We’re not very comfortable with quiet. When the curtain came up last night on The Home Place at the Guthrie, the audience was alone with a verdant, mysterious, very quiet landscape. We waited almost a full minute until an actor even appeared, and when she did, she quietly folded laundry. We all started twittering nervously, fidgeting, shooting each other puzzled glances in the dark, doing anything to avoid asking, “What’s going on here?”
We eventually learned that here is a mansion on a hill in western Ireland; we’re perched on some kind of Anglo-Irish Baronial situation in Donegal, in the latter half of the nineteenth century; sometime after the famine and before Irish independence, when the Fenians running around the Celtic woods started trouble that would eventually become The Troubles. But even before we learn exactly where and when we are, we learn that, like most Irish plays, The Home Place is about colonialism.
Colonialism makes us all pretty squeamish too. I’m speaking more generally now, using “us” as a term that goes beyond “my Guthrie audience,” but not too far beyond. Brian Friel’s play examines the colonial idea of home—the anxiety of being in a place where you don’t belong. And there are easy contemporary parallels to draw—Iraq, of course. But this play isn’t about Iraq.
Any Edina resident can relate to The Home Place because it focuses on the Anglo-Irish, a race with a similarly problematic definition of “home.” Exiled from their own homeland for centuries, doomed to lord it over a people they come to detest while harboring nostalgia for a bygone home place—in this particular family’s case, Kent—where they wouldn’t really be any more welcome than their dirty Irish tenants. When the rich landowner’s son, David Gore, daydreams about whisking his love away to some other corner of the empire—Glasgow, or maybe Kenya—I had the romantic thought, “Right now, some high school junior is making this speech to his girlfriend in some Wayzata bedroom!”
Friel’s portrait of the Anglo-Irish is much more sympathetic than my homegrown stereotypes about western suburbanites. At times, he even seems to say, “Give the English some credit, at least when they conquer a place, they exhaustively catalog everything in it.” (According to recent reports, our accounting in Iraq has been, like everything else, a mess.) For instance, generations of Gores mapped out every botanical species on their land years before they started, post-Darwin, to map out every human species on their land too.
But this is an Irish play. Friel is dubious of well-meaning Anglos. The magnificent Richard Iglewski is cast as Dr. Richard Gore, the Gore family’s eccentric anthropologist cousin. Iglewski plays the best pompous ass in local theater, and fittingly, Dr. Gore is a man devoted to the pseudo-science of cranial measurement, a man who believes that by mapping out physical characteristics we can crack an “ethnic code we can’t yet decipher.” The play climaxes in a scene between Dr. Gore, the English man of science, and Clement O’Donnell, the sentimental Irish drunk (played just gallantly enough by soap-star–turned-Guthrie-hero Charles Keating). When O’Donnell credits Irish poet Tom Moore with “taking the measure of our nation,” you would think a crackpot like Dr. Gore, a man devoted to ethnographic measurement, would, at the very least, Google “Tom Moore” after O’Donnell leaves the room. Instead, he turns to his cousin, “Well, well! What a grotesque! And the reek of whiskey off him! Or was it ether?”