Born 9 January 1929, Catholic, in Omagh, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, Brian Friel is one of Ireland’s most prominent playwrights. In addition to his published plays, he has written short stories; screenplays; film, TV, and radio adaptations of his plays; and several pieces of non-fiction on the role of theatre and the artist.
Friel’s father was a native of Derry and a primary school principal. His mother was from Donegal and Friel spent many holidays there. In 1939 the family moved to Derry, where Friel’s father had a teaching position at the Long Tower school. Friel attended the same school and then went on to attend secondary school at Saint Columb’s College, Derry. He attended the Republic of Ireland’s national seminary, Saint Patrick’s College, near Dublin but instead of going on to the priesthood, he took a post-graduate teaching course in Belfast. He started teaching in Derry in 1950 and wrote in the meantime. His first radio play A Sort of Freedom aired on BBC in 1958. In 1959 his first short story, “The Skelper,” appeared in the New Yorker and his first stage play, The Francophile, was performed at the Group Theatre, Belfast. In 1960 he retired from teaching to write full-time.
Friel’s early life had a strong influence on his writing. Though his father was a teacher, his grandparents, whose first language was Irish, were illiterate peasants from County Donegal. Thus his own family exemplifies the divisions between traditional and modern Ulster and Ireland, a recurring theme for Friel. Donegal features strongly in Friel’s life and work. He moved there in 1969 because he always felt his roots lay in Donegal. He wrote he moved there “partly to get into the countryside and partly to get into the Republic.” He left the political situation in the North, where he says, “The sense of frustration which I felt under the tight and immovable Unionist regime became distasteful” (qtd. in Andrews 2). He had joined the Nationalist Party in Derry but had left in 1967, disappointed with its lack of initiative. Many of his plays are set in Ballybeg, “a remote part of Donegal” and, as Seamus Deane notes, resides in “that borderland of Derry, Donegal, and Tyrone in which a largely Catholic community leads a reduced existence under the pressure of political and economic oppression.” (qtd. in Andrews 2). In 1980, Friel helped found the Field Day Theatre Company which is committed to the search for “a middle ground between the country’s entrenched positions” (qtd. in Andrews 6) to help the Irish explore new identities for themselves.
Brian Friel married Anne Morrison in 1954 and had four daughters and one son. Shy, elusive, yet playful and sceptical, he made very few personal statements. In his “Self Portrait” he says,
I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement, and hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment. (qtd. in Andrews 2)
Often compared to Anton Chekhov, Brian Friel resists all explanation and categorisation. In “The Man from God Knows Where,” the title of an interview of Friel, he says,
The interviewer’s chestnut: When did you know you were going to be a writer? The answer is, I’ve no idea. What other writers influenced you most strongly? I’ve no idea. Which of your plays is your favourite? None of them. Which if your stories? Most of them embarrass me. So you think the atmosphere in Ireland is hostile or friendly to the artist? I’m thinking of my lunch. So you see any relationship between dwindling theatrical audiences all over the world and the fragmentation of what we might call the theatrical thrust into disparate movements like Theatre of Cruelty, Tactile Theatre, Nude Theatre, Theatre of Despair, etc., etc., Or would you say, Mr. Friel, that the influence of Heidegger is only beginning to be felt in the drama and that Beckett and Pinter are John the Baptists of a great new movement? Well, in answer to that I’d say that—I’d say that I’m a middle-aged man and that I tire easily and that I’d like to go out for a walk now. (qtd. in Andrews 3)
Friel died in October 2015.
Awards and Achievements
Brian Friel’s plays have premiered and been produced at prestigious venues like the Abbey Theatre, London’s West End, and Broadway, and have been highly successful everywhere. His first major play, Philadelphia, Here I Come! was the hit of the 1964 Dublin Theatre Festival. In 1972 he was elected as a member of the Irish Academy of Letters. In 1981, Translations, one of his seminal pieces, was awarded the Ewart-Biggs Peace Prize. After co-founding Field Day, Friel continued his interest in the arts as a member of Aosdana, the national treasure of Irish artists, to which he was elected in 1982. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature by the National University of Ireland in 1983, and in 1987 was nominated to the Irish Senate. Dancing at Lughnasa, probably his most successful play so far, received three Tony Awards in 1992, including Best Play.
Friel’s plays deal with identity, the notion of truth, and communication, which he explores through the nature of language. Identity is formed through memory, both public and private, and it is the collective memories of a community which distinguish it from others. However, communal memory often conflicts with individual experience and several communal memories may exist simultaneously even within an individual.
The different associative and emotive memories and experiences of individuals and communities allow for different perspectives and perceptions of reality to exist. In examining the issue of memory, Friel exposes the falsity in the notion of a single, comprehensive history or truth. What becomes important is not a factual history or identity but exploring different histories and identities.
