Garry Hynes
(© Keith Pattison)
Garry Hynes
(© Keith Pattison)
After a successful run at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, Brian Friel's Translations comes to the Manhattan Theatre Club's Biltmore Theatre this week. The 1980 drama is set in Donegal in 1831, where the citizens speak Irish and the invading British insist that everyone speak English.

Helming the production is Garry Hynes, the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing (The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1998) and artistic director of the Druid Theatre Company in Galway, which presented the highly acclaimed DruidSynge last summer at the Lincoln Center Festival. She recently spoke to TheaterMania about the play, her life, and her work.

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THEATERMANIA: Is this the first time you've done Translations?

GARRY HYNES: Yes, though I was at the first night in Derry. I also saw the first Manhattan Theatre Club production in 1981 and a few other productions.

TM: Is Derry the same as Londonderry, and just an abbreviated way of saying it the way we say "Jersey" for New Jersey?

GH: No, the Irish name is Derry, and the British name is Londonderry.

TM: Ah! What an irony, for that brings us to the subject of the play, doesn't it?

GH: Indeed, it's about what are the implications of a shift from any language that's spoken by a group of people into another language that is forced upon them.

TM: There's been much debate on whether Translations is a political play. What's your take?

GH: Well, I believe that every act of theater is by definition political. But it's not political in that it's certainly not propagandist, and doesn't have any answers to the question it poses. So, in a way, I don't think it's political, and Brian said he didn't want it to be, either. What Brian is doing is asking questions about the shift from Irish to English.

Dermot Crowley and Susan Lynch in Translations
(© Joan Marcus)
Dermot Crowley and Susan Lynch in Translations
(© Joan Marcus)
TM: Not every character in the play is so upset about that, right?

GH: No, a young girl named Maire wants to learn English so that she can go to America and become economically self-sufficient. Of course, the reason she has to go to America is because the English kept the Irish in a state of abject poverty. Colonial rule for centuries in Ireland was incredibly punitive, as it was everywhere else, too. But the degree to which there was a very specific policy carried out which prevented the Irish from speaking Irish, looking or dressing like Irish, from being educated, from having jobs, from elected to office, you certainly had to have a certain amount of property before you could vote. They're all part of the time, and have to be looked at in the context of the time rather than now.

TM: Was it a goal of yours to come to America?

GH: No. I was happy in the little Irish town where I was born. I expected to become a teacher or a lawyer when I went to the University College Galway. I just thought I'd join a number of extra-curricular activities, and one of them happened to be the drama club.

TM: I had heard you went to school without any particular theatrical ambitions, and that they'd told you that you could either direct or act. You felt you weren't going to be a good actress, so you'd try directing.

GH: That's absolutely true. But the play they gave me to direct was The Browning Version. It's about a career teacher who's retiring, so I knew that I wouldn't be able to cast a convincing elderly teacher or his wife. So I went to the school library, and found a play I liked called The Loves of Cass McGuire., which was written by Brian Friel. I loved that the main character spoke directly to the audience, and the actors made their entrance through the audience. That was all new to me.

TM: Have you had the chance to do that play since?

GH: Brian tends not to give the rights to it. When Druid was celebrating its 25th birthday, I wanted to do a new production, so I made a special plea to Brian. He reluctantly said yes.

TM: Did he come to see it?

GH: Yes. I don't know if he was glad he said yes. He didn't say much.

TM: You still had to be happy that a theater you founded had made it to a 25th anniversary.

GH: I started it as a reaction to their being no formal training for the theater in Ireland, and the only access to professional theater was through the Abbey. So once I was graduated, I thought, why shouldn't Galway have a professional theater? It was simply the right idea at the right time. The Irish Arts Council had been notoriously Dublin-oriented, but it had recently hired a new director who said, 'If this is an arts council for Ireland, it should have a regional policy,' so we got some money and were able to start in 1975, when I was 22.

TM: Another irony, since you later wound up at the Abbey as artistic director.

GH: Actually, I had been asked twice before to take the post, and I said no. It was going through troubled times in every possible way, a truly dysfunctional organization in a very demanding time.

TM: So what made you change your mind?

GH: Finally I decided that I couldn't go on saying no. It was after all our national theater, after all. So in 1990, I took the job on the basis that I'd make fundamental change, and then I met huge resistance. It was very fossilized and I had very little room to move. I feared for its future. While it was a time I wouldn't have missed for all the world, eventually it wasn't a post that was about the work. I finished my original contract and left after four years. I took off 1995, and I really enjoyed that year.

TM: And then you returned to Druid, right?

GH: Believe me, I hadn't planned to. 20 years had passed. But my successor at Druid had left, and they asked me to return. My first response was no. I didn't want to go backwards. My life has changed, and I was now living in Dublin. They still pressed me, and even when I told them I couldn't be there 24 hours a day, they agreed. So I said all right.

TM: When you got back to Druid, you discovered Martin McDonagh, didn't you?

GH: Well, Martin McDonagh discovered Martin McDonagh. It's just that when I got back there, I'd asked to see some plays that had been submitted, and three of Martin's were there. I later found that he'd been rejected by every other theater he'd sent his work, but this was before I'd learned that, and I'd optioned all three. They were The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a play that eventually became A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West. We did Beauty Queen first, and it was such a big success that I decided the way to avoid the inevitable "hex of the second play," was that I'd do all three as a trilogy. We went to London and then Broadway was interested, although we were told couldn't have the Irish company. I said, "We're all going together or we're not going at all. That's when Neil Pepe [artistic director] at the Atlantic Theater Company stepped up for us and made it happen here. He's the one I have to be thankful for my foothold in America.