Brian Friel one year on: A critical overview

Long read: Reading Ireland founder Adrienne Leavy assesses the legacy of the great Irish playwright who died a year ago today. Photographs by Bobbie Hanvey


The imagination is the only conscience
(Brian Friel diary entry, October 17th, 1977)

On October 2nd, 2015 the Irish playwright Brian Friel, widely regarded as “a national cultural icon”, passed away at his home in Greencastle, Co Donegal, at the age of 86. One week later he was laid to rest in a simple ceremony at Glenties Cemetery, without public fanfare or spectacle, in accordance with his wishes. Although generally considered to be Ireland’s most important contemporary playwright, this quiet departure from the human stage epitomized Friel’s private personality. He was part of the generation of Irish dramatists who came of age after Samuel Beckett which include Hugh Leonard (b. 1929), Tom McIntyre (b. 1931), Thomas Kilroy (b. 1934), and Tom Murphy (b. 1935). Aside from Leonard, who found success on Broadway with his play Da, Friel was the most internationally celebrated of his peers. He was also unique among contemporary Irish dramatists in that, with the exception of Beckett, many of his plays had attained canonical status during his lifetime.

Born in Killyclogher near Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1929 to Mary McLoone and Patrick Friel, the young Friel and his parents moved to Derry when he was 10 years old. Like his fellow northerner Seamus Heaney, he was educated in St. Columb’s College. Friel initially entertained the idea of becoming a priest; however, the two years he spent in the seminary in Maynooth (which he described as “an awful experience”) convinced him otherwise, and instead he chose the path of his father and became a teacher, spending a decade in a Christian Brothers school in Derry. Although raised in Derry and teaching in that city until 1960, it was his mother’s home village of Glenties in Co Donegal that ultimately became his home, both physically and imaginatively.

Nationalism and Catholicism were the formative influences on Friel’s life, and his status as a Northern Irish Catholic nationalist is often cited as the dominant factor underpinning the sense of exile and disenfranchisement that permeates his work. Also relevant is the geographic location of Donegal, a border county in Southern Ireland where Friel and his wife Anne raised their children; the northern town of Derry is only a few miles from the border of Donegal. From this geographic vantage point Friel was able to straddle the partitioned border of two worlds: Northern and Southern Ireland. It is thus not surprising that identity in Friel’s drama is often bifurcated and, as Anthony Roche had argued, “a sense of doubleness” is a hallmark of much of his writing.

Other major themes in Friel’s drama include the erratic workings of memory, and the complexities of family relationships, where identity is often aligned with the concept of home and how one remembers this emotional terrain. His plays are concerned with the personal, interior world of his characters, and the manner in which memory or nostalgia facilitates their self-deception. Friel has stated that he had “a strong belief in racial memory”, and he explores this idea through the interplay of history and the unreliability of recollection. At the heart of each play is the primacy of language, the double-edged danger of the spoken word, and the fact that what is left unspoken is often just as important as the dialogue on stage.

Friel began by writing short stories in the 1950s, and he enjoyed considerable success in the genre, publishing two collections of stories, The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966), while also regularly publishing his work in the New Yorker. Viewing his stories as derivative of earlier masters of the genre such as Frank O’Connor and Liam O’Flaherty, he switched to drama and in the early 1960s gave up his teaching job to dedicate himself full-time to writing. In 1963 he spent several crucial months in the United States at Tyrone Guthrie’s invitation to observe rehearsals at the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Although he had written several plays prior to his observations of the Guthrie Theatre, this experience proved to be profoundly influential on the future direction of Friel’s work.

Many of Friel’s mature plays are set in the fictional town of Ballybeg, an everytown which serves as the site of Friel’s sustained interrogation of Irish society. The name “Ballybeg” is derived from the Gaelic phrase, baile beag, meaning small town; however, it would be a mistake to view Friel as an exclusively Irish or parochial writer based on this geographic anchor. Like Joyce, Friel’s aesthetic engagement with Ireland and its people expands beyond the remote locale of the fictional Ballybeg to encompass universal human concerns.