Language, for Friel, is closely implicated with identity. The names of places, for example, contain within them the history and memories, both public and private, associated with them. However, because of this difference in association, there is always a gap in communication. Friel’s later plays expose the inadequacy of language in any real communication and move towards an exchange beyond language.
Translations was the first play produced by Field Day. It is set in a rural, Irish-speaking community in County Donegal in 1833. Into this world arrives a corps of Royal Engineers to conduct an Ordnance Survey of Ireland, which would map the country and “standardise,” or rather, anglicise, the place-names. Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland are being assisted by Owen, son of the local hedge-school master, Hugh O’Donnell. The romantic Lieutenant Yolland is enchanted not only by the Irish names and culture but also Maire (Owen’s brother, Manus’ fiancee) with whom Yolland falls in love. Yolland disappears, and as a punishment, Captain Lancey threatens to destroy several places in the County. Ironically, the names of these are read in English and Owen must translate them back into the Irish for the sake of the locals.
Translations shows the forces of cultural imperialism at work through the colonial project of cartography and the demise of the hedge-schools in favour of the national schools that use English as a medium of instruction. At the same time, it also reveals the forces of modernisation, for Maire wants to learn English and go to America before the arrival of the English soldiers. The fallacy in living in a mythical past is expressed through the character of Jimmy Jack, who is so far removed from reality that he inhabits the stories of the mythology he studies. As Hugh says, “it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour that no longer matches the landscape of fact” (351).
Friel says of Translations, “The play has to do with language and only language” (qtd. in Pine 146). The play revolves around the subject of names and their relation to identity, culture, and the possession or dispossession that comes with naming. Sarah, who struggles with saying her name, and consequently with establishing her identity, is silenced once the colonisers arrive. The efforts of Maire and Yolland to comprehend each other had been unsuccessful because of the differences in culture embodied in language that fall through the gaps of translation. In the love scene between Maire and Yolland, however, it is ultimately when they move beyond language, when the Irish names become just a litany devoid of conceptual meaning, that the two are able to establish any real communication.
Friel had always been fascinated with Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone (1550-1616), who is the main character of this play. Making History is “an informative, entertaining, ironical play on the theme of the living man helplessly watching his translation into a star in the face of all the facts that had reduced him to poverty, exile, and defeat” (qtd. in Pine 21). Peter Lombard, an archbishop and an historian, takes on the task of writing “The History of Hugh O’Neill”; however, as Hugh accuses him, it becomes the history of the person writing it. As Lombard says, there is no such thing as a single history based on truth:
I don’t believe that a period of history — a given space of time — my life — your life — that it contains within it one ‘true’ interpretation just waiting to be mined. But I do believe that it may contain within it several possible narratives: the life of Hugh O’Neill can be told in many ways. And those ways are determined by the needs and demands and the expectations of different people and different eras. (15-16)
Peter Lombard mythologizes O’Neill as an Irish hero, distorting or omitting aspects of O’Neill’s life, such as his English wife, Mabel Bagenal, or his early childhood with Sir Henry Sidney in England. The irony at the end of the distance between Lombard’s version of O’Neill and the drunken O’Neill we see, reciting his statement of surrender to the Queen, shows how history is constructed through language by “imposing a pattern on events that were mostly casual and haphazard and shaping them into a narrative that is logical and interesting” (8). Ambiguities in O’Neill, “the schemer, the leader, the liar, the statesman, the lecher, the patriot, the drunk, the soured, the bittered emigre,” are set aside in order to construct this narrative, just as O’Neill ultimately has to choose sides between the divided loyalties he has between Ireland and England.
Friel, through the character of O’Neill, insists upon a complexity of identity for his hero, for both the private and the public, in order to reveal the relativity of truth as well as the existence of several simultaneous truths and histories, for single versions of history are often those produced by those in dominance and obscure the truths of others.
Dancing at Lughnasa
One of Friel’s most popular plays is set in 1936. Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play told by a narrator, Michael, twenty-five years later. Michaelis the son of Chris, the youngest of the five Mundy sisters, Kate, Agnes, Maggie, and Rose. Living an oppressive Catholic ethos, the women live repressed lives, unable to express their emotions or sexuality. Friel contrasts them with Father Jack, who was repatriated from Africa because he had “gone native.” He too has lost the ability to express himself: “My vocabulary has deserted me” (71). But this is because he, among the Ryangans, has found a way of expression beyond rational thought, an expression that taps into a deeper spirituality that accommodates the sensual in wordless, ritualistic ceremony. Gerry, Michael’s father, and the other man in the picture, represents the appeals of the future and the world outside: he has a London accent, speaks of adventure, and can fix the radio to make music. He is a smooth talker who awakens the sexuality of the women in the novel, but he is also a dancer, who ultimately carries them beyond words: “Don’t talk…Not a word” (32). The order that Kate represents, however, is one that is suspicious of both the ritualistic past, like the pagan celebration of Lughnasa, as well as the forces of change.
