History is a kind of story-telling
“History is a kind of story-telling. ” Compare and contrast the ways in which Friel and Williams present characters who offer their own histories and concept of truth in Making History and A Streetcar Named Desire. Your response should consider interpretations and should include reflections on the dramatic and theatrical aspects of the texts. Both ‘Making History’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ witness the characters showing the audience different perceptions of their pasts by presenting both the truth and their histories differently to the actuality.
At the time of ‘Making History’s’ writing (1987-8), the political situation in Northern Ireland was as deadlocked as in the post 1968 Troubles. The way Friel writes about O’Neill in Making History was affected by what was happening in the 1980s. In the late 1500s O’Neill was attempting to make Ireland independent, and in the 1980s Northern Ireland was still ruled by Britain. Friel shows the truth of O’Neill’s past to possibly rationalise why Ireland was still not completely independent.
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Unlike ‘Making History’, which was still affected by the same problems of the late 1500s many years on, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was written much closer to the time it was set. Written in 1947, the play dramatizes the conflict between fading Southern belle Blanche and Polish immigrant Stanley, who is determined to capture and consolidate his version of the American Dream. The play is set in the mid-1940s and so Williams tries to capture the true essence of post war New Orleans.
Blanche was from the antebellum era and a relic of a time before the Civil War had divided America, originating from an old, aristocratic rural culture where whites presided over a slave economy and owned plantations. In ‘Making History’, O’Neill is the maker of historical events and Lombard the maker of his written history – and their ideas clash since they both have different ideas regarding how his history should be written. Lombard remarks that ‘now is the time for a hero’, and suggests that ‘that’s the stuff of another history for another time’ when referring to the true depiction of O’Neill’s character.
This is reflective of the late 1500s which saw ideological struggles between the Catholic Church and Protestant Reformism. O’Neill’s history is exaggerated by Lombard to present him as a great leader who would have united support to challenge Britain’s monarchy regarding Irish Independence. Lombard purposely interpreted and moulded history to suit the Church’s ideological ends and present O’Neill as a ‘national hero’. Tony Coult suggests that ‘The real makers of history, Friel invites us to reflect, might well be historians.
Friel uses these opposing thoughts on history shared by O’Neill and Lombard to change the way the audience perceive the historical events in question, rendering the play a revisionist history. Lombard plays the role of the historian and states his history shall be ‘a narrative that has the elements of a myth’ and that history writing should be subjective and a process of ‘imposing a pattern on events…and shaping them into a narrative’. In order for Lombard to create this myth, he rewrites O’Neill’s defeat at the Battle of Kinsale and represents it as a ‘legendary…triumph’ and the ‘crushing of the most magnificent Gaelic army ever assembled. This portrays how Lombard presents a heavily embarrassing loss in a favourable light as if O’Neill still remained a hero regardless of the outcome, which isn’t true since he became exiled and lost all pride and dignity. The book’s physical presence on the stage nearing the end whereby ‘the only light on the stage is a candle on a large desk’ signifies its continual success over O’Neill’s desire for the truth. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ Blanche also seeks to revise her past and hide the reality of what really happened.
Blanche lives in a fantastical world under an illusion she has created, stating ‘I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth’, suggesting she presents her past the way she feels it ought to be because it’s her only way of dealing with her history. Her illusion is made possible by a lack of light such as when she demands ‘turn that over-light off! ’ On stage the lack of light allows Blanche to live her lie regarding things such as, ‘You know I went to Miami during the Christmas holidays? ’, which shows how she harks back to the days of Belle Reve where she believed she was above Stanley and Stella.
However, without the light as an audience we know that she can have no clear view of herself and reality. Blanche sings a whimsical song whose refrain, ‘but it wouldn’t be make believe, if you believed in me’ points to a more subjective truth which is more forgiving of human failings, which reflects Blanche’s delusion. Blanche suggests that she ‘took the blows in my face and my body’, reflecting how Blanche’s attitude towards the truth is shaped by her own experiences, which form the reasoning behind her change of truth.