A Consideration of Several Plays

The nine plays discussed below were selected because of their significance in Friel’s canon and also because they are representative of the range and diversity of his work. This essay identifies some of the salient features of each drama – for a more detailed analysis of these plays, please consult the works listed at the end.

Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964)

Friel’s first major critical and commercial success was in 1964, with the emigration play, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which he wrote when he returned to Ireland from the US. After the initial production by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the play transferred to Broadway for an extended run in 1965-66, and it was this play that established Friel’s international reputation. With this work, the experimental nature of Friel’s dramaturgy, which emphasizes theatricality over conventional dramatic structures, first became apparent.

Set in a small town in Donegal (the first appearance of Friel’s Ballybeg), the play centres on a young man, Gareth O’Donnell, on the eve of his emigration to America. The permeable borders between fantasy and reality are captured in scenes that unfold on a conventional Irish stage set: the kitchen of the house Gar shares with his father. Although ostensibly centered on the issue of emigration, the themes of the play lift it out of the typical 1950s clichéd Irish drama about leaving Ireland. Love is one of the predominant concerns, specifically the love between a father and son and between a son and his birthplace, and also the failure of Gar to win his sweetheart Kate Doogan. The subjective nature of memory, and how “identity can be destabilized by opposing narratives” (Melissa Shira) is dramatized through Gar’s relationship with his father. This is premised to a large extent on a memory of a happy day he remembers them having spent together on a boating outing on Lough na Cloc; however, his father’s recollection of the event fails to confirm his son’s narrative. The conflicting stories they both tell exemplify the emotional vacuum that exists between the characters. As Roche points out, what the communication gap dramatized by the interaction between father and son reveals is that “there is no private tongue, no shared language of feeling in which and through which they can address each other.”

Friel brilliantly upends the conventional setting of the play by splitting his protagonist’s personality into two characters, Private Gar and Public Gar. Played by two different actors, this dramatic technique enabled Friel to simultaneously explore both the interior and exterior world of the character, or as Friel termed it the “physical” and the “cerebral.” With this device Friel was able to dramatize the way in which the public world impacts upon the private self. Due to the innovative nature of Philadelphia, Here I Come! the play is often credited as the starting point of contemporary Irish drama. Thomas Kilroy assesses its impact thus: “What was startlingly different about this play was the sensibility behind it, a mind that was unmistakably of the modern world and one with a clear sense of what modern theatre could do.”

The Freedom of the City (1973)

The Freedom of the City is unique in the Friel canon in that it represents the playwright’s most direct engagement with the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. On January 30th, 1972, British soldiers shot and killed 13 unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry. A tribunal was convened under the direction of Lord Chief Justice Widgery to investigate the shootings. Released on April 18th, 1972, the tribunal’s report exonerated the soldiers and laid the blame for the incident at the feet of the protestors. The Widgery Report stimulated responses from several artists in Ireland, most notably the poet Thomas Kinsella with his impassioned denunciation of the tribunal’s findings in his poem Butcher’s Dozen (1970). The Freedom of the City was viewed as Friel’s aesthetic contribution, although Friel was uneasy with the interpretation that the play was a direct commentary on the political situation in Northern Ireland and he went to great lengths to rebut this assumption. As he explained to Eavan Boland in a 1973 interview:

“…the play began long before Bloody Sunday happened. I was working on the theme for about ten months before Bloody Sunday. And then Bloody Sunday happened, and the play I was writing, and wasn’t succeeding with, suddenly found a focus. I was stuck until this point, and this was a kind of clarification. The play, in fact, is the story of three people who are on a Civil Rights march in Derry in 1970. The march finishes in the Guildhall Square. Then the British Army moves in, breaks up the meeting and these three people take refuge in the Guildhall and find themselves in the Mayor’s parlour.”

