play, and the ending of Brian Friel’s plays in general, Dancing At Lughnasa being the other main topic of conversation.

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I’d spoken to a lot of people who were perplexed by the ending of both plays, Translations more so, as Dancing At Lughnasa has that wonderful monologue at the end in which Michael more or less explains everything before uttering those beautiful last lines:

When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement – as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.”

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To me, words always speak more openly than a narrative does, in any form of art, be it film, TV, theatre, what have you. I do a good bit of writing myself and the one thing I’ve always been complimented on is my dialogue, I don’t know why it is exactly, but I don’t find it difficult to write dialogue. Some people seem to think it’s because I was brought up in a pub and was always around conversation and dialogue from a young age. Others seem to think that because I talk so much, I couldn’t not know how to write dialogue, but how and ever, I’m straying from my point.

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As I said, the place where people I spoke to, most had problems was with the ending of the play, as it ends quite suddenly. An extra page or two could give it closure was one person’s suggestion. Another was that we’ve seen too much of the characters throughout the play not to see them given some form of solid ending. I’ll come back to these points later with my own thoughts.

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But the conversation itself got me thinking about the nature of endings and why we are still so traditional about them, why we still get rather annoyed if we see or read something that doesn’t have a conventional ending: happy, sad, uplifting, depressing, whatever. For some reason we don’t like it in plays, perhaps it’s because it’s live and we don’t have time to process what we’ve just seen – i.e. we can’t press pause like we can with a complicated film to try and figure out what’s going on.

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But the thing is, with complicated films like that, we usually welcome unusual endings, we welcome something unique and ambiguous – The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, Fight Club, Caché (I’m going for a world record in mentioning this film on this blog) All these films leave lots of points unexplained, but does this make them bad films? No, definitely not. In fact, it makes them even more intriguing because we try to work it through in our head, try to answer the questions ourselves.

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I suppose the real question in all of this is: why do we need closure? In a world where we’re all afraid of showing a wrinkle, what is our obsession with having proper, solid endings? Why is the general consensus with narrative driven arts that we have to start at A and finish at Z? Sure, you can mix the letters up in the middle but you always have to end at Z (except with something like Memento in which the above process develops backwards). A bold question here but, does anyone not think that having three quarters of the story, is more interesting than having the whole thing (except in politics and finance, obviously)?

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Film and arts used to be something we watched for entertainment, the TV was and probably still is, in some places, referred to as the idiot box, but entertainment has evolved over the past 20 years to not just be entertaining but also challenging and mentally stimulating.

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In history then, or at least in Ireland’s upper classes anyway, theatre was always considered the highest form of artistry and the most intelligent form of entertainment. Why then, should an ambiguous ending be such an ill-informed procedure? Why, more specifically, should it be considered so today, in a culture that has taken its entertainment levels to such new heights – we don’t just simply want to be entertained anymore, we want to be challenged by what entertains us. We want what we view to respect our intelligence. Because if something’s just spoon fed, it’s not as much fun. We like to feel like we are consciously interacting with what we view and we can’t do that if it doesn’t ask questions of us and have us ask questions of it.

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Coming back to Translations then, my personal opinion is that the ending is perfect the way it is. The hints of what’s to come are scattered the whole way through the play; the sweet smell;, the very presence of the English soldiers; Maire’s constant mentions of America – blight, colonisation and emigration – the three big factors of the 1800s in Ireland. The ending to this play is already written by the history within which it’s set. Bridget and Doalty’s beautiful exchange toward the end in which she thinks she smells the potato blight, for me sums up the entire play and its sheer poignancy. Upon being told that it is just the smell of tents burning Bridget responds “I thought we were ruined altogether” (Paraphrased). That’s the sad beauty in this play; the character’s optimism will never be rewarded. A similar moment in the theatre version of The Diary of Anne Frank had Anne saying how she would let her children read a certain book when the audience chillingly knows that she will never get the chance.

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It’s wonderfully haunting because we know that everything these characters are afraid of, will happen. Nothing that exists, or could exist within the narrative structure will change the fate of these characters. What would an extra page or two pages accomplish for this play? Tell us the fate of Yolland? What does it matter? History tells us that such a scenario was doomed anyway. The characters lives are falling to pieces by the end – why show the continuation of this ruin when history tells us what we already know?

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The play is meant to be a microcosm of what’s going on in the bigger picture (like Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic). Hugh’s admittance to Maire at the end that he can teach her the language of English but not, to quote another playwright, “the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune” that go hand in hand with it, is a wonderful moment of surrender. In essence, the end of the play is about failure – the failure to fight history because to do so would not only hinder the credibility of the play, but would be a disrespect to those who were a part of that history. The two storylines run alongside each other (one on the local, personal scale; the other, the national state of the country) and, in the end, converge to show that Friel, though an outstanding playwright, does not dare attempt to rewrite history.

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And that is why the ending of this play, in my opinion, is perfect.

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