The dancing in the play represents the breakdown of rational order and the inevitability of change. The play deals with this issue on several levels:
The great merit of the play is the unmistakeable tension we feel between the very human desire for order and stability and the equally strong desire for excitement and new experience. This tension has various forms. On one level, it is a struggle between Christianity and paganism, on another, it is the challenge offered to civilised value by an irruption of repressed libidinal energy, at yet another, it is the harassment of the symbolic order of ‘ordinary’ language and fixed structure by a semiotic force outside language which disrupts all stable meanings and institutions. (Andrews 223)
Through the dancing at the end of the first act, the sisters tap into their deepest impulses while at the same time they attune with the rest of the group, forming a far more meaningful form of communication: “dancing as if language had surrendered to movement — as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness” (71).
Michael recalls this period, but even in the memory of it, language, order and fact fails: ”what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact… atmosphere is more real than incident” (71). Moreover, the memory itself is arbitrary and unreliable; like history, expressing memory in language is a construction: “memories offer themselves to me” (70). The scene he paints in the end, where “the stage is lit in a very soft, golden light so that the tableau we see is almost, but not quite, in a haze” and it is set to “dream music”, with an almost imperceptible movement, however, expresses this memory in which past and present coexist and “everything is simultaneously actual and illusory” (71).
- Friel, Brian. The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland. New York: Doubleday, 1962.
- —. Philadelphia, Here I Come! New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1965.
- —. The Gold in the Sea. New York: Doubleday, 1966.
- —. The Loves of Cass McGuire. New York: Noonday Press, 1966.
- —. Lovers. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.
- —. Crystal and Fox. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.
- —. Crystal and Fox and The Mundy Scheme. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
- —. The Gentle Island. London: Davis-Poynter, 1973.
- —. Freedom of the City. London: Faber and Faber, 1974.
- —. The Enemy Within. Newark: Proscenium Press, 1975.
- —. Living Quarters. London: Faber and Faber, 1978.
- —. Volunteers. London: Faber and Faber, 1979.
- —. Selected Stories. Dublin: Gallery Press, 1979.
- —. Aristocrats. Dublin: Gallery Press, 1980.
- —. Faith Healer. London: Faber and Faber, 1980.
- —. Translations. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.
- —. Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. Dublin: Gallery Press, 1981.
- —. American Welcome. Best Short Plays 1981. Ed. Stanley Richards. Radnor: Chilton Books, 1981.
- —. The Diviner: Best Stories of Brian Friel. Dublin: O’Brien Press,1983.
- —. The Communication Cord. London: Faber and Faber, 1983.
- —. Fathers and Sons. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.
- —. Making History. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
- —. Dancing at Lughnasa. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
- —. London Vertigo. Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1990.
- —. A Month in the Country. Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1992.
- —. Wonderful Tennessee. Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1993.
- —. Molly Sweeney. Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1994.
- —Give Me Your Answer, Do!, New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1997.
- —Uncle Vanya (Chekhov adaptation), Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1998.
- —The Yalta Game (one-act Chekhov adaptation), Oldcaste: Gallery Press, 2001.
- —The Bear (one-act Chekhov adaptation), Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 2002.
- —Afterplay, Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 2002.
- —Performance, Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 2003.
- —The Home Place, Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 2005.
- —Hedda Gabler (Henrick Ibsen adaptation), Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 2008.
- Andrews, Elmer. The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Reality Nor Dreams. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.
- Friel, Brian. Dancing at Lughnasa. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
- —. Making History. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
- —. “Translations.” Modern Irish Drama. Ed. John P. Harrington. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991.
- Pine, Richard. Brian Friel and Ireland’s Drama. New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Boltwood, Scott. Brian Friel, Ireland, and the North. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: A Study. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
- Friel, Brian, Csilla Bertha, Mária Kurdi. Brian Friel’s Dramatic Artistry: “The Work Has Value”. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.
- Kerwin, William, ed. Brian Friel: A Casebook. New York: Garland,1997.
- Maxwell, D.E.S. Brian Friel. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Press, 1973.
- McGrath, Frances Charles. Brian Friel’s (post)colonial Drama: Langauge, Illusion and Politics. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
- O’Brien, George. Brian Friel. New York: Gill and Macmillan, 1989.
- Peacock, Alan J., ed. The Achievement of Brian Friel. Gerrards Cross, Great Britain: Colin Smythe, 1993.
Author: Shirin Keen, Fall 1998.
Last edited: May 2017