Discuss how Friel presents the characters and introduces the main themes in Scene 1 of Making History. The play starts with Harry Hoveden telling Hugh O’Neill about a christening party he has been invited to. This introduces the play as “being born”, and is now about to begin. This naming ceremony also links in with O’Neill and Harry’s conversation about the name of the flower that O’Neill is filling the room with. This discussion of ‘Spanish broom’ is a foreshadow of a discussion O’Neill has with Lombard about the Spanish influencing Ireland.
Hugh O’Neill is characterised as being a very indecisive person: he uses interrogative sentences (‘isn’t it?’, ‘doesn’t it?’), and can’t even decide if he likes his jacket or not. Also, he flits between ‘upper-class English accent’ and ‘Tyrone accent’. This indecisiveness hints at O’Neill’s inability to choose allegiance to just one side and to stay loyal to it, which becomes very important in the play later on. In Scene 2, he admits that he is ‘loyal today – disloyal tomorrow’, and blames it on the capriciousness of the Gaels. This shows that he is using both his Gaelic ancestry and his English nobility to his advantage – manipulating his “dual nationality” to appear loyal to one side, so he can more easily deceive whoever he needs to deceive at the time. This, however, comes later on in the play, and in Scene 1 he still doesn’t know which way to turn.
Harry Hoveden is extremely loyal to Hugh O’Neill. He is well-educated, as he quickly translates ‘Spanish broom’ into its Latin name ‘Genista’, something that O’Neill cannot do. He also mentions the works of Virgil, which implies familiarity with them, further demonstrating his classical education. He is very discreet with matters concerning O’Neill (he leaves the room when he realises O’Neill wants a private conversation with Lombard). Also, he is a very close friend of O’Neill, as he knew about his marriage to Mabel Bagenal before anyone else.
Mabel Bagenal is described by O’Donnell as ‘that Upstart bitch’ before he has even met her. This demonstrates the constant conflict that England and Ireland are in. She is an unusual choice of wife for O’Neill, as he is Irish Catholic and she is English Protestant. This suggests that maybe the relationship between England and Ireland are starting to improve and, on a small scale, their marriage represents harmony between the two nations. The fact that Lombard and O’Donnell at first disagree with this marriage could be seen to represent resistance to the unity of England and Ireland.
Hugh O’Neill says about Mabel that ‘she’s not exactly Helen of Troy’, which he ‘regrets…instantly’. He realises that already there are differences of opinion between the family of Mabel Bagenal and the house of Hugh O’Neill. Mabel is the daughter and sister of two Queen’s Marshalls, a very prominent position in the English army. The current Queen’s Marshall, her brother, Sir Henry Bagenal, is extremely opposed to the marriage, saying in a letter to Hugh O’Neill that her blood is being ‘mingled with such a traitorous stock’.
This letter of Henry Bagenal also expresses his view of the Irish as a ‘rebellious race’, which directly contrasts with O’Donnell’s description of him as ‘Butcher Bagenal’. Clearly both sides of this “war” think the other side as inferior, savage animals. This shows that neither side is willingly going to give in, and that eventually they will come out victorious. This, however, is clearly wrong, as at the end of Act 2 Scene 1, O’Neill surrenders to the Queen of England. This move adds more uncertainty to where O’Neill’s loyalties lie, if indeed they do lie anywhere.
O’Donnell is described as ‘a very young man in his early twenties’. This is emphasising the fact that he is so young, suggesting childishness and immaturity, possibly too young to be a chieftain of a significant portion of Ireland. This theory is soon proves to be true. He is also described as ‘impulsive and enthusiastic’ which reiterates his possibly immature behaviour. He greets O’Neill with a very friendly, laid-back attitude. He hugs him and mocks O’Neill about his jacket: not maliciously, though, in a friendly manner. He speaks his mind, and does not have the political or social awareness that other characters have. He has no problem with being very rude to O’Neill about his new wife, telling him to ‘keep her for a month and then kick her out’.
Lombard’s reaction to the news of O’Neill’s new wife is much more reserved, saying that he must ‘assess the religious and political implications of this association’. This angers O’Neill as he sees it as a marriage of love rather than of personal or political gain. His reserved comments and replies are typical of Lombard: he greets O’Neill with ‘How are you, Hugh?’, which is very polite and formal compared to O’Donnell’s greeting. He is writing a history of O’Neill, something which O’Neill is very apprehensive of. O’Neill believes that Lombard is not the ideal person to write an account of his life, so Lombard is very careful with what he says to Hugh about his plans. He avoids directly answering some questions that are very important to O’Neill, in particular ‘will you tell the truth?’, which he repeats to Lombard because he hasn’t given a straight answer.
This implies that Lombard does not plan on telling “the truth”, and he even states that his belief that the ‘truth’ is not a ‘primary ingredient’, and that ‘imagination will be as important as information’. The importance of the truth to O’Neill becomes even more intense towards the end of the play. He has a more in-depth debate with Lombard about the truth of his account of O’Neill’s life. Whereas Lombard’s aims are to create a hero or a myth for Ireland to look up to and admire, O’Neill wants his whole life, including his downfall and fleeing the country, to be included in an accurate account of his life. The opening scene highlights that the book that Lombard is writing is going to continue to cause trouble for O’Neill.
Lombard has just arrived from Rome via Spain, and brings political news regarding their plea for military support of the Spanish army. He talks of ‘the one true faith’ (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) and the fact that this will bring together the nations of Ireland and Spain to lead the Counter-Reformation. At the period of time this play is set in, the Reformation of the Catholic churches and monasteries to Church of England had taken place, and had settled down. Now, the Catholic community of Europe was ‘gathering itself together for a Counter-Reformation’. Lombard is excited by this prospect of being at the forefront of a revolution to win back the pride and status of the church that he is a prominent member of.
The discussion between Lombard and O’Neill of Spain’s assistance in Ireland’s and the Church’s rebellion is ignored by O’Donnell. He is talking about replacing all the floorboards in the house, and about when his mother replaced all her floorboards with oak from the Armada fleet. This seems to have little relevance, but it is a metaphor for Ireland (Ireland was sometimes referred to as a big house) building its success on failed attempts at Counter-Reformations from Spain (i.e. the Spanish Armada fleet that were sent to defeat the English).
The Spanish agreeing to back the Irish with military support has been a long time in the coming, but nevertheless they are very grateful for it and can see themselves advancing forward and defeating the English once and for all. The conflict between England and Ireland had been going on for a long time before the period of this play, and Ireland wanted their country to be their own. War is an important theme in this play, as there is a battle half way through it, which leads to the ‘Flight of the Earls’ and the downfall of the hero Hugh O’Neill.
This opening scene sets the audience up for the rest of the play in terms of the characters introduced, the themes explored and the message that is trying to be portrayed. It gives the audience information that is not needed immediately, but will be needed later on in the play to link it all together. This also happens for parts of the first scene too. For example, O’Neill makes a passing remark, asking Harry if he’s sure ‘nobody has heard a whisper’.
The audience is not aware of what they are talking about until O’Neill tells O’Donnell and Lombard that he eloped the night before. This links the two events together to complete the picture and gives the audience full understanding of what was going on. This is also what is happening on a wider scale across the whole of the first scene – events not understood at the time, but clarified later on in the next three scenes. The opening scene is the key to a clear picture of the whole events of the play, and even the most minute details of this first scene – relating to characters, themes or historical events – are significant in the overall structure and understanding of the entire play.