The Mute Aisling Staging Sociopolitical Shifts through Disability in the Abbey Theatre’s Productions of Translations

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In a play of divided lands and language, Sarah John Sally in Brian Friel’s Translations presents a unique bifurcation; somewhere between character and caricature, aisling and invalid, the actor performing Sarah must tread a delicate balance between silent and silenced. Using primary source documents from the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive housed in NUI Galway, this paper explores how three different performers – Dawn Bradfield (1996), Pauline Hutton (2000), and Janice Byrne (2011) – adapted the role of Sarah for the national stage. While writers like Seamus Heaney (554) and Laura Wright (51) have identified Sarah as a Cathleen Ni Houlihan figure – Yeats’ personification of a sacrificial, enduring Ireland – critics, such as John Finegan, who reviewed the Abbey’s first adaption dubbed Sarah a “retarded child” (10). Accepting Sarah as a personification of Ireland, therefore, is an opportunity both to examine how her struggles resonate with current events during an adaptation’s production and question how the actors’ performances reflect the shifting perception of disability in popular culture. Combining mixed media resources, such as press clippings and film footage, this paper details a short history of the Abbey’s 1996, 2000, and 2011 adaptations and analyzes how the actors’ performances responded both to sociopolitical events and the success of the theatre itself. Unlike the battle between Irish and English that dominates Translations, Sarah’s language is present in her gestures, costume design, and staging. As such, tracing her presence across different adaptations reveals the cultural moment of each production through the dynamics of the stage.

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