Esteemed Irish director Garry Hynes, who is directing the esteemed Irish playwright Brian Friel’s “Translations” at McCarter Theater, says, “clearly it’s a story about the last of the Irish language and the consequences of what happens because Ireland is colonized.” Audience members will also see the relevance this story has to today, since the tension between Ireland and England has not gone away, and we are only at the beginnings of what some term the U.S. colonization of Iraq. Hynes is reluctant to point to any particular relevance but she does say, “obviously, when one culture is in powerful control over another culture, there are tensions.”
Hynes feels that Friel puts a positive spin on the problem. “What the play says is that there will always be conflict, but it’s what we do with it, how we move forward that matters.” The dilemma facing the characters in “Translations” is sparked by the arrival of British military engineers, who have descended on their rural 19th century Irish village to map their area and give everything an English place name. This is the setting and circumstance of the play but as Hynes says, “it’s finally a story about a group of people in Donegal and what happens to them. It’s funny and it’s tragic and all the things life is.”
Friel, one of Ireland’s most prominent playwrights, is best known in the United States for his plays “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “Faith Healer” (which had its second Broadway production last season.) His father was an educator and school principal; however, his grandparents were Irish-language-speaking peasants. With “Translations,” Friel is dealing with a theme that runs throughout much of his work but grows from his own family’s experience. In 1980 Friel founded a theater company whose mission was “to find a middle ground between the country’s entrenched positions.”
Hynes and I sat and talked in a light rain at a picnic table behind the McCarter Theater. This setting was chosen so that Hynes could smoke cigarets to fortify herself for the upcoming rehearsal. I found her warm and direct, with an honest, no-nonsense demeanor, and impervious to the drizzle. I guess her short-cropped graying hair wasn’t a concern.
Director Hynes says she has known Friel for many years but not too well though she loves his work. “He is a master playwright, an engaging and direct person, and I am privileged to be doing his work here.”
But it was with a different Irishman’s work that she made her first mark in the United States, when she directed Mark McDonaugh’s American debut as a playwright with “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which proceeded to win every major award there was to win for the 1997-’98 Broadway season. Hynes also earned one other particular distinction with that production — as the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing. For about seven minutes (as Hynes reports it), she held onto that distinction — until that same evening Julie Taymor won for directing the musical “The Lion King.”
Let’s clarify. Yes, Garry Hynes is a woman. “I’ve had that problem all my life. I was christened Gearoidin, anglicized as Geraldine.” As a child, her buddies shortened this to Garry. “It’s a nickname that became my name.”
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” began its theatrical journey at the Druid Theater Company in Galway, a company founded in 1975 by Hynes and several of her friends from “university.” “It’s what one can do when one is young and has no responsibilities,” says Hynes. There was no professional theater outside of Dublin at that time. “We wanted to continue to make theater but didn’t want to leave Galway.” She served as the company’s artistic director from its inception through 1991, when she became artistic director of the Abbey Theater in Dublin. In 1994, she resumed her post with the Druid Theater Company. “It’s possible to speak to a national audience because Ireland is not a very large country, and there’s a great cultural life force to the country that encourages theater,” she says of the theater’s progress. “ We have a great oral tradition of storytelling.” By the 1980s the Druid Theater Company had come to the forefront of Irish theater.
She was born in Ballaghadereen, County Roscommon, the oldest of four children, two boys and two girls. Her father was “a passionate teacher,” who headed up an education scheme in Galway. Her mother, Carmel, “a homemaker as they like to say now,” is still living. Both of them, says Hynes, were “hugely supportive of what I wanted to do. My father just wanted me to get an education and then I could do what I like with it.” Only one other sibling, a brother, Jerome, was drawn to the artistic life. Until his untimely death last year, he was the director of the Wexford Opera Festival and deputy of the national Arts Council. Her sister, Aedhmar, lives in the United States. Hynes maintains an apartment in Dublin, which she now calls home, though she is rarely there. “I’m either in Galway or London or over here.”
