Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Friel, Here I Come!

Finally I picked up Brian Friel's 'Performances' yesterday. Being obscenely short I read it in a sitting. It deals with the Czech composer Leos Janacek, his last quartet, 'Intimate Letters', and the love letters to a woman forty years his junior that inspired it. Interweaved throughout the play are pieces of his music, including the quartet. My copy of the quartet is hidden away in a box in the garage (I kid you not), so I had to make do with listening to his first quartet, 'The Kreutzer Sonata' (after a Tolstoy story, after a sonata by Beethoven). Not really acceptable given how intrinsic the music is to the play, but what could I do?
Now Brian Friel is fairly well-known. If you didn't do 'Philadelphia, Here I Come' for the leaving certificate, you may yet have heard of 'Dancing at Lughnasa'. Generally regarded as one of Ireland's greatest living playwrights, one would expect quality work. And that is why the play angered me. The play, short as it is, exists primarily for one speech, one rebuttal and a performance of the quartet in a theatre setting. Otherwise drama there is none. Action there is none. We find out a little bit about Janacek - 74 when having an affair and writing his best work, he likes lettuce, he had a son who died, he married a fifteen year-old - but so what? This is mere exposition. The drama such as it is is concentrated is a short argument between the composer and a student writing her thesis on his later work.
Before I have irate aesthetes beating me over the head with Friel's fame, let me say that there is are two point to the play and good ones: a.) an artist's relationship with his/her muse is very much two way, transforming the muse as much as the artist, and b.) an artist's commitment to life probably is more important than to his/her work. However, these are themes for a work or else points made within the context of a short story. If such a message is going onstage, a little more dressing is required for the lettuce. Granted Janacek's music deserves to be heard, but not when you are going to the theatre to see a new play by the great Brian Friel. Again to be fair, playing the music is probably essential to understanding the themes (pun intended) pervading any account of Janacek's last days, but here it just strikes me as a lazy way out of doing what a playwright should do, which is to reveal the world in a bright new light to a blase viewer using the tools of theatre. Here to emphasise the element of laziness, we have Friel tell us (not show us) what it is he sees in Janacek's last romance, a composer taking an ordinary woman and idealising her for the sake of his work. In scriptwriting we would call such declamatory writing on-the-nose dialogue. To have the student protest and offer the more humane, romantic view, that Janacek actually loved his amour for the wonderful person she was (as opposed to what he made her), is simply a standard trick in the writer's arsenal calculated to give a little ambiguity to the story; this is great 'art' afterall. Anyway I wasn't fooled and Friel should know better than to foist such charlatanry on the ticket buying public.


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