Brian Friel’s interview with Fintan O’Toole: ‘I’m not really very good at this kind of question’
The late playwright did not like to be interviewed, and eventually he gave it up altogether. But he did give this rare interview to the drama critic of ‘In Dublin’ magazine in 1982
Deep in thought: Brian Friel in Dublin in 1980, at the Gate Theatre opening of his play Translations. Photograph: Tom Lawlor
Brian Friel did not like to be interviewed, and eventually he gave it up altogether. In 1982 I was drama critic for In Dublin magazine. He agreed to talk, I suspect, largely because Field Day was about to produce his farce The Communication Cord, and he felt a burden of responsibility as cofounder of the company. He obviously found some of my questions annoying in their abstraction, but he tried his best to respond. Off the record he was warm and funny and indulgent. I felt that he was quite guarded in the interview, but afterwards he told people that he felt he had been embarrassingly garrulous.
We spoke in the house that he and his wife, Anne, had built in Muff, just across the Donegal border from Derry, in the 1960s, largely on the proceeds of his first hit play, Philadelphia, Here I Come! The sitting room, at the side of the house overlooking the Foyle, was all clean, modern lines, angled to make the most of the sparse Donegal sunshine. At the time the family was preparing to move to an older house farther into Donegal, in Greencastle.
Fintan O’Toole The first thing I wanted to ask you was about the sense of place in your work and the fact that so many of your characters seem to lack a sense of place, to be dislocated. Does that have any parallel in your own life?
Brian Friel That’s a real academic’s question, isn’t it? I’ll try to answer it. Seamus Deane has written a number of essays on me, and that’s one of his persistent points, that I’m some sort of displaced person, you know? If there are parallels in my own life I don’t know. There is certainly a sense of rootlessness and impermanence. It may well be the inheritance of being a member of the Northern minority. That could be one of the reasons, where you are certainly at home but in some sense exile is imposed on you. That may be a reason. I mean, I’m groping at answers to this. In some kind of a way I think Field Day has grown out of that sense of impermanence, of people who feel themselves native to a province, or certainly to an island, but in some way feel that a disinheritance is offered to them.
Is Field Day then an attempt to reclaim that inheritance? Yes, but the difficulty is what to reclaim. You can’t deposit fealty to a situation, like the Northern situation, that you don’t believe in. Then you look south of the Border and that enterprise is in so many ways distasteful. And yet both places are your home, so you are an exile in your home in some kind of sense. It may be an inheritance from a political situation. I think it may very well be, and I think the people that are gathered around Field Day – there are six of them . . . I don’t want to speak for the other five, but I think this could be a common sense to all of them. Someone has suggested, maybe it was [Tom] Paulin, that it’s an attempt to create a fifth province to which artistic and cultural loyalty can be offered.
There’s also a close sense of family in your plays and of the kind of bonds that the family imposes on the individual. Maybe it’s part of the same thing again, that there’s some kind of instinctive sense of home being central to the life and yet at the same time home being a place of great stress and great alienation. I’m not really very good at this kind of question, Fintan, because the question’s a kind of abstract based on a body of work, isn’t it, and I sort of look from enterprise to enterprise, from job to job, you know what I mean? So it’s really a kind of an academic’s question, isn’t it?
So do you never look back on your work and attempt to pick things out? No, not at all. Only when you find, for example, that categories are being imposed on you, for example after three plays in particular – after Faith Healer, which was kind of an austere enterprise, Translations, which was offered pieties that I didn’t intend for it, and then [his version of Chekhov’s] Three Sisters – in some way I felt I’m being corralled into something here. By other people. And this was one of the reasons I wanted to attempt a farce.
Were you consciously attempting an antidote to Translations when you were writing The Communication Cord? Oh yes. Well, consciously at two levels. Firstly for Field Day, because I felt it would be appropriate for Field Day to have something like that at this point, but also from my own point of view, because I was being categorised in some sort of a way that I didn’t feel easy about, and it seemed to me that a farce would disrupt that kind of categorising. There’s risks involved in doing that sort of thing. I think it’s a risky enterprise doing a farce. But I think it’s worth it.
When you started off with The Communication Cord were you aware of trying to use the mechanisms of classical farce? Yes. It’s something like a Meccano set: you get on with various pieces of it, and you put them all together. Maybe it’s different from the usual farce, in that the play itself was to some extent an attempt to illustrate a linguistic thesis. But apart from that it’s just a regular farce, isn’t it?
Yes, but it does also carry on a concern with language that has been evident in your work for the past five or six years. So it’s a farce that is also, in one sense, to be taken very seriously. It’s a form to which very little respect is offered, and it was important to do it for that reason, not to make it respectable but to release me into what I bloody well wanted, to attempt it, to have a go at it.
