The Field Day Theatre Company began as an artistic collaboration between playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea. In 1980, the duo set out to launch a production of Friel’s recently completed play, Translations. They decided to rehearse and premiere the play in Derry, Northern Ireland, with the hope of establishing a major theatre company for Northern Ireland. The production and performance of Translations generated a level of excitement and anticipation that unified, if only for a short time, the various factions of a divided community.
Although Field Day has never put forth a formal mission statement, their intention is to create a space, a ‘fifth province,’ that transcended the crippling oppositions of Irish politics. The term ‘fifth province’ — Ireland consists of four provinces — was coined by the editors of an Irish Journal, The Crane Bag, to name an imaginary cultural space from which a new discourse of unity might emerge. In addition to being an enormous popular and critical success, Field Day’s first production created just such a space. After the production of Translations, Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s most prominent poet, recognized the importance of what they had accomplished and urged Friel to continue with the project. He asserted, “This was what theatre was supposed to do” (cited in Richtarik, 65).
Translations also introduced many of the central issues related to the Northern Irish crisis that would occupy Field Day’s intellectual and artistic explorations. The play examines the relationship of language to identity, memory, history, and community. It is a statement, albeit an ambiguous one, about colonialism, and about the problematic and complex spectrum of choices the colonized faces between resistance and acquiescence (see Yeats and Postcolonialism).
Derry, Northern Ireland’s “second city,” was a significant choice for both geographical and historical reasons. Its proximity to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, as well as its prominent role in the events leading up to the most recent round of violence known as “the Troubles” (1968-1998), underlines the well known partition between North and South. Its western location and its relationship to the Belfast, Northern Ireland’s east coast capital, underline a second historically older division in Ireland — the division between the cosmopolitan east and the rural, romantic west (see Nationalism).
More Than Theatre
What began with a desire to develop a local Northern Irish theater and make it available to a popular audience quickly grew into a much larger cultural and political project. Even before the company’s opening performance, four prominent Northern Irish writers were invited to join the project — Seamus Deane, David Hammond, Seamus Heaney, and Tom Paulin; they would eventually become Field Day’s Board of Directors. (Thomas Kilroy, the only member from the Republic, joined the board in 1988.) All of the members of Field Day agreed that art and culture had a crucial role to play in the resolution of what had come to be known as “the Troubles”:
[The directors] believed that Field Day could and should contribute to the to the solution of the present crisis by producing analyses of the established opinions, myths and stereotypes which had become both a symptom and a cause of the current situation (Ireland’s Field Day, vii).
Field Day became an artistic response to the violence, history and politics which divided Northern Ireland into a series of seemingly irresolvable dichotomies; Orange/Green, Unionist/Nationalist and Protestant/Catholic are only the most prominent.
Field Day Publishing
While Field Day’s artistic venture continued to fulfill its original mandate of bringing “professional theatre to people who might otherwise never see it” (Richtarik 11), in September of 1983, they launched a project whose target audience was primarily the academic community. The Field Day Theatre Company began publishing a series of pamphlets “in which the nature of the Irish problem could be explored and, as a result, more successfully confronted than it had been hitherto” (Ireland’s Field Day, viii).
The first set of three pamphlets were written by directors of the Field Day Company — Tom Paulin, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane. The pamphlets were largely responsible for entering Field Day into the political debate whose calcified terms the project had originally wanted to explode. With Tom Paulin’s Riot Act (1984), the division between critic and artist began to crumble; the politics of the pamphlets were finding their way into the plays (Richtarik 242).
In the 1990 introduction to Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature –a collection of three Field Day Pamphlets by Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson and Edward Said — Deane writes: “Field Day’s analysis of the [Northern Irish] situation derives from the conviction that it is, above all, a colonial crisis” (Eagleton 6). In this essay, Deane calls for a re-engagement with the concept of nationalism, and positions Field Day in a squarely antithetical position to those he refers to as revisionist historians and critics, whose chief aim is “to demolish the nationalist mythology” (6). The categories of revisionist and anti-revisionist were all too easily superimposed onto the categories of unionist and nationalist, and the space between them, created by the production of Translations, was closing fast. For some, Seamus Deane had become the de facto spokesman, and Field Day became increasingly associated with nationalist politics and postcolonial theory (see Deepika Bahri).
