Ballybeg birthday: Brian Friel turns 85

With work of such consistent quality, it is difficult to settle on a single masterpiece: Friel has given us some incredible memories


Today, Brian Friel, the greatest living Irish dramatist, turns 85. Later this year, the Donegal town of Ballybeg, which he first imagined in Philadelphia, Here I Come! turns 50. It is a place to which he has returned in his extraordinary career as a dramatist numerous times, charting its development through complicated histories, both personal and political, across 14 plays.

It is the contested promontory of Baile Beag in Translations (1980), being mapped and renamed by a British army Ordnance Survey team in 1833 as two cultures and languages collide. It is the home of the unmarried Mundy sisters, whose unconventional family in 1930s Ireland is recalled by the narrator of Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) as a place that may erupt in pantheistic pleasures that transcend language. And it is where all journeys end in Lovers (1967), Living Quarters (1977), Faith Healer (1979) and his most recent original play, The Home Place (2005).

It would be a mistake to call Ballybeg the equivalent of an Irish “Anytown”. Instead, it is a place with its own people, memory and history, which might serve as a metonym for the nation.

When we first encountered it, at the Gaiety Theatre during the 1964 Dublin Theatre Festival, Ballybeg initiated a new moment in Irish theatre and brought Friel to almost immediate international attention.

The setting – the kitchen of a country shop – seemed no different to anything that had gone before it, but the form of the play announced something more radical. Splitting his central figure, Gar O’Donnell, into two characters, Gar Public and Gar Private, Friel not only gave an energetic challenge to the constraints of naturalism, he anatomised an Ireland, haemorrhaging its youth through emigration, as a place where the pressures of the unsaid and unsayable could splinter a psyche in two.

That bold approach to stagecraft was learned at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where Friel and his family had been invited by Tyrone Guthrie to observe theatre for six months. Friel is conventionally celebrated as a master of literary theatre (his notoriously exact stage directions leave little to the imagination, and he has never been shy about subordinating directors to the will of the playwright), but his dramaturgy is informed by the mechanical possibilities of the stage.

“By far the most difficult thing for me has always been finding the correct form for a particular theme,” he once said, and his stage is a lesson in bold experiment. Living Quarters, for instance, is a combination of family tragedy and metatheatre, in which the constant rehearsal of a patriarch’s downfall becomes a form of cruel torture.

With work of such consistent quality, it is difficult to settle on a single masterpiece. But for its emotional heft, meditation on memory and Friel’s immensely subtle self-reference towards the creation of art, Faith Healer might prove unsurpassable. Over four monologues, the story of Francis Hardy is rationed out and revised by the showman, his wife and his agent from competing perspectives. Ultimately it is a play about the impossibility of homecoming and the hair’s breadth that separates a miracle from a confidence trick – which could be the working definition of art.

A false alarm for Donal McCann
Faith Healer has had some celebrated revivals recently, with Owen Roe, Ralph Fiennes and Barry McGovern taking the title role, but it is still actively haunted by Donal McCann, who gave the performance of his career in the Abbey production of Friel’s play. (It premiered, less successfully, in New York.) McCann once recalled finishing his first performance, walking offstage and suddenly feeling an intensely warm sensation on the right side of his neck and a startlingly cold sensation on the left. For a moment he thought he was having a stroke. “Then I realised it was Dr Friel,” he told an interviewer. “Kissing me on one side and holding his gin and tonic glass to the other.”

Taciturn on meaning
Friel has always been wise to keep the meaning of his plays away from easy confirmation. Making History neatly problematised any reduction of flesh-and-blood figures such as Hugh O’Neill into a plaster saint or political symbol, and though Translations (staged by Field Day, the company he co-founded with Stephen Rea) opened in Derry in 1980, it could never conform to the expected patterns of a “Troubles play”. In fact, it counted as the first professional play in Derry in almost two centuries, and its appeal to both nationalist and unionist sympathies, in a city with two names, seemed commensurate with the equanimity of its writer. Friel wrote in his diary, “The play has to do with language and only with language”, before adding some time later, with something more than rhetoric: “It is a political play – how can it not be?”

That production, staged in the Guildhall in Derry, featured performances from Rea, Ray McAnally and Mick Lally, and, further down the cast list, newcomers such as Liam Neeson and David Heap.

Neither a sentimentalist nor one to indulge nostalgia without acknowledging all the pain in the word, Friel has established a kinship with the greats of Russian literature, writing adaptations of Chekhov and Turgenev in an Irish vernacular.

But his real provenance, perhaps even more so than Ballybeg, is in the field of memory: contested, disputed, subject to change, at odds with the desires of the living and rehearsed endlessly until it might somehow settle into something stable. It’s not what the theatre does especially well, equally subject to maddening change, from moment to moment, night to night. It has long been a productive tension. That, along with the man himself, is something to celebrate; Friel has given us some incredible memories.

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