Rhetoric and History in Brian Friel’s Making History

  • Manfredi Bernardini Università degli Studi di Palermo
Keywords: History, Rhetoric, Friel, Ireland, Storytelling,


This paper proposes an analysis of the rhetorical devices of representation and recording of history, investigated and deconstructed by the so-called "history play" Making History, written by Brian Friel and performed by the Field Day Theatre Company in 1988. The play tells of the heroic deeds of Hugh O’ Neill, a Sixteenth century Ulster gaelic Lord, intertwining his personal facts with the crucial events in Irish History.

Friel rediscovers a paradigmatic figure in Irish history, using the theatrical performance in order to dissect and thoroughly scrutinize the basis for the nationalist rhetoric which is at the root of contemporary conflicts in Northern Ireland.

Starting from the theoretical contributions of seminal authors such as Hayden White, Paul Ricoeur, Walter Benjamin, Michel De Certeau, the northern Irish playwright challenges the supposedly scientific nature of History, that would decidedly mark it as different from other forms of narrative, such as literature. Hence History’s metalinguistic nature, based on specific rhetorical strategies, is uncovered. 

Therefore, on the one hand Friel questions the theoretical foundations of History, of its “grand narratives”,  giving ‘stories’ the chance to be part of official History’s discourse. On the other hand, he lifts the veil on the rhetorical (and in some ways ideological) mechanisms involved in the process of History writing, through the character of archbishop Peter Lombard - O’ Neill’s biographer, storyteller and master in elocutio - and sheds light on how History is a form of rhetorical narrative, almost a patchwork of events collected (inventio) and assembled (dispositio) by the historian according to specific criteria of representation.

By taking us inside the very nucleus of the rhetorical devices used by storiography, Friel unmasks the delicate processes of making and unmaking history, the ones that help give birth to identity as well as History.


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Author Biography

Manfredi Bernardini, Università degli Studi di Palermo

PHD researcher in Studi Culturali. Rappresentazioni e Performance.

Research interests: Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies, Drama and Performance Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Translations Studies, Border Studies.

Particular research interests: Irish Studies; Contemporary reinterpretations of Greek Tragedy.


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How to Cite
Bernardini, M. (2014). Rhetoric and History in Brian Friel’s Making History. Between, 4(7). https://doi.org/10.13125/2039-6597/1132
In the Texts. The Long Modernity of Elocutio