Brian Friel: Divided Identity In Spies

Published: 2021-08-01 16:40:08
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Divided identity is shown in both Spies and Making Historyfrom the beginning. Stephen Wheatley has two voices, his older self (Stefan Weitzler) and his younger self, which forms a prominent split in his identity. Hugh O’Neill’s split self is displayed a little subtler in the stage directions. O’Neill is described to speak ‘in an upper-class English accent except on those occasions specifically scripted’. The word ‘scripted’ makes me think of acting and implies O’Neill’s front is a feigned identity he puts on. This could also show that he is perhaps embarrassed by his Irish roots which contradict his betrayal of England later on in the play.
This relates to Spies as Stephen Wheatley speaks the English language with an English accent, when he is actually (unknowingly) German. Stephen Wheatley’s father reminds me of O’Neill too as he is betraying his German background by working as an English spy, much like O’Neill working as an Earl for England when he originates from the opposing country Ireland. O’Neill seems to be uninterested in the important events he needs to attend, butmore focused onsuch as the flowers he’s decorating the room with and how he looks in his jacket.
This gives the audience a first impression of O’Neill; he is more enthusiastic about his new English wife rather than his (important) role. This lack of interest could show O’Neill has a short attention p explaining, for example, his various affairs and marriages. This mercurial nature reminds me of Keith in Spies – he starts out the enthusiastic leader of the investigation into whether his mother is a spy or not, but loses interest as time goes on and matters become more serious. However, you could also say that Keith is much unlike the temperamental O’Neill as he is much like his father; structured, organised and somewhat obsessive.

