A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Set in Ireland’s County Donegal, Brian Friel’s Aristocrats concerns a once powerful and wealthy family who gather in their crumbling great Georgian house for the wedding of the youngest of four daughters. In an outstanding revival directed and designed by Tom Cairns, the action begins with Willie, a workman from the village fitting a “baby alarm” in the cluttered drawing room, so that the patriarch dying upstairs can be heard from below. The set incorporates the drawing room and a lawn bounded at back by dead tree limbs with discarded toys and beach chairs in the branches.

To the offstage strains of Chopin played by the youngest sister, Clare (Marcella Plunkett), her brother Casimir (Andrew Scott) rattles off a catalog of distinguished guests of the past to a visiting American researching the culture and politics of the Irish Catholic aristocracy.  Hands flying, emoting to the music, Casimir, we begin to suspect, is fantasizing.  His siblings retreat from reality as well.   Clare’s addiction to playing Chopin on the piano looks like her way of averting her impending marriage to an elderly tradesman.  Sister Alice (Dervla Kirwan), visiting from London with her husband, a former villager, is an alcoholic whose marriage “beneath her” instigates both her drinking and her fights with husband Eamon (Peter McDonald), the only realist in the group. Anna, the absent sister, a nun in Africa, sends her blessing via a tape.

What makes the play so appealing, as it combines humor and pathos, is Mr. Friel’s non-judgmental, sympathetic treatment of each of the siblings, revealing the causes that molded them.  In the second act, when the American scholar (Stephen Boxer) gently calls Casimir’s bluff about Yeats’ visit to the family – how he looked, where he sat – Mr. Scott enacts brilliantly Casimir’s revelation that he has known he was “different” since he was nine years old. His father, whom he fears, told him at that time that if he weren’t a member of the “big house” but of the peasantry, he would be considered “the village idiot.”  Since then, says Casimir, he has been aware of his boundaries and has been careful to operate within them.  Humorous and pathetic at the same time is Casimir’s probable invention of a wife and family in Germany, and the imaginary Alice-in-Wonderland croquet game he sets up. During the action, aged Uncle George, never speaking, totters in and out of the room. We half expected him to be left in the house at the end, like Firs in “The Cherry Orchard.”

As others have departed, it has fallen upon Judith (Gina McKee) to give up her earlier interests to take care of the invalid father, run the household, and cover the mounting repairs of the estate.  The catalog of her daily tasks would send a weaker person packing, yet following this unchanging routine is her retreat. As she reminds the gathered clan, she never received any training, and so she cannot look for a job for income to maintain the house when the father’s pension as a district judge is gone. Each of the actors is splendid in his or her role, creating the ensemble so necessary in a play where relationships are so important.  When finally a decision is forced upon the family, they are unable to act, remaining an immobile, frozen tableau, an ending more Beckett than Chekhov.