Notwithstanding Friel’s distancing of his play from actual political events, audiences could be forgiven for identifying the work with Bloody Sunday. As Bernice Schrank points out, “Friel includes so many details associated with Bloody Sunday, from the introduction of an unarmed woman early on the play who speaks the words Bernadette Devlin is reported to have said (‘Stand your ground,’ [FC:111]) on that day as the soldiers arrived, to his, at the time, instantly recognizable paraphrase of the findings of the Widgery Tribunal.” With the passage of time, several critics have interpreted the play differently. As Fintan O’Toole points out, with Friel “his work is frequently less political than it seems”. O’Toole reads The Freedom of the City as not so much about “Bloody Sunday” but rather “more about the impossibility of writing about Bloody Sunday”.

Aristocrats (1979)

Often cited as Friel’s most “Chekhovian” play, Aristocrats is an elegiac drama set in an Irish Catholic “Big House” in Ballybeg. Like his previous play, Living Quarters (1977), Aristocrats is an exposé of the illusory social and cultural authority that people cling to in the face of the disintegration of their world, but the drama is less concerned with the historical decline of The Big House culture than with the tenuous realities to which the family who grew up in this particular estate cling. Friel’s innate humanity as a writer is demonstrable in this sympathetic study of a family which O’Toole described in his review as “teetering on the edge of nothingness”.

Three sisters reunite in their family home with their brother, the excitable Casimir, for the impending wedding of the youngest, the volatile Claire, to a much older local shopkeeper. Judith, the eldest, takes care of their father, the ailing patriarch, Justice O’ Donnell, while the alcoholic Alice lives a lonely existence in London, with her husband Eamon, who grew up in the local village. Casimir, unlike his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, failed at a career in the law, and now lives in Germany working in a sausage factory. Also in the house is an American academic, Tom Hoffnung, who is writing a history of the family. Casimir, who was told by his father when he was nine that if he had been born in the village instead of into his privileged position “you’d have become the village idiot,” recounts for Tom increasingly elaborate fabricated tales of the famous people who once visited the house. What the play makes clear is that these imaginative fictions are directly bound up with Casimir’s sense of the importance of his family, and by extension, his own relevance.

The wedding plans are abruptly postponed when Justice O’Donnell dies and Judith informs her siblings that she must sell the house as she can no longer afford its upkeep. The family is thus poised on the brink of both a physical and emotional dispersal as there will no longer be a physical space to which they can return. The long slide into genteel poverty is illustrated by Casimir’s attempt mid-way through the play to locate the four corners of the long-gone croquet lawn, which was subsequently replaced by a tennis court that has also disappeared. Eamon advises Tom to write a fictional account of the family called “Ballybeg Hall – From Supreme Court to Sausage Factory,” which would chronicle four generations of a family “that lived its life in total isolation……ignored by its Protestant counterparts, isolated from its own concept of itself.”

Faith Healer (1979)

Another of Friel’s memory plays is Faith Healer, a story about a faith healer, “The Fantastic Francis Hardy,” his long-suffering wife Grace and his loyal manager Teddy. Frank’s faith healing sessions in the forgotten villages of Wales and Scotland are akin to religious revival meetings, and sometimes his brand of hope and belief works. The play takes two predominant Friel themes, the unreliability of memory and the difficulty of communication, and weaves them into a story of three damaged people. Ultimately, Faith Healer is about a man who creates his own death by coming out of exile in England and returning home to Ireland. Nicholas Grene, who offers five different ways of reading Faith Healer, points out that “the pattern of exile and return is crucial to the dramatic structure and has to be accounted for in any analysis of the play’s meaning.” Frank’s dubious gift ultimately betrays him and leads to his brutal death at the hands of his audience who channel their disappointment into violence against the failed faith healer.