Despite both plays presenting histories differently to how they actually are, they both do this in different ways and their structure forms and important part of this. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ sees a decisive event happen before the play begins – the reason why it seemed that Blanche ‘let the place [Belle-Reve] go’. The play develops with Blanche reliving these events which have to be re-presented to the audience. In contrast, in ‘Making History’ the play takes place before and after the Battle of Kinsale.
Discussions deriving from dialogue between characters and stage directions reveal information and inform the audience. ‘Making History’ is composed of two acts, with Act I offering the successful portrayal of O’Neill as exercised by Lombard, in contrast to Act II which takes place post rebellion failure whereby O’Neill descends to his death in exile. Friel purposely structures the play in two parts which offer very different portrayals of O’Neill. This is to show the aspects of the hero which Lombard intended to exploit but also the human element to O’Neill whereby just like others he has his own weaknesses and downfalls.
Friel has explored this myth of O’Neill as a ‘national hero’ and offered a different interpretation from the accepted one, in that he is human and fallible. He conveys the ‘truth’ of O’Neill through O’Neill’s own desire for the absolute truth. O’Neill has a lack of control over how his history and therefore the truth were to be written, such as when he asks if ‘Mabel will be in the history, Peter? ’ This shows how it is Lombard who holds all responsibility for the content of the book and how true it remains to O’Neill’s real life.
O’Neill is persistent in his desire for reality which would reveal his true self as ‘the schemer, the leader, the liar’. This reflects how O’Neill wanted to be represented honestly and for the truth to be unravelled, whilst Lombard is the opposite. The audience witness the real O’Neill being translated into Lombard’s historical image and see that they do no match. At the beginning of ‘Making History’, O’Neill is perceived to be a ‘God like Prince’, but by the end the audience see him as a defeated old man who fled because he couldn’t ‘endure that humiliation any longer’. The play concludes with O’Neill submitting ‘myself to your mercy’.
His submission to the Queen is understood by the audience as his demise conjures sympathy since it would be shocking to witness an Irish hero’s downfall. O’Neill’s submission portrays his desperation to alleviate his situation because he had consistently struggled with his English and Irish divided loyalties. O’Neill uses words such as ‘accuracy, check, truth’ in his description of history, which all have connotations of truth and precision, reflecting how O’Neill feels history should be written. The use of repetition emphasises the importance of telling the truth when O’Neill asks ‘but you’ll tell the truth? , portraying O’Neill’s relentless desire for Lombard to write his history and ‘record the whole life’. O’Neill uses pronouns to distance himself from Lombard’s history, ‘that [book]…that thing there’, which establishes a distance between himself and the book by pointing away. He reverses the possessive pronouns articulated by Lombard to deny the relationship between him and the history. Lombard refers to the book as ‘your history’, to which O’Neill emphasises that it is ‘your history’. This reinforces the audience’s perceptions of O’Neill’s lack of control. At this point ‘in the centre is a large book’ which is Lombard’s history.
It is centre stage which indicates that Lombard’s written history has triumphed over the reality of O’Neill’s demise. When Blanche realises she must expose some information about her past, she is evasive and doesn’t directly lie about it but rather, presents herself as a victim in comparison to O’Neill who wants the whole brutal truth to be told. Blanche claims ‘I ran for protection’, suggesting she had no choice in her past actions. She states ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’, but in reality her downfall in life is because she has not been kind enough to herself.
She cries that ‘It was because…I’d suddenly said – “I know! ”’. This shows how she feels to blame for the death of her homosexual Husband. This is also ironic because the only people who have been kind to Blanche are those who used her for prostitution; others have had a lack of sympathy. For example, Stanley states ‘Sister Blanche is no Lily’, with irony that hints at Blanche’s corruption. A ‘lily’ is white which has connotations of purity and serenity, and on a metaphorical level ‘Sister’ refers to nuns – the irony being that they have to take an oath of celibacy, of which it is clear to the audience that Blanche has not done.
To conclude, both plays have an element of distorting facts in order to present the characters’ histories differently. However, Blanche lives an illusion out of desperation, whereas Lombard changes the truth in an attempt to reinforce the Gaelic Irish’s sense of identity in the face of English oppression. A difference between the two plays is that Blanche has control over her own history to a certain degree, whereas O’Neill has a total lack of control over his as shown by his character at the end.