Brian Friel begins The Home Place by establishing the play’s conflicts gradually through characterization. Currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre, The Home Place acutely directed by Charlotte Moore examines the concept of interlopers. Additionally, Friel’s themes contrast the arrogant British outsiders with the indigenous, oppressed Irish.
Inspirationally, the native Irish belong to the land and merge with its rhythms through ancient traditions. Their stalwart character forged by their environs becomes the worthy component to assist them as they carve out a meager existence bracing continual hardships. However, the British interlopers, predatory and exploitive, demean and impoverish the Irish. Their presumptuous, arrogant, and discriminatory behaviors and attitudes hamper any meaningful, lasting union between the two social cultures.
Significantly, Friel’s winding, subtle themes evolve throughout the play anchored by the events which take place on the Gore estate. Moreover, the arc of the play’s development reveals the inherent conflict between the interlopers, the proper English Gore brothers, and the native Irish who serve them and manage their property. Christopher Gore (in a fine, complex portrayal by John Windsor-Cunningham), owns a vast estate in County Donegal, Ireland. The elder brother appears to be generous and kind to the tenant farmers, and he manages to network with the community and in his own fashion respects their work.
However, his visiting brother, Dr. Richard Gore (the superb Christopher Randolph), presents an antithetical portrait. In particular the doctor visits his brother to study the racial attributes of those on the Aran Islands and surrounding locale on the estate. Although bred of the same cloth, Dr. Gore’s comments and behaviors as he takes cranial measurements of his subjects exemplify boorish and discriminatory attitudes. Indeed, his arrogant sense of himself and assumption of class privilege become tediously obnoxious as the play progresses. Furthermore, that exact presumption of class superiority precludes the explosive events that foreshadow the foment to come in Ireland a few decades later.
Another conflict that arises occurs between father Christopher Gore and son David Gore portrayed by the excellent Ed Malone. Both men become interested in wedding the more cultivated Irish house manager Margaret O’Donnell (Rachel Pickup gives a sensitive portrayal). The underlying love tensions suggested in the first act surface in the second act. For then both men as competitors reveal their desperation and unhappiness with their situation on the estate. Hence, as both perceive they cannot free themselves of their mired existence, Margaret becomes “the way out.”
However, the question remains. Does she perceive either of them to be “a way out” for her? Or does her own inner strength exempt her from needing to escape? After all, this land and the Irish culture inherently fed and nurtured hers and her father’s soul. Why leave its beauty, grace, and profound meaning? Will Margaret’s proclamation of loving David last? Or will it evanesce when the confrontation between father and son forces her decision?
Most significantly, the father’s and son’s desires to unconsciously “get away” from the troubles that seethe below the surface in the hearts of the Irish manifest in their wish to escape. For Christopher it would be in the arms of the much younger and lovely Margaret. On the other hand David wishes to physically escape with Margaret to another continent far away from the estate and his father’s dominance. Indeed, though aware of the growing resentment of their presence amongst what they deem a “lower” social order, they become stymied by their own paralysis.
Not only do they not plan to transition from their current condition to the new order imagined in the hearts of the Irish, they lack vision. For they cannot even perceive how such an order might be positive and beneficial. Instead, the elder Gore’s fears override any hope of his amendment. Nor does he even consider becoming a leader to manage the coming revolution in the social order. Instead, he quails at the deaths of British land owners on nearby estates. Without a doubt he realizes the men have been murdered and the class war has surreptitiously begun. However, he chooses not to be pro-active.
Vitally, Friel’s characterization of Christopher becomes the complex linchpin upon which the play’s themes revolve. For he becomes representative of the British landed gentry who must be evicted. Like typically well meaning British, he does not necessarily oppose the just changes and inherent progress that can greatly benefit the British presence in Ireland. On the other hand he does not stand for them. He remains passive and blows about with the wind currents rather than taking action. As a character of weakness and passivity, by the conclusion of the play he devolves further.
Similar to his brother Dr. Richard though less grievous, Christopher’s sense of presumption, privilege and superiority (the brothers discuss Margaret more as an object to be taken), weigh down his decency and humanity. Because fear motivates him, his finer nature weakens. And in the face of the pride-filled, stalwart character of the Irish, represented by Con Doherty (a menacing Johnny Hopkins), it becomes obvious who will win in the end.
For lacking the courage to change, passively being acted upon, Christopher’s decency becomes thwarted. His desire to help others lift themselves up from his own seemingly genteel oppression fades. In the play’s conclusion though Margaret attempts to soothe him with the music that has soothed her and her forebears; he remains unsettled and lost. Indeed, the church music created by the choir led by Clement O’Donnell (the wonderful Robert Langdon Lloyd), could never soothe British Christopher. For at its core the powerful sense of the Irish spirit shines. Ironically, that very music suggests that British domination of Ireland has seen its final days.
Because of the wistful musical beauty at the conclusion we understand that those who oppress can no longer stand on their sense of privilege and “superiority.” For theirs was a domination borne out of tyranny, not out of grace or stolid abilities to survive and withstand life’s trials without tyrannizing others. In Friel’s The Home Place we understand that the British dance of pretense and privilege has finished. Indeed, whether they leave vociferously on their own or remain to be violently ejected or killed, they will leave. The determined and fierce Con Dohertys will make sure of it, and heaven help the Dr. Gores who infer that their blood-line is triumphant.
Surely, The Home Place remains Friel’s most subtle, powerful, and complicated work. The Irish Repertory Theatre’s rendition of Friel’s play gloriously captures Friel’s subtle power in this play. Not only are the sets, staging, lighting, and artistic elements lustrous, the quiet dark tones and gradual evolution toward the climax become the transports to the profound thematic conclusion. To fully comprehend this work, one must pay attention and not miss the clever cues Charlotte Moore leaves throughout as the conflict ratchets up by degrees then explodes to the climax which signifies the end of the British dominance of Ireland.
However, one of Friel’s sardonic points about the conclusion remains that the sleeping British missed the signs. Their arrogance misled them, and the truth soared over their effete and cowardly minds and hearts. Only until violence and bloodshed opened their eyes, did they see. Tragically, it didn’t have to be that way. But then, where unchecked power corrupts, tragedy unfolds. In the end, a winner stands, but the cost is unfathomable.
The Home Place runs one hour and forty-five minutes with one intermission at Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street, NYC). This must-see production ends on 19 November. For tickets CLICK HERE.