Once again, language and its relationship to real events in people’s lives take centre stage. The play consists entirely of dramatic monologues, a structural device which serves to underscore the separateness of the three main characters. This narrative innovation showcases Friel’s storytelling abilities as over the course of four monologues the audience is slowly drawn into the lives of the three main characters, each of whom offer different versions of the same story. During the first monologue Frank questions whether he is a genuine faith healer or a con man. As he admits early on in the play, occasionally his ministrations “did work.” When that happened he transcended the confines of his personality, and as he tells the audience, “for those few hours I had become whole and perfect in myself.” In the second and third monologues Grace and Teddy tell their versions of Frank’s story, before he returns to the stage with the fourth and final monologue. Few of the narrative assertions in Faith Healer go unchallenged, with the notable exception of the tragedy of Grace’s stillborn baby, and as the story progresses the audience realizes that two of the characters are in fact dead.

As Peter Crawley notes, the play initially “bombed on Broadway, but later created a theatrical legend in Donal McCann’s celebrated Abbey performance (in a production directed by Joe Dowling), and it is now widely considered to be Friel’s greatest work.” Since then the play has attracted many actors wishing to play Frank Hardy, including Ralph Fiennes in a highly acclaimed revival by the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2006 which subsequently transferred to Broadway.

Translations (1980)

Arguably Friel’s most important work, Translations (1980) is an exploration of language, myth and identity within the context of a country split by language and colonialism in the early nineteenth-century. The play, which was the inaugural production for the Field Day company (discussed below), uses the theme of people living with a language that is not their own as a metaphor for the contemporary dilemmas of the two cultures of Northern Ireland: nationalist and unionist. However, the play was not intended as a polemic on contemporary politics and Friel was too skilled a playwright to use his art simply for political propaganda. As Ciaran Carty has noted, “politics are merely incidental to Friel’s preoccupations with words.” What’s at stake in Translations is the issue of language and the ambiguities and confusions that are wrought through its nuances.

Set in a hedge-school in Ballybeg in 1833, on the eve of the Irish Famine, the drama unfolds as local place names are being anglicized by the British Royal Engineers during the first Ordinance Survey of Ireland. The play addresses the shift from an indigenous, Irish-speaking culture, to an imposed English speaking culture and the effect this has on the village and by extension the island of Ireland. As Translations makes clear, place names in Ireland, like so many other things, are sites of contention. The complexities inherent in the act of translation are embodied in two characters: Owen, the hedge-master’s son who left for Dublin and has now returned to act as a translator for the Royal Engineers, and Yolland, the young English officer who falls in love with both Donegal and a local girl, Máire. Yolland is trying to learn Irish so he can woo Márie. Unfortunately for the lovers, while they can communicate their feelings without the ability to speak a common language, the political situation will not allow their relationship to flourish.

Language and its failure to accommodate experience preoccupies all the characters, whether it is Máire, who is learning English so she can emigrate to America, or Sarah, the mute girl who is trying to speak her name, or Hugh, the polyglot hedge-master who teaches Latin and Greek through Irish. Hugh laments the loss of Gaelic civilization, yet he also recognizes that “a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape …of fact.”

One of the most distinguishing dramatic aspects of Translations is Friel’s innovative theatrical device wherein his characters speak the same language (English), but with a translator all the time interpreting what the English and Irish characters are saying to each other. The play thus calls for the audience to accept that there are two languages present on stage, with the native Irish speaking in Gaelic, even though the actors are actually speaking their lines in English.

The Communication Cord (1982)

Critics have often noted that when a particular Friel play meets with both critical and commercial success he invariably then writes another work that satirizes the themes of the earlier play. The third Friel play produced by Field Day, The Communication Cord, is widely regarded as a retaliatory response to the success of Translations. The Communication Cord is a complicated sexual farce involving several couples wherein Friel relentlessly parodies both academia and the tendency to treat the Irish past with an overly reverent attitude. As Christopher Murray points out, “Friel was determined to demolish a sentimental rhetoric rendering sacred all that belonged to tradition.”

