Classics in Friel's Translations

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Discuss the importance of the classical content in ‘Translations’. How do they contribute to the exploration of colonialism in the play?

‘It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. 1 

Translations is a play in which many doors are opened through mythological and classical content. Looking at this content in closer detail allows us to see the play from a different angle, and gives new meanings to many of the themes and ideas presented. Most notably to the theme of colonialism which is at the forefront throughout the play.

Jimmy Jack Cassie, for whom the ‘world of ancient myths is as real and as immediate as everyday life’, provides us with our first examples of the classical content in Translations. He acts as a human ‘bridge’ between the present worlds of Baile Beag and those of Ancient Greece and Rome, and links many of the themes and events with classical history and mythology.

One of the most important thematic links is the development of Jimmy Jack’s ‘relationship’ with the Goddess Athene. Jimmy fails to treat her like a fictional character, even comparing her to women from his village ‘no harm to our own Grania… But I would go bull straight for Athene’. His relationship with the mythological character is real to him, and thus the problems he faces are as realistic as the problems faced by the people around him.

 As Jimmy contemplates his impending marriage to Athene at the end of the play he brings up the word ‘exogamein’ meaning ‘to marry outside the tribe’ and asks ‘Is Athene sufficiently mortal or am I sufficiently godlike for the marriage to be acceptable to her people and to my people?’. This idea becomes especially significant when parallels drawn between this relationship and the relationship between Maire and Yolland. Jimmy sees these parallels and asks Maire to think about his question. Probably realising that a similar question to Jimmy’s can be asked of them: ‘is Maire sufficiently anglicized or is Yolland sufficiently Irish for their union to be acceptable to her people and to his people?’. Many people would not want to accept this union. In the play the part of the disapproving populace is played by the Donnelly twins who are suspected with having caused Yolland’s disappearance. They represent the catholic nationalists who strongly opposed the union between Ireland and England (and perhaps also of Maire and Yolland) and often reacted violently.

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Both Maire and Yolland are in a similar ‘half-way’ stage to Jimmy Jack. Irish Maire has dreams of learning English and moving to England, whilst British Yolland describes is feelings for Ireland as ‘a sense of recognition, of confirmation of something I half new instinctively’ showing his sense of belonging to this foreign country. Another parallel between the two relationships is the existence of a ‘barrier’ between the people in it. In Jimmy Jack’s case it is the obvious fact that Athene does not actually exist in the physical world. His communication with her may be effective but it isn’t real ...

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A very articulate, perceptive commentary, which shows excellent knowledge of text, critical response and classical as well as Irish contexts. *****