Theatre Eye: Playing the earl: Brian Friel’s Making History

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Gaelic Ireland, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

Making History is set in Ulster before and after the Battle of Kinsale and in Rome. The plot is centred on O’Neill’s relationships with those around him—with Peter Lombard, the archbishop of Armagh and his putative biographer; with Mabel Bagenal, his New English wife; with Red Hugh O’Donnell, his son-in-law and principal ally; and with Harry Hovenden, his long-suffering secretary. Making History has much in common with Friel’s earlier Field Day history play, Translations. Both look at critical junctures in Irish history, the end of Gaelic aristocratic society in the first instance and the end of Gaelic peasant society in the second. Themes are developed. The cross-cultural love affair between Yolland and Máire in Translations gains greater prominence with Hugh and Mabel in Making History. The character of Owen, at home in two cultures in the earlier play, now comes to the fore as Hugh O’Neill. (Incidentally, Stephen Rea played both these parts in the original productions.) In essence, Friel’s Hugh O’Neill was the archetypal modern Irishman: an individual who as a result of political circumstance is wholly conversant with English culture but cannot be fully accepted within it, and who by dint of Anglicisation has lost a vital part of his Irishness.
Central to the play is the dialectic between Hugh O’Neill and Peter Lombard on the nature of history. Lombard is writing a history of O’Neill’s life and times. He tells his subject that true interpretations of history are not possible, that each generation writes history in accordance with its own needs. At this moment Gaelic Ireland needs a hero and so he wants to cast O’Neill as a nation-state-builder, to glamorise his defeat at Kinsale and his flight to the Continent, to downgrade his former loyalty to the English crown and to relegate his love affair with Mabel Bagenal to a mere ‘domestic story’. Lombard is ‘making a pattern . . . offering a cohesion to that random catalogue of deliberate achievement and sheer accident that constitutes your life’. O’Neill is appalled by his approach but powerless to prevent it. He protests in vain: ‘Don’t embalm me in pieties’. He wants a true account of his life, warts and all. He wants due space given to his political connection with England and demands that Mabel be made central to his life story. Lombard wins out but the dialectic, as it stands, presents more problems than solutions. In short, we cannot allow Lombard to speak for historians because he is transparently a contemporary propagandist, nor can we allow O’Neill to interpret his own life because that would be subjective and equally flawed. Friel may think that he is imparting new ideas about the writing of history to the theatre-going public but this is all old hat to the professional historian. Paradoxically, or perversely, he is himself imposing a pattern on past events whilst criticising historians for their lack of integrity. Friel claimed in the original programme notes: ‘I have tried to be objective and faithful—after my artistic fashion—to the empirical method’. By his own standards, then, he is writing a history, putting his own gloss on the past.
In the light of this claim, Friel’s play can itself be subjected to serious scrutiny. Making History is part of a historiographical tradition. Although primary sources from various document collections are utilised, Friel’s main inspiration is Seán O’Faolain’s biography The Great O’Neill (1942). Indeed, Friel got his idea from the preface of the self-same book, where O’Faolain suggests:

‘If anyone wished to make a study of the manner in which historical myths are created he might well take O’Neill as an example, and beginning with his defeat and death trace the gradual emergence of a picture at which the original would have gazed from under his red eyelashes with a chuckle of cynical amusement and amazement. Indeed in those last years in Rome the myth was already beginning to emerge, and a talented dramatist might write an informative, entertaining, ironical play on the theme of the living man helplessly watching his translation into a star in the face of all the facts that had reduced him to poverty, exile and defeat.’
O’Faolain’s Great O’Neill was revisionist in its own day, but as a writer of historical biographies he was more under the influence of Sir Walter Scott than Leopold Von Ranke. It was largely his book that had made an enigma of Hugh O’Neill.
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Writer Brian Friel with actors Stephen Rea (Hugh O’Neill, left) and Niall Tobin (Archbishop Peter Lombard, right).
Three of the many errors it contains loom large in Friel’s play. First, Hugh O’Neill did not spend his youth in England. Lacking the training of a historian, O’Faolain was unable to reject this received idea for which there was no contemporary evidence. Instead he embroidered it with fanciful references to life at court and the country houses of Renaissance and Reformation England. In fact, O’Neill lived in the Pale during his teenage years, spending time at the home of his foster-parents, the Hovendens, and in the household of the lord deputy, Sir Henry Sidney. This accounts for his Anglicisation; for instance, he signed his name ‘Oneill H’ in longhand, whereas his ally Hugh O’Donnell signed ‘Aodh O Domhnaill’ in Irish script. But his Anglicisation did not leave O’Neill in a cultural and political dilemma for the rest of his life; on the contrary, it gave him a much-needed facility with both cultures at the time of transition. It was precisely the lack of a courtly education that put O’Neill at a disadvantage; he could not be a nation-state-builder and international stateman like William of Orange, who had been brought up at the court of the Habsburgs and who helped lay the foundations of the Dutch Republic in the course of revolting against them.
Secondly, there is O’Neill’s marriage to Mabel Bagenal. This marriage had more to do with politics than romance. Hugh O’Neill was a politician to his very fingertips; he spent his life trying to acquire power, trying to maintain it and trying to regain it. O’Neill had already won over the O’Donnells in a double-marriage alliance. In this case O’Neill used his undoubted charm to inveigle a woman half his age into his confidence and into his bed. This was a vain attempt to win over, or at least neutralise, his rival, Sir Henry Bagenal, which in fact only exacerbated the power-play between them. Interestingly, Hugh O’Donnell later had similar unexecuted plans to kidnap the daughter of the earl of Clanrickard with a view to trumping his power in Connacht. Finally, there is Primate Lombard’s role. Act Two, Scene Two, is based on the last eight pages of O’Faolain’s book. The problem is that Lombard never wrote a life of O’Neill. Although he had written a propaganda tract for O’Neill during the war, Lombard was anxious to build bridges and reach a compromise with the new Protestant monarch, James I, when the war was over.
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The original set.

It was unfortunate, and somewhat ironic, that Friel chose such a faulty history as O’Faolain’s on which to base his O’Neill play, but it remains an outstanding piece of theatre nonetheless and one that makes us think about the making of history. The play uses crude binaries—barbarism versus civility, progress versus tradition, arable versus pastoral and peace versus war—to bring out ideas and to create dramatic tension, but underneath the surface there is a lot more subtlety and complexity. However lovesick O’Neill may appear, he still has other women on the side; Red Hugh, for all his simple-minded rashness, comes across as a natural partner for his older and far more calculating ally; and however O’Neill may protest about Lombard’s twisting of history, we know that he is a political contortionist himself. Furthermore, although a message is being delivered about the propagandist nature of history, what really irks Friel is that the church is part of this cynical process and that it is content to see Gaelic society collapse, so long as its institutional hold on the people continues.
It would be interesting to wonder how Friel might address this subject today in the light of the peace process, the Celtic Tiger and the dethronement of the Catholic Church. At the time he wrote we were in the midst of the heated controversy about the writing of Irish history. Indeed, Making History appears in some respects an attempt to write a revisionist piece after criticisms of Translations as being too nationalist. Furthermore, we were involved in a wider debate about Irish identity—in a sense we were all Hugh O’Neills, struggling to find our place and to survive in an Anglocentric world. In today’s globalised, multipolar world, that protean identity seems more like a strength than a weakness. If nothing else, maybe Field Day’s Making History helped us to realise that there is nothing wrong with a spot of Renaissance self-fashioning!

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Hugh O’Neill’s wife, Mabel Bagenal (Clare Holman, right), in conversation with her sister Mary (Emma Dewhurst, left).
(All images: Field Day)
Hiram Morgan lectures in history at University College Cork.


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