The Confederate statues have been removed from their pedestals. Some people are disappointed. Their rosy vision of the lost genteel South has been taken away. To them, history has been rewritten again.
Making History, the 1988 Brian Friel play now on display at the Irish Heritage Theatre, might well be called Inventing History. The truth hurts. People don’t want truth, they want stories. Stories with heroes.
The Robert E. Lee of this story is Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. O’Neill was responsible for one of the most humiliating moments in Irish History, the Battle of Kinsale (1601). So great was this defeat that England assumed complete control of the island nation. The Irish aristocracy was destroyed and those that survived ran to Catholic countries like Spain or Italy. This was the famed “Flight of the Earls.”
O’Neill was the leader of this fiasco. His men followed him onto an open battlefield, just the sort of thing Irish guerrillas should never do, and were cut down by the British troops of Queen Elizabeth I.
The final 20 minutes of Making History has O’Neill starving to death in a Roman garret, surviving on a stipend from the Pope. His biographer appears and outlines how he can turn this disgrace into a victory. History will be rewritten and nobility will be found in the story. A hero will emerge. The Earl objects. Why not tell the truth?
This final scene has the strength that is lacking in the previous scenes. Ethan Lipkin is convincing as the destroyed Earl, hoping to erase his life with the bottle. John Cannon, as the Irish Bishop, quietly explains the way history works.
The previous scenes take place before the battle, and in these scenes, Friel’s O’Neill is definitely not a hero. He is a rascal, eager to do whatever it takes to advance Ireland’s or his own position. He is happy to fight for the English queen, and accept an Earldom from her, but the moment he leaves London, he begins plotting a revolt against her. When questioned by his wife and sister-in-law about the morality of this, he admits his willingness to change his politics as the next wind blows.
Stephanie Iozzia plays Mabel, O’Neill’s young bride. She is the daughter of his greatest enemy, but has run off with the charismatic Irishman on a whim, even though he is a famous womanizer. Iozzia scores when she argues with her husband on ethical issues. The story of the forbidden love is never really dealt with, though Friel has proved himself a skilled writer who can mix personal stories with great moments in history. It’s never clear what Mabel sees in this man who seems more Sir John Falstaff than a military leader who commanded thousands of troops. Bob Weick, Kevin Rodden, and Melissa Amilani play supporting roles as the people who try to understand the wavering Earl.
Irish theatergoers know their country’s history. It is in their blood. This can sometimes be a problem for American patrons who may not be up on the battle on Kinsale, or share the Irish grief at the Flight of the Earls. Director Peggy Mecham’s production fails to emphasize major storytelling points during the play’s first act. For example, Friel carefully points out how the Catholic King of Spain plans to aid the Irish rebels, not to mention that British soldiers fight better with direct combat on open ground – but you’d have to be paying close attention to follow this complex history in this production.
The sparse sets by Teddy Mosoeanu and the uncredited plain white lighting do little to aid the storytelling – there is nothing to define the era, the characters, or the situation. One scene is in Ulster and another in Rome, but here they both look the same. The costumes by Michelle Mercier look vaguely period, but never suggest the Elizabethan era or the pseudo-aristocratic status of the characters.
But that final scene! Friel is acclaimed as one of the greatest modern dramatists and the mind reels with the ideas. The performances take on a life they earlier lacked, and Friel’s work emerges triumphant. Two quotes, one definitely American, come to mind:
“History is a collection of agreed upon lies.” – Voltaire
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission.
Making History plays through Saturday, June 10, 2016, at the Irish Heritage Theatre at Plays and Players Theatre – 1714 Delancey Place in Philadelphia. For tickets call (215) 735-0630, or purchase them online.