By this time Field Day was no longer a novel experiment; it was part of the establishment: “That Field Day was attacked for being nationalist and for being anti-nationalist was a positive sign in so far as it proved that the company was raising questions generally, but the fact that the debate had narrowed so quickly to the old terms indicated that Field Day was losing the moral and artistic high ground” (Richtarik 249).
The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing
From the beginning Field Day struggled to establish a cultural identity, not just for the North, but for the Irish. Much like the stated intentions of the Irish National Theater established by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory almost one hundred years earlier (Harrington, vii), the goal was not just to reach or represent an audience, but to create an audience. History, and Field Day’s postcolonial sensibilities, determined that the construction of Irishness would often be worked out against notions of Britishness. In a pointed and humorous verse epistle,”An open letter,” Heaney responds to his inclusion in the The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry:
You’ll understand I draw the line
At being robbed of what is mine,
My patris, my deep design
To be at home
In my own place and dwell within
Its proper name– (Ireland’s Field Day, 26)
The Field Day director’s recognized that in order for Ireland to claim “Its proper name” Irish literature would need its own comprehensive anthology.
In 1990, Field Day published the three volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, edited by Seamus Deane. The project, according to Deane, was nothing less then an “act of definition” (FD Anthology, xx), one which he hoped would be inclusive and representative of the plurality of Irish identity: “There is a story here, a meta-narrative, which is, we believe, hospitable to all the micro-narratives that, from time to time, have achieved prominence as the official version of the true history,political and literary, of the island’s past and present” (xix). The anthology was immediately attacked by Field Day’s critics as politically biased. The anthology’s most conspicuous flaw, however, was the paucity of women writers. In response to the accusations that Field Day had elided the female voice, the directors, all men, commissioned a fourth volume to be edited by women and dedicated to women’s writing (see Gender and Nation, Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian). But for the critics of Field Day, and even to some of their supporters, a separate volume, issued as an afterthought, became emblematic of their marginalization of women within nationalist and cultural discourse.
Field Day Productions
- Translations (1980) by Brian Friel
- Three Sisters (1981) an adaptation of Chekhov’s play by Brian Friel
- The Communication Cord (1982) by Brian Friel
- Boesman and Lena (1983) by Athol Fugard
- The Riot Act (1984) Tom Paulin’s version of Antigone
- High Time (1984) Derek Mahon’s transition of Molière’s Ecoledes Mas
- Double Cross (publ. 1986) by Thomas Kilroy
- Pentecost (publ. 1989) by Stewart Parker
- Sainte Oscar (publ. 1989) by Terry Eagleton
- The Cure at Troy (1990) by Seamus Heaney
- The Madame Macadam Travelling Theatre (1991) by Thomas Kilroy
- Cries from Casement as his Bones are Brought to Dublin (1992) by David Rudkin
Field Day Pamphlets
- no. 1 “A new look at the language question” (1983) by Tom Paulin
- no. 2 “An open letter” (1983) by Seamus Heaney
- no. 3 “Civilians and barbarians” (1983) by Seamus Deane
- no. 4 “Heroic styles: the tradition of an idea” (1984) by Seamus Deane
- no. 5 “Myth and motherland” (1984) by Richard Kearney
- no. 6 “Anglo-Irish attitudes” (1984) by Declan Kiberd
- no. 7 “The whole Protestant community” by Terence Brown
- no. 8 “Watchmen in Sion” by Marianne Elliot
- no. 9 “Liberty and authority in Ireland” by Robert McCartney
- no. 10 “Dynamics of coercion” by Eanna Mulloy
- no. 11 “The apparatus of repression” by Michael Farrell
- no. 12 “Law and constitution: present discontents” by PatrickJ. McGrory
- no. 13 “Nationalism: irony and commitment” (1988) by Terry Eagleton
- no. 14 “Modernism and imperialism” (1988) by Fredric Jameson
- no. 15 “Yeats and decolonization” (1988) by Edward Said
- Deane, Seamus, ed. Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Derry: Field Day Theatre Company, 1990.
- ed. Ireland’s Field Day. London: Hutchinson,1985.
- Eagleton, T. Jameson, F. Said, E. Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
- Harrington, John P., ed. Modern Irish Drama. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
- Pine, Richard. Brian Friel and Ireland’s Drama. New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Richtarik, Marilynn J. Acting Between the Lines: The Field Day Theatre Company and Irish Cultural Politics 1980-1984. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
Author: Eduardo Paguaga, Fall 1998
Last edited: October 2017