The plot centers on the character of Tim Gallagher, a junior lecturer in linguistics, who is borrowing his friend Jack’s cottage so he can pretend to his girlfriend’s father (the corrupt Senator Donovan, a local politician of the “comely maidens dancing on the village green” variety) that he in fact owns the property and is responsible for its restoration. Tim is writing a thesis on “Discourse Analysis with Particular Reference to Response Cries,” and one of the many ironies running through the play is that his character is woefully inarticulate except in the context of discussing his thesis. Confusion and chaos abound, with every character at some point confused with another or assumed to be what they are not. As is characteristic of Friel, this confusion is achieved through linguistic descriptions and failure of communication. The farce ends with the roof of the cottage literally falling down on top of Gallagher.

Making History (1988)

Making History was the first play that Friel wrote for Field Day since their successful and popular production of The Communication Cord. In this drama Friel captures the last moments of the dying Gaelic culture at the close of the sixteenth-century and examines how history has remembered Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, one of the last Gaelic lords of Ulster. The play retells the events leading up to and following the watershed Battle of Kinsale (1601), an abortive rebellion against the English crown. Friel is primarily concerned with dismantling the mythology that grew up around O’Neill after he left Ireland in 1607 with Rory O’Donnell, the Earl of Tyrconnell and other Irish aristocrats in what became known as “The Flight of the Earls.” Their abandonment of Ireland in the wake of defeat has been seen by historians as paving the way for the plantation of Ulster.

A central character in the play is Archbishop Peter Lombard, a friend of O’Neill’s and a Catholic cleric writing a history of O’Neill. Archbishop Lombard was concerned with writing a nationalist narrative, erasing the complexities and contradictions of O’Neill’s personality including the fact that O’Neill was fostered out to England as a boy, where he spent seven in the home of Sir Henry Sidney. In the official biography that Archbishop Lombard is constructing, O’Neill’s ties to the English aristocracy are minimized, as is the fact that O’Neill ended his life as a destitute alcoholic in exile in Rome.

In contrast, Friel creates a hero who is both romantic and flawed and, unlike Archbishop Lombard’s narrative, the play explores the relationship between O’Neill and his young wife Mabel whom he married in 1591. Mabel, who was O’Neill’s third wife, was a Protestant of planter stock, whose union with the Catholic O’Neill complicates his status as a nationalist hero. In his analysis of this play, Roche draws attention to the fact that Friel restores Mabel’s importance and in so doing, he builds up “the centrality of the marriage to an understanding of the wider political/ cultural dynamic between Ireland and England.”

Dancing at Lughnasa (1990)

In his biggest international success, Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), a Donegal family of five sisters is on the verge of disintegration as the livelihood of their home knitting cottage industry is threatened with extinction due to the industrialization of the area. The play is dedicated to “those five brave Glenties women,” a reference to Friel’s mother and her sisters who grew up in Glenties. Poverty, the absence of choice, and the difficulties of adapting to modern life are at the heart of this serious drama that chronicles the destruction of the Mundy family’s way of life. The play was an international success and enjoyed an extended run on Broadway, while a subsequent film version, directed by Pat O’Connor and starring Meryl Streep and Michael Gambon, was released in 1998.

The central character, Kate Mundy, is the eldest of five sisters who live together in their family home with Michael, the illegitimate seven year-old son of the youngest sister, Rose. The sisters’ uneventful lives are disrupted on the return of their beloved brother, Father Jack, from the missions in Uganda. Once again, the theme of the tragic homecoming (which resulted in the death of Frank in Faith Healer) underpins the drama. Father Jack returns home in a state of mental confusion after some unspecified transgression, and the sisters’ efforts of maintaining their respectable lives in the village are upended by their brother’s return. It becomes clear that the brother they regarded as a “saint” had a tainted past, and Kate, the only bread-winner in the family, finds her teaching job imperiled because of Jack’s dismissal. There are some hints that Father Jack’s improper conduct may have involved a close relationship with his houseboy Okawa, and Marine Pelletier suggests that this undertone “may echo the various scandals that affected the Irish Catholic Church in the early 1990s [which] contributed to the Church’s loss of moral authority.”