Hynes was educated at St. Louis Convent in Monaghan and at the Dominican Convent and University College in Galway. “I fell into my career by complete accident; I don’t think I ever said theater is what I want to do,” she says. At “university” she received a general arts degree in English and history. But she also by her own admission had eagerly joined every college organization, including a literary society, debate club, historical society, and — fortuitously — the drama society. She was given a choice by the drama group to either act or direct. “Acting was something I couldn’t conceive of and directing, well, maybe.” The result: “Simply by doing it, I discovered that I wanted to do it.”
Since founding the Druid Company, she hasn’t stopped directing. Early in the company’s existence, she did write two plays, “Island Protected by a Bridge of Glass” and “The Pursuit of Pleasure,” but she assures me she isn’t a playwright. She explains that she was “quite simply writing in response to a need within our company for some new work.” She reiterates, “I’m not a writer.” Immediately the new company found an audience in the Galway area and has since expanded to build a reputation that led to touring extensively at home and abroad. This past summer Hynes directed the memorable one-day marathon of DruidSynge plays in Washington, D.C., and at Lincoln Center.
Once “Translations” opens at the McCarter, Hynes returns to Ireland to prepare a revival of another play for a national tour, and then back to the states to prepare “Translations” for its transfer to the Manhattan Theater Club’s Broadway house, the Biltmore Theater. The McCarter cast is primarily made up British and Irish actors, two of whom are making their American stage debut.
According to Hynes, the small number of women directors is about the same in Ireland as it is here in the States. Fortunately, when she began her career as a director, she says, “I had no awareness for a number of years that it was unusual for a woman to be a director — because to some extent, I could plow my own furrow. I didn’t have to access that structure of theater and climb to the top. In hindsight I was very fortunate.” Recently the Irish Times called her “the director of her generation.” In 2005 she was given a special Tribute Award for her contribution to the Irish Theater, and in 2006 she was awarded the Freedom of the City of Galway.
Enjoying her stay in Princeton, Hynes says, “I enjoy the smallness of the place and the incredible greenness.” The company for “Translations” is “at home” in Princeton during the rehearsal period and that, too, she feels makes for a wonderful togetherness that enriches the work process.
This production is part of a number of events during October that celebrate the newly acquired Leonard L. Milberg Collection of Irish Theater at Princeton University. This is a significant collection that includes a hitherto unpublished play, “The Cooing of Doves,” by Sean O’Casey, as well as more than 1,000 scripts and other theater material that documents the last 160 years of Irish theater. Hynes joined Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet and Princeton professor Paul Muldoon, in whose honor the collection was donated, for a special discussion about “Translations,” at Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, September 26.
Hynes says she feels that it is wonderful that the Irish theater material is being brought together. “I don’t have any sense that it should be in Ireland. The world is global now.”
Muldoon agrees: “The great bonus is that it is just that, ‘a boon or gift over and above what is normally due,’ but one which will help begin to secure what will be seen as Princeton’s pre-eminence as a seat of scholarship in Irish theater.” He is excited about the O’Casey material but adds that he has been “moved by each and every piece I’ve seen.” However, he has a special fondness for the odds and ends, as he describes them, of the collection, “what librarians classify as ‘ephemera’ — the ticket stubs, playbills, and posters.”
Muldoon tells me via an E-mail correspondence that he attended the opening night of “Translations” in Derry in 1980. “It was immediately obvious that this is a great play, one of the best of the 20th century.” He also feels, as a result of what he has seen of this current production’s preparation, that this will be the definitive version of the play.
At some point, Hynes tells me, Friel will come to America to see this mounting of his play. She hopes he will be pleased.
Translations, through Sunday, October 29, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Brian Friel’s drama about a rural 19th century Irish village directed by Garry Hynes. For ages 12 and up. Opening night is Friday, October 13. Through October 29. $40 to $53. For ages 12 and up. Opening night is Friday, October 13. 609-258-2787.