Frayn shows this not only through how he was obsessing other his mother being a German spy, but through the fact he constantly wanted control of the mission and got angry when Stephen showed ‘initiative’. Frayn draws a parallel between Keith’s bedroom and his father’s garage; Keith’s toys, like Mr Hayward’s car, are in perfect condition and are very rarely played with. We see that Hugh’s habit of switching comes from his background; fostered by Irish parents when young, he then lived with an upper-class English family who taught him to act ‘properly’ so he could serve Queen Elizabeth as an Earl in Ireland.
Thisblurring of culture, nationality and religion makes it difficult for O’Neill to recognize who he really is – is he English or Irish, Roman Catholic or Protestant? The fact he’s just married Mary Bagenal is significant as he is risking his friends (O’Donnell calls her an ‘upstart bitch’) and powerful rolefor his new love. O’Donnell’s ignorance towards Mabel’s origin reminds me of Mr and Mrs Hayward’s prejudice towards Stephen and the rest of the street – they are shown to very rarely directly speak to Stephen and never socialise with their neighbours (besides Auntie Dee).
The way they speak to Stephen could be xenophobia as they could somehow know Stephen’s real nationality, however I think it is more likely that they just have a fear of the unknown. This could have been influenced by Mr Hayward who seems to be the most paranoid of the family carrying his protective bayonet around everywhere. Flowers and plants are used frequently as metaphors in both the two texts to represent different identities. When Mary is talking about seeds she states not to ‘plant the fennel near the dill or the two with cross-fertilize... ou’ll end up with a seed that’s neither one thing nor the other’. This represents the mixing of English Protestants and Irish Catholics, in other words; the relationship between Mabel and O’Neill. Additionally, this could relate to when we are told Mabel is pregnant; the baby is the cross-fertilized, Irish/English, Protestant/Catholic seed. Even the props on stage O’Neill is using are symbolic as they area Spanish broom, ‘Genista’. Spain was a Roman Catholic country at the time and they (ineffectively) fought with Ireland years on in the Battle of Kinsale, which is what the entire play is based around.
The Genistas reminds me of Mr. Hayward’s obsessing over his roses, although a different, frightening, tension is portrayed with him doing this. Frayn uses repetition and lists when describing Keith’s work on his garden (‘Keith’s father worked and worked – and as he worked he whistled’ or ‘around the house, forever digging and dunging, and trimming and pruning, forever undercoating and painting, and wiring and rewiring, forever making perfection yet more perfect’)to present the character’s compulsive attitude.
The attention of his gardening tends to be on the roses which could be symbolic in a patriotic way – roses are a typical English flower – and the way he is described to be planting them sounds like he’s building a fort to keep out ‘enemies’ (the German, Wheatley family). The privet flower (a misspelling of ‘private’ by Keith) signified privacy, but had a suffocating smell; whenever Stephen was in the ‘privet’ with someone else there was often a stifled atmosphere. I think this smell indicated the uncomfortable stage at the start of puberty, where people start to discover their identities in more detail.
The elder trees were outside the safe cul-de-sac, near to Uncle Peter’s hideaway which similarly represented Stephens’s admission into the adult world and puberty. In the first scene, O’Neill presents Mabel with a ring which is symbolic as it was made in London – the capital of the country Ireland are enemy with – and the only person to have one is the Queen of England, Elizabeth. This moment is like the initiation of Mabel’s new identity when Mabel changes ‘we’re a tough breed the upstarts’ to the ‘O’Neill’s’ being the ‘tough breed’.
This is similar to Mrs Hayward wearing her cravat to cover her abuse symbolising the initiation of her oppression. The second scene occurs about a year later in the same room and Mabel has undoubtedly added her touch as it is described as more ‘comfortable and colourful’; this perhaps indicates that she could have changed O’Neill. In the first scene we saw that Mabel was quite naive and had little knowledge of the Irish (she believed O’Neill’s taunts of shaking hands with an archbishop turns them black), and now we see not much has changed but in fact gotten worse.
She is sat alone (showing she has not settled in or made any friends) and her reaction to horseplay (‘her eyes are shut tight. She sits frozen in terror for a few seconds – even when it is obvious that the screaming is horseplay’) shows that she is still frightened of the Irish. She is almost desperate for her sister, Mary, to stay which again shows her lack of company. It is apparent that Mabel is unhappy living in Ireland, however when Mary tries to hint for her to come home, her answers are uninterested as if she were satisfied in Ireland– she uses single words such as ‘Yes. , ‘Really? ’ and ‘Good. ’. There is a pathos felt for Mabel’s isolation in this scene which is similar to what is felt for Mrs Hayward when she is kept prisoner by her abusive husband in her own house. Mrs Hayward is especially shown in a sympathetic light when the only person she can turn to is Stephen; this involved downgrading herself to sitting down in a dirty privet bush wearing makeup and best clothes at an attempt to persuade him to help her. O’Neill is not the only character with a divided identity in the play; Mabel has one too.
When talking with Mary she puts on a facade that she is loyal to Hugh and the Irish, however when alone with him she disapproves of his ‘politics’ or betrayal to England and tells him not to go to war, and condemns his ‘culture’ wanting the ‘tramps out of here’, showing her misery. What's more, we unexpectedly see that she has other abilities than being O’Neill’s wife and ‘doing delicate and complicated lacework’; Mabel seems very knowledgeable, wise and trustworthy in the areas of politics. Her divided identity reminds me a lot of Mrs. Hayward’s. Primarily, she is seen as the faultless, serene Mrs.
Hayward who relaxes with her feet up and a book, but when we find out she is in love with Uncle Peter this is disapproved of not just by Mr. Hayward, butthe rest of the street, like Mabel’s love is disapproved of by her siblings, England and Ireland. O’Neill’s feelings change for Mabel; the mistresses show that he is bored of her and he has apathy towards the fact she is pregnant. O’Neill has a mercurial nature, which is perhaps the cause of all these different wives, loyalties (and disloyalties) to opposing countries, and the arguments with Mabel and later with Harry.
Act two begins with O’Neill in a rougher location than the wealthy house we’re used to, with such lack of furniture that he has to use a wooden box as a desk. O’Neill even tells O’Donnell ‘What you see is what I have’ showing the loss of all the materialistic things that he had before. For the audience, it is immediately made obvious that Ireland have lost the war and O’Neill is symbolically on his knees as he is writing a letter to Queen Elizabeth begging for forgiveness and his old job.
When Harry arrives in the scene, he comes with news of Mabel’s death through blood poisoning, which is representative that she’s been poisoned by O’Neill’s Irish blood. In Spies, there is a recurring theme, just like the blood in Making History, of the train getting closer and closer which builds tension until finally Uncle Peter significantly killed by it. Frayn again uses repetition to create this suspense all throughout the book, from just mentioning the train line to the intimidating ‘huge thunder of the train’ when he is in the tunnel. My final point is of course about the making of the history itself.
It is apparent from the start that Lombard was going to exaggerate in the book, but by the end we know he used O’Neill so Roman Catholics could have an idol. This shows when the grieving (even after many years) and drunken O’Neill is staggering about his room, reading sentences like ‘noblest son of noble lineage’ and that he grew in ‘comeliness and urbanity, tact and eloquence, wisdom and knowledge’ that supposedly describe him. Divided identity is the main theme of the play, whereas in Spies it is just one of the many readings of the novel. Why?

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