The sisters long to escape the rural pieties and conventions of their small village, and this desire is given expression in what Seamus Heaney has described as “one of the great scenes of twentieth-century theatre,” which is “that moment in Dancing at Lughnasa where the Mundy sisters go wild to the sound of the céilí band coming amplified and ecstatic out of their battery wireless.” There have been numerous interpretations of the significance of this scene, with the wildness of the dance in stark contrast to the typically guarded behaviour of the Mundy sisters. It can be viewed as a temporary escape from the confines of their lives, an elegiac dance of defiance in the face of impending change, and also as a simple expression of their desire for happiness and fun. One can also view their dance as the temporary escape from the dictates of faith, given the tension between Christianity and paganism that runs through the play.

Although initially staged in 1990, the memory that the story revolves around is set in the 1960s, when the adult character of Michael is remembering back to his childhood with his mother and his aunts in 1936. Michael is trying to articulate the significance of the events he remembers from that fateful summer when Father Jack returned home. Eamonn Jordan writes that “in a way the drama is about the impossibility of fully accessing, resuscitating, processing or purging memory.” As O’Toole points out, “Friel’s great originality lay in the way he treated public history as if it were private memory – as a construct whose truth does not lie in its mere facts.” O’Toole considers the central idea at the heart of Friel’s work to be “that our sense of what happened in the past owes more to our imaginations than it does to our memories.”

The Late Plays

Many of Friel’s later work such as Wonderful Tennessee (1983), Molly Sweeney (1994), and Give Me Your Answer, Do! (1997) are less critically or commercially successful, and as a result are less likely to be revived in Dublin, London or New York. As noted above, many critics view these plays as responses to earlier, more commercially successful plays, although Anthony Roche argues that “while they are to some degree conscious of the plays that precede them, they would benefit at least as much from being seen as enabling the plays that followed.”

More recently, The Home Place (2005), which is set in 1878 against the resurgence of the Home Rule movement in Ireland, is another historical tragedy depicting the British plantation of Ireland as a chronic misreading of the land and its people. Set in Ballybeg at the Big House of Christopher Gore, his son David and their housekeeper, Margaret (whom they both love), The Home Place illustrates the clash between two ideologies, British imperialism and Irish nationalism. It also tackles the issue of who gets to claim an Irish identity as the hibernicised Christopher does, and who is the arbitrator of that claim. Although raised in Donegal, Christopher spent his childhood summers in Kent, England. Because of this and his status as an Anglo-Irish landowner, Con O’Donovan (a local youth with links to political activists in the area) demands that he leave his estate and return to England. This challenge to the family is prompted by the arrival of Christopher’s cousin from England, Dr. Richard Gore. Dr Gore and his assistant are visiting Ireland to conduct a “scientific study” of the native Irish. Specifically, the pair is measuring people’s physical characteristics, and as Pelletier notes, Friel uses anthropology and anthropometry as a metaphor to addresses “contemporary concerns with globalization, genetics and new markers of identity.” Pelletier also reads The Home Place as interrogating “Anglo-Irish relations in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement and the amendments to the Irish constitution.” The play was enthusiastically received. After a successful run in Dublin, the play transferred to London’s West End, where it won The Evening Standard Award for best play. Thereafter it was produced in the US at The Guthrie Theatre in 2007.

Field Day

Founded in 1980 by a group of Northern Irish artists and intellectuals, the Field Day Theatre Company was intended to make Derry and the North in general a vital centre for theatre and the arts. It was also an attempt to aesthetically respond to the growing political turmoil in Northern Ireland since the outbreak of violence a decade earlier “in a manner which seemed to them socially, morally and creatively responsible.” The idea was to create an imaginative “fifth province” of Ireland, which would rise above the political realities of the geographic divide of the island into the southern provinces of Munster, Connaught and Leinster, and the northern province of Ulster. The company created a mandate to explore questions of history, language, culture and nationality through its theatrical work, while its more overtly political interventions were in the form of the Field Day pamphlets on literature and colonialism, none of which Friel authored. In 1991 three volumes of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing were published under general editor Seamus Deane, and a fourth volume on Irish women writers was subsequently published after vocal protestations about the lack of adequate representation of women’s writing in the earlier volumes.

Both Friel and the actor Stephen Rea were the driving force behind the company’s creation (the name “Field Day” is a play on their surnames), and they were soon joined by critic Seamus Deane, poet Seamus Heaney, musician David Hammond and the poet and critic Tom Paulin. As discussed earlier in this essay, the company’s initial production was the enormously successful Translations, which opened in the Guildhall in Derry and subsequently toured in several other Irish towns both north and south of the border. As Marilynn Richtarik notes in her essay on Field Day, “the impulse behind the project was thus both populist, in that Friel and Rea were reaching out to new audiences of people who did not usually have the opportunity to attend professional theatre, and parochial in a positive sense.”

Friel ended his association with Field Day in 1994 when he resigned from its Board of Directors. There are several reasons why the Field Day Theatre Company ceased staging new plays after Friel’s translation of Uncle Vanya in 1995, including the fact that the company never succeeded in acquiring a permanent home that could rival the Lyric Theatre in Belfast or the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Moreover, by the early 1990s all of its founding directors were engaged in pursuing their own careers which took them away from the geographic confines of Derry. However, as Murray points out, its rich legacy was that “Field Day made cultural nationalism a live issue once again in Ireland, North and South, and turned the ‘narrow ground’ of factionalism into an imaginative playground.”

The Russian Influence

In addition to his own work, Friel’s reputation as a master dramatist rests on his translation and interpretation of several Russian masters, most notably, Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov. Specifically, he wrote versions of two Chekhov plays, Three Sisters (1981) and Uncle Vanya (1998), and two adaptations of Turgenev; a stage version of Turgenev’s novel, Fathers and Sons (1987), and his play, A Month in the Country (1992). More recently he adapted Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “Lady with Lapdog,” into a play The Yalta Game (2001), which critic Charles Spencer hailed as “a beautifully judged miniature masterpiece.” Friel explained his interest in nineteenth-century Russian literature thus:

“Maybe because the characters in the plays behave as if their old certainties were as sustaining as ever – even though they know in their hearts that their society is in melt-down and the future has neither a welcome nor even an accommodation for them. Maybe a bit like people of my own generation in Ireland today. Or maybe I find those Russians sympathetic because they have no expectations whatever from love but still invest everything in it. Or maybe they attract me because they seem to expect that their problems will disappear if they talk about them – endlessly.”

Many critics regard his 1979 play, Aristocrats, as “a Russian play in all but its Irish setting,” and Field Day staged his version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters for their second touring production. Friel did not speak Russian, so instead worked with several English and American translations of the play to construct a version written in a Hiberno-English dialect.

For a detailed discussion on Friel and the process of translation and reinterpretation involved in his adaption of Chekhov, a podcast is available of Professor Nicholas Grene’s recent lecture, Brian Friel: A Life in Translation.


For over 50 years Friel explored the spiritual and social upheavals of an emerging modern Ireland through stories and dramas about ordinary people. Often, his characters do not fully comprehend the effects on their lives of the historical, social and economic factors that are their inheritance. He has created some of the greatest roles for Irish actors in contemporary theatre, while remaining steadfast in his investigation of his major themes - the role of history and memory in our lives, exile and the search for home, the importance of language and how we use it to communicate. Speaking about Friel on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Heaney began by considering Ballybeg, Friel’s fictional home, which the poet likened to a crystal into which the playwright gazed to discover his vision of reality. According to Heaney, “what he witnesses when he gazes is, on the one hand, a pageant of actual, historical Irish time and place, and on the other, an imagined procession of solitary Irish selves, a multitude of faces and places appearing and disappearing like the shades in Dante’s underworld.”

Writing about the affinity that Friel felt for his tragic, vulnerable characters, O’Toole aptly summed up the playwright’s legacy:

In his best plays, people discover that the world they think is theirs has (often literally) no place for them. They are about to disappear. But the magic of the theatre in the hands of a magus like Friel is that this disappearance can be delayed indefinitely. People can be held, in all their confusion, in a kind of suspended animation that defies their doom.” (The Irish Times, October 3rd, 2015)

In response to a question from Desmond Rushe in 1970, “Why do you think people go to the theatre?” Friel gave the following answer: “I don’t think they’re going any longer simply for entertainment. They want to be engaged mentally, and if the dramatist does this he is succeeding.” Yet while Friel believed that the theatre must be “a laboratory of questioning and scrutiny and of untried thoughts and practices,” he also acknowledged in later life that “laughter and merrymaking and wit and comedy and raucous fun and plain ordinary giddiness and silly giggling must be accommodated and indeed encouraged.” In his view, “a solemn theatre is a dead theatre.” These recent observations were made in the context of the grand opening of the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast in May 2011. Friel, who was 82 at the time, made a rare public speech to mark the occasion in the form of a number of “secular prayers” that he offered to the audience. It is appropriate to conclude this essay with the words of the man who dedicated his life to the theatre:

“And finally, a heartfelt prayer for all the creative people who will work here in the coming decades and donate their lives to that strange and almost sacred pursuit we call theatre - because donating their lives is what they do. I pray that they will find their reward in putting us in touch again with our heedless souls, of lifting the veil again on those neglected values that we need to embrace if we are to be fully human. I solemnly pray that they will find great, great reward in that unique venture.”

This essay was originally published in Reading Ireland: The Little Magazine, a a quarterly e-journal founded and edited by Adrienne Leavy, an Irish writer now living in Arizona

Suggested Reading

Deane, Seamus, “Brian Friel: The Double Stage” in Celtic Revivals. London: Faber & Faber, 1985.

Friel, Brian. “’Secular Prayers’ for the New Lyric Theatre, Belfast” in New Hibernia Review: Írís Éíreannach Nua volume 19 No. 3 autumn 2015.

Furay, Julia and Redmond O’ Hanlon (editors), Critical Moments: Fintan O’ Toole on Modern Irish Theatre. Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2003.

Grene, Nicholas, The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Heaney, Seamus, Spelling It Out: In Honour of Brian Friel on his 80th Birthday. County Meath, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2008.

Jordon, Eamonn (editor), Theatre Stuff: Critical Essays on Contemporary Irish Theatre. Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2000.

Morash, Christopher, A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Murray, Christopher (editor), Brian Friel Essays, Diaries, Interviews: 1964-1999. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.

----The Theatre of Brian Friel: Tradition and Modernity. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

----Twentieth-Century Irish Drama: Mirror up to Nation. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Ni Anluain, Clíodhna editor, Reading the Future: Irish Writers in Conversation with Mike Murphy. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2000.

Pelletier, Martine, “New articulations of Irishness and ‘otherness’ on the contemporary Irish stage” in Irish Literature since 1990: Diverse Voices. Scott Brewster and Michael Parker editors, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Pine, Richard. The Diviner: The Art of Brian Friel. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1999.

Richards, Shaun editor, The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Roche, Anthony. Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

---Contemporary Irish Drama: From Beckett to McGuinness. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994.

…. (Editor), Irish University Review (special Brian Friel Issue) 29:1(1999).

....The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

The Brian Friel Papers are located in the National Library of Ireland (Leabharlann Náisiúnta na hÉireann): Collection List No. 73 (MSS 37, 041-37, 806).

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