Were you aware of almost being canonised after Translations? Ach, not at all. Ah, no, that’s very strong. But it was treated much too respectfully. You know, when you get notices, especially from outside the island, saying, “If you want to know what happened in Cuba, if you want to know what happened in Chile, if you want to know what happened in Vietnam, read Translations,” that’s nonsense. And I just can’t accept that sort of pious rubbish.
I was wondering whether your concern with language, indeed with your profession as a playwright, stemmed from a re-examination of that profession. You said in 1972 that you were thinking of going back to writing short stories instead of plays. Ah, I don’t know. The whole language one is a very tricky one. The whole issue of language is a very problematic one for us all on this island. I had grandparents who were native Irish speakers and also two of the four grandparents were illiterate. It’s very close, you know. I actually remember two of them. And to be so close to illiteracy and to a different language is a curious experience. And in some way I don’t think we’ve resolved it. We haven’t resolved it on this island for ourselves. We flirt with the English language, but we haven’t absorbed it and we haven’t regurgitated it in some kind of way. It’s accepted outside the island, you see, as “our great facility with the English language” – [Kenneth] Tynan said we used it like drunken sailors, you know that kind of image. That’s all old rubbish. A language is much more profound than that. It’s not something we produce for the entertainment of outsiders. And that’s how Irish theatre is viewed, indeed, isn’t it?
It is very often. And isn’t it the dilemma of the modern Irish playwright that to actually make a decent living out of writing plays you have to find an audience in Britain and the United States, while the enterprise you’re involved in is more about trying to write primarily for an Irish audience?Are you confusing an economic dilemma with an artistic dilemma? Is that what you’re saying?
Well, doesn’t the fact of having to make a living force certain conditions on you? It doesn’t, no. Not in the slightest. Because in the case of Translations I was really sure that this was the first enterprise that Field Day was going to do, and I was sure we were in deep trouble with that play. We thought, Field Day will never even get a lift-off because of this play, because here is a play set in 1833, set in a hedge school. You have to explain the terminology to people outside the island, indeed to people inside the island too, so I thought we were on a real financial loss here. But that is part of the enterprise, and this is one of the reasons why I attempted the translation of Chekhov. It’s back to the political problem: it’s our proximity to England; it’s how we have been pigmented in our theatre with the English experience, with the English language, the use of the English language, the understanding of words; the whole cultural burden that every word in the English language carries is slightly different to our burden. Joyce talks in the Portrait of his resentment of the [English] Jesuit priest because his language, “so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech”, and so on.
Did theatre come before short stories? No. I wrote stories first. I know now why I stopped writing short stories. It was at the point when I recognised how difficult they were. It would have meant a whole reappraisal. I mean, I was very much under the influence, as everyone at the time was, of [Sean] O’Faolain and [Frank] O’Connor, particularly. O’Connor dominated our lives. I suppose they [Friel’s short stories] really were some kind of imitation of O’Connor’s work. I’m just guessing at it, but I think at some point round about that period, the recognition of the difficulty of the thing, you know, that maybe there was the need for the discovery of a voice and that I was just echoing somebody else.
What was the effect for you of suddenly, with your fourth play, having a great success and productions in the United States and becoming, at least for a time, a famous playwright? We’d need to be very careful about language. [Philadelphia, Here I Come!] was a very successful play, and it’s a play that in some kind of way haunts you too. People say, ‘Oh, yes, you’re the man that wrote the play called Philadelphia Story, aren’t you?’ So, famous and successful? I don’t know.
Did you see it again when it was revived in the Abbey recently? I did, yes.
What was it like, seeing it again? I’ve really no interest in it at all. None whatsoever. I would go to a thing like that out of duty to the actors and to the theatre, but I’ve really no interest in the enterprise itself. I would feel minor irritations at the way things are written or expressed but no interest at all. Even things like The Communication Cord, which are still running, I have no interest in it really. It’s finished, and it is as it is, and I’m drawn on to the next enterprise.
You wrote in the 1960s, I suppose, four plays which concentrated on different aspects of love – Philadelphia, The Loves of Cass McGuire, Lovers, and Crystal and Fox. You then stopped writing about love. Was it just that you had said all you wanted to say? I just don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think there’s a point when you say, “I’ve nothing more to say about that,” because I don’t think you start from that premise and say I’ve got this to say about anything. You don’t have anything to say about anything. You delve into a particular corner of yourself that’s dark and uneasy, and you articulate the confusions and the unease of that particular period. When you do that, that’s finished and you acquire other corners of unease and discontent. There are continuing obsessions, like the political thing is a continuing obsession, and I’ve written two or three demonstrably political plays. And I keep saying to myself I’m never going to write another political play, because it’s too transient and because I’m confused about it myself, but I know damn well and I’m sure I’ll have another shot at it again sometime.
With The Freedom of the City, which was obviously a very complex play, are you afraid that in certain circumstances an audience might take a very crude and a very blunt political message from it? That wouldn’t worry me anyway. “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men [the English shot]?” – that sort of thing wouldn’t worry me at all. I think one of the problems with that play was that the experience of Bloody Sunday wasn’t adequately distilled in me. I wrote it out of some kind of heat and some kind of immediate passion that I would want to have quieted a bit before I did it. It was really – do you remember that time? – it was a very emotive time. It was really a shattering experience that the British army, this disciplined instrument, would go in as they did that time and shoot 13 people. To be there on that occasion and – I didn’t actually see people get shot – but, I mean, to have to throw yourself on the ground because people are firing at you is a very terrifying experience. Then the whole cover-up afterwards was shattering too. We still have some kind of belief that the law is above reproach. We still believe that the academy is above reproach in some way, don’t we?
Your active involvement in politics was in the 1960s in the Nationalist Party? Yes. I was a member of the Nationalist Party for several years. I don’t remember how long. Those were very dreary days, because the Nationalist Party . . . it’s hard to describe what it was. I suppose it held on to some kind of little faith, you know? It wasn’t even sure what the faith was, and it was a very despised enterprise by everybody. We used to meet once a month wherever it was, in a grotty wee room, and there’d be four or five old men who’d sit there and mull over things. It was really hopeless.
Did you ever regret the fact that you moved to Donegal from Derry shortly before the Troubles began? I regretted it in many ways, yes. I think it was in 1968, and the trouble began in 1969, and we might have been better to be in there. Just to be part of the experience. Instead of driving into a civil-rights march, coming out your front door and joining it might have been more real. It would have been less deliberate and less conscious than doing it from here.
Coming back to what I was asking you earlier about your recent plays, which seem largely concerned with your own craft, Faith Healer was first staged in 1979 in New York. Was that a reflection of a concern with the power of the writer, with what you yourself do? I suppose it has to be. It was some kind of a metaphor for the art, the craft of writing, or whatever it is. And the great confusion we all have about it, those of us who are involved in it. How honourable and how dishonourable it can be. And it’s also a pursuit that, of necessity, has to be very introspective, and as a consequence it leads to great selfishness. So that you’re constantly, as I’m doing at this moment, saying something and listening to yourself saying it, and the third eye is constantly watching you. And it’s a very dangerous thing, because in some way it perverts whatever natural freedom you might have, and that natural freedom must find its expression in the written word. So there’s an exploration of that – I mean the element of the charlatan that there is in all creative work.
And even more so in the theatre, because even at a distance you’re acting as a showman? Yes. It’s a very vulgar medium, in the Latin sense, and it’s also vulgar, I think, too, in the accepted sense. But I think it also has satisfactions that you wouldn’t find as a novelist or as a poet. It’s a very attractive enterprise to be involved in. You would find that even as a critic, because they’re very attractive people. It’s a very essential kind of life, because it’s giving everything to this one enterprise, and once it’s over then we go on to something else. It’s essentially human in some way.
Of the six members of the Field Day board only yourself and Stephen Rea are actively involved in theatre.That’s right. I think the important defining thing about them all is that they’re all Northern people.
What is it about the south of Ireland that makes it impossible for you to give your loyalty to it? Well, of course I have loyalty to it, because in some way it’s the old parent who is now beginning to ramble. In some way it could be adjusted, and I think it could be made very exciting. But it requires the Northern thing to complete it. I’m talking about the whole Northern thing.
You’re saying, then, that there are certain qualities that are peculiar to Northerners and not found in the South? Yes. I think the qualities are – I don’t believe for one minute in Northern hard-headedness or any of that nonsense – but I think that if you have a sense of exile, that brings with it some kind of alertness and some kind of eagerness and some kind of hunger. And if you are in possession you can become, maybe, placid about some things. And I think those are the kind of qualities that, maybe, Field Day can express. Does this make any sense to you?
Yes, it does. Do you think that that sense of exile gives you access as an artist to a more fundamental and widespread sense of alienation? Yes, but the contradiction in that is that we are trying to make a home. So that we aspire to a home condition in some way. We don’t think that exile is practical. We think that exile is miserable in fact. And what’s constantly being offered to us, particularly in the North – and this is one of the problems for us – is that we are constantly being offered the English home; we have been educated by the English home, and we have been pigmented by an English home. To a much greater extent than you have been. And the rejection of all that, and the rejection into what, is the big problem.
What is home for you? Is it a sense of a group of people with a common purpose? Is that in itself going to give you some sense of belonging? I think now at this point it would, but once I would achieve it, and once it would be acquired, then I’d be off again.
There is in a way a contradiction for you, isn’t there, because it seems necessary for you as a writer to have a sense of being on the outside, and yet you’re striving with Field Day to transcend that? I think there is some kind of, there is the possibility of a cultural whole available to us – w-h-o-l-e, we’re living in the other one [ie, the hole]. How to achieve that and how to contribute to that is one of the big problems, and the problem is confused and compounded by the division of the island. It’s also confused by our proximity to England. You can’t possibly – and don’t even want to – jettison the whole English experience, but how to pick and choose what is valuable for us and what is health-giving for us, how to keep us from being a GAA republic, it’s a very delicate tiptoeing enterprise. I think the possibilities for your generation are better in some kind of way.
Doesn’t the whole Field Day project then depend on political nationalism and on the achievement of a united Ireland? I don’t think it should be read in those terms. I think it should lead to a cultural state, not a political state. And I think out of that cultural state, a possibility of a political state follows. That is always the sequence. It’s very grandiose, this, and I want to make notice of abdication quickly, but I think they are serious issues and big issues, and they are issues that exercise us all, the six of us [directors], very much. But you’ve also got to be very careful to retain some strong element of cynicism about the whole thing.
That presumably is very much part of The Communication Cord. Oh, that’s part of it. I want it to he seen in tandem with Translations.
Doesn’t the whole enterprise of Field Day, though, beg the question of the power of art to affect society? I mean, theatre is by and large peripheral. It’s just treated as another social event. But it’s got to succeed on that level. It’s got to succeed on that level first. You can’t suddenly say, “To hell with all those middle- class fur-coat people – f**k them out; we want the great unwashed.” You’ve got to take the material you have. There are other theatre groups who are into something else. If you’re into agitprop, or if you’re into political theatre, or if you’re into street theatre, that’s your enterprise. We’re not into that kind of enterprise. I think what we’re saying is: we’ll go to the people who are there, but we’ll talk to them in a certain kind of way. You know, we’re living with what we have. We’re trying to talk to them in a different voice, and we’re trying to adjust them to our way of thinking.
Doesn’t the health of the whole thing, though, need an audience that is capable of change? Do you believe that the current theatre audience, which tends to be middle class and to have certain expectations, is capable of being adjusted in this way? That’s truer in Dublin than it is elsewhere, because there is a theatrical experience and a theatrical tradition in Dublin. There is no theatrical tradition in Belfast. There’s very little anywhere else around the country. And this is, in some kind of a way, why it’s nice and cosy to say, you know, we get such a great response when we’re doing the one-night stands. That’s nice and easy. But in some way it’s true on a different kind of level, that these people watch you very carefully. They watch you almost as if we were cattle being paraded around on a fair day. They watch us with that kind of cool assessment. And they’re listening. I think they hear things in theatre because they haven’t been indoctrinated in the way a metropolitan audience is. They hear different sounds in a play. They are great audiences in a different kind of way to a Dublin theatre audience. Going back to your question – you say, you’re speaking to the same people. We’re not in fact speaking to the same people apart from Dublin. This is one of the reasons why we’re happy to go to Dublin and play for a week, and the only reason we would go and play for four weeks would be to make money which would fund us the next time around. It’s not a question at all of turning your back on the capital city, but we’re into something else, I think.
The Communication Cord is probably the most formally conservative play you’ve done for a long time. How important is a sense of form to you? There are people who would say that for a writer to be focusing so strongly, as you are, on the tools of his own trade, on language, is in some way incestuous, considering the urgency of so many things that need to be said. Do you think it’s a valid criticism?
I don’t think so personally, because I think the problem of language is a profoundly political one in itself. Particularly politics on this island, where you listen to a cabinet minister from Dublin and he’s speaking such a debased language that you wonder how in God’s name can this man have anything to do with your life at all. I think that is how the political problem of this island is going to be solved. It’s going to be solved by language in some kind of way. Not only the language of negotiations across the table. It’s going to be solved by the recognition of what language means for us on this island. Whether we’re speaking the kind of English that I would use, or whether we’re using the kind of English that Enoch Powell would use. Because we are in fact talking about accommodation, or marrying, of two cultures here, which are ostensibly speaking the same language but which in fact aren’t.
Your own work as a writer is very much bound up with that clash of cultures, and there’s the old cliche about times of trouble leading to a flowering of literature. Do you ever feel that you’re feeding off the suffering here? We’re looting the shop when it’s burning, you mean? I mean, this is often said, and it’s said of all the Northern poets particularly. I don’t know. The experience is there, it’s available. We didn’t create it, and it has coloured all our lives and adjusted all our stances in some way. What the hell can we do but look at it?