Brian Friel: Seven key plays
From Philadelphia Here I Come! to The Home Place, Peter Crawley selects Friel’s finest
Aisling O’Neill as Chris, Andrea Irvine as Kate and Derbhle Crotty as Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa at the Gate Theatre, 2004. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
David Parnell and Darragh Kelly as Gar Public and Gar Private in Philadelphia Here 1 Come! at the Abbey in 1995. Photograph: Paddy Whelan/The Irish Times
Mark Lambert as Casimir and Donna Dent as Alice in the Gate Theatre’s production of Aristocrats in 1999. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Brenda Scallon and Liam Neeson in Translations. Photograph: Rod Tuach.
Ralph Fiennes in Faith Healer. Photograph: Anthony Woods
Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964): Friel’s breakthrough as a dramatist was also a milestone for Irish theatre. The story of a young man on the eve of emigration from a small town in Donegal – our first introduction to Friel’s brilliantly imagined Ballybeg – was hardly radical, but its formal rupture brought a frenetic energy to a familiar glimpse of a depressed Ireland. Splitting his protagonist in two, where the inhibited Gar Public gives free rein to the lampooning, rebellious, emotionally articulate Gar Private, Friel found dramatic charge and deep poignancy in a poverty of expression where a taciturn father and an abashed son can share neither memories nor words of affection, and the promise of the United States presents no easy way out.
The Freedom of the City (1973): Largely a response to the awful events of Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers killed 13 civilians during a civil-rights march in Derry (in which Friel himself had walked), and the subsequent Widgery report’s military exoneration, The Freedom of the City seemed an urgent response. Staged barely a year after the events, but deliberately set three years earlier, its depiction of three victims accidentally bivouacked in Derry Guildhall and mistaken for terrorists satirised political distortions of the truth.
The marchers’ own story is interspersed with verbatim quotes from the tribunal, mythologising ballads, political sermons and media platitudes. A divisive production when it opened, the play marked a sharpened political focus in Friel’s work and a fixation with the drama of misrepresentation.
Aristocrats (1979): One of Friel’s most overtly Chekhovian plays, recalling the fading family of The Cherry Orchard, Friel’s drama gave the leisured classes a uniquely Irish setting, imagining the remnants of the Catholic gentry in a crumbling big house in Ballybeg. The isolated and declining O’Donnell family are studied by a visiting American academic, initially in thrall to family lore of famous visitors but increasingly sceptical of the tall tales of their eccentric son, Casimir. In the meantime an unseen father, a retired judge, disintegrates offstage as the traumas and secrets of his children are steadily brought to light – and from which, finally, they may be delivered.
Faith Healer (1979): The avalanche of Irish monologue plays since Friel has not muted the ambition or achievement of this 1979 masterpiece. Told in four successive but dissenting accounts by three speakers – the consummate performer (or dazzling huckster) Frank Hardy, his wife and their English manager, Teddy – the play traces the mixed fortunes of their touring show and a fateful homecoming, but it is also as a meditation on the creative act. Like the dubious performance of faith healing itself, magic can sometimes happen or sometime falter. Symbolic and profound, the play itself might serve as evidence: it bombed on Broadway but later created a theatrical legend in Donal McCann’s celebrated Abbey performance, and it is now widely considered to be Friel’s greatest work.
Translations (1980): The inaugural production of Field Day, the Derry-based touring company founded by Friel and the actor Stephen Rea, was not so much a premiere as the initiation of a movement. Set in a hedge school in Baile Beag, in 1833, while the British Ordnance Survey of Ireland steadily maps, renames and anglicises each location (and the sweet smell in the air is the looming potato blight), it is an exquisite and cerebral drama about colonialism and cultural erosion, measured out in the shifts within language and the mingling of tribes. With a doomed love affair and violent clashes between two people who can’t understand each other, its wide appeal and distant travels opened up a direction towards Field Day’s imagined “fifth province”.
Dancing at Lughnasa (1990): After The Communication Cord, a farce on sentimental nationalism, and Making History, a revisionist reading of Hugh O’Neill, Friel turned to more personal matters for this hugely successful memory play, first staged by the Abbey. Casting his mind back to the summer of 1936, the adult narrator, Michael, summons visions of repression and release, none more indelible than the celebrated dance of the five unmarried Mundy sisters – as insurgent and possessed as their new Marconi wireless or the pagan allure of the harvest festival. The play could be seen through a nostalgic glow, as a celebration of “those five brave Glenties women” (in Friel’s dedication), or as something more complex: a pivot point of cultural change and family tragedy, held beautifully in the mind.
The Home Place (2005): Although he would write one more new version of an existing play for the Gate Theatre with 2007’s Hedda Gabler, The Home Place stands as Friel’s final original play. A historical drama, set in 1878, among the Anglo Irish ascendency, where love is miscommunicated or unreturned and an isolated family stands on the brink of extinction, it in many ways returns to many of the playwright’s concerns. Presiding over Ballybeg’s estate, the Lodge, amid the growing unrest of the Land War and the colonial provocations of eugenic study, the Protestant Gore family are ill adapted for survival. As in the cherry orchard of Chekhov’s Ranyevskaya estate, they mark surrounding trees for destruction, accidentally smearing the patriarch. Elegiac and unsentimental to the last, Friel found another order, uprooted and ripe for the axe.