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Arguing with "Lingua Franca"

Date: Nov 08, 2010


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It's easy to argue with Lingua Franca, but that's a good thing.
Written by Peter Nichols (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg), the play descends on Florence, Italy in the 1950s at a school where expats from around the globe teach foreign languages to half-interested students. While the school encourages them to teach as little as possible—students pay by the class—the faculty fight, joke, and sleep around until a shock wave tears through their lives.

The finale tweaks social and political assumptions, and it's preceded by equally divisive scenes. Depending on their views on globalization, major economic systems, sexual morality, and risqué jokes, audiences may find themselves rooting for very different characters. And since the characters hail from several countries---England, Australia, Germany, etc.---reactions may be even more divided.

New Yorkers can tackle the play tomorrow, when it opens in the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59, and during its London premiere this summer, critics praised it for raising witty questions about international relations. The Guardian's Michael Billington, for instance, lauded it as "a means of exploring a fractious, war-haunted Europe in which the Brits are perpetual misfits awaiting American cultural colonisation."

It's worth noting, though, that Nichols himself doesn't see Lingua Franca as a screed. "It doesn't have an axe to grind," he says. "Had I decided to do an issue play, I would've designed it more programmatically. There are no French in the play; there are no Americans. It isn't about those things. It is about, 'If we can't agree, if we can't find ourselves out of the old mood of national boundaries and hostilities, then we're going to pay a price."

The play is also about Nichols' life. Shortly after World War II, he actually did teach English at an Italian school, and he actually was surrounded by teachers from other countries. (Theatre buffs may notice Lingua Franca lead character Steven Flowers is also in Nichols' autobiographical war comedy Privates on Parade.)

When he was teaching, he says, Nichols wasn't necessarily thinking about politics. "We weren't aware of the implications of English as a world language. We were forced into a situation because we had to make a living."

So is the play personal or political? Does it tackle issues the playwright didn't intend? Just add those to the list of debates.


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor.