Brian Friel: The equal of Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter
Friel established himself as an heir to the silences of Beckett and father to the tradition of monologue drama
Brian Friel at his front door. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey
My introduction to Brian Friel’s work came in 1991, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, when I was taken for my 14th birthday to see Dancing at Lughnasa.
I had never seen a play like this before; I was growing up in an all-female household, and the community of Mundy sisters seemed to me not a fiction but an acknowledgment, where there were so few in Ireland at the time, that a cherished, loving and stimulating family life did not have to mean a father, mother and two children.
What stayed with me after the performance of that 1990 play, and, I am sure, for audiences around the world, was the Mundys’ mercurial combination of survival in the face of grinding poverty and irrepressible joy, most brilliantly projected in their wild and uncontrolled dance to the wireless’s ceílí music.
The beat of that music not only resounded within the Abbey that night but also went on to dominate international stages, as the play toured Ireland and then transferred to Broadway, where it ran for a year; it has since had countless productions around the world.
Now, 24 years later, when I teach the play (and many of my students have studied it for the Leaving Certificate) I can appreciate Friel’s craft more analytically, seeing how he places this explosive dance not at the end, as a climax, but relatively early in the play, as a way into the characters.
Students love this play, and it lures them in; through the universal theme of family, and Michael’s nostalgia for his childhood, they also have to grapple with ideas of community, in particular how communities define insiders and outsiders. It is a play that they feel at home with but that still challenges them (and me).
This is a hallmark of Friel’s work: audiences fall in love with the characters and their recognisable flaws, from the Mundy sisters’ exuberance to the heady romance of Máire and Yolland in Translations, from 1980, while they are challenged to think about key issues, particularly the challenge of communication.
Indeed, across all his plays the losses incurred by the failure to communicate amount to the greatest flaw of – and, even, sin committed by – Friel’s characters, and never more so than in his breakthrough play Philadelphia, Here I Come!, from 1964.
In this play Friel splintered the traditional kitchen-set Irish play, in particular splitting the character of Gareth into Gar Public and Gar Private, as Gareth’s two selves wrestle out the emotions of leaving home.
Again this is a play that resonated not only in 1960s Ireland but also internationally, with huge Broadway success (which confirmed for Friel the decision to make playwriting his day job).
Now, I think, we take for granted Friel’s significance not only in the canon of Irish drama but also internationally, with his works standing equally alongside those of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter, all playwrights of the everyday tragedies of families strangled by the failure to communicate.
Although the impulse towards love is so often frustrated in Friel’s work, audiences are always aware that this is the subtext. Perhaps this is most memorably staged in Translations, in which Máire and Yolland declare their love for one another in different languages. Their love story is, of course, played out against the background of great social and cultural (colonial) change – change that the lovers can neither bridge nor transcend.
This conflict, between the external world and the internal self, exercised Friel throughout his career, and is central also to plays from The Freedom of the City (1973) – partly a response to Bloody Sunday – to The Home Place (2005).
Perhaps Friel’s greatest work is Faith Healer, from 1979, which, ironically, was not greeted with plaudits at its first appearance; although it starred James Mason, it flopped on Broadway, its lack of plot and action failing to engage its first audiences.
In Faith Healer Friel makes the silences between and within families overt, so that Grace, Frank and Teddy speak only to us, their auditors and confessors, and never to each other.
With Faith Healer and later, in 1994, Molly Sweeney Friel established himself as an heir to the silences of Beckett and, also in the 1990s, as a father to the tradition of monologue drama.
Ultimately, audiences respond to Friel’s plays, from the ground-breaking Philadelphia to his later reflective “chamber” plays Afterplay, from 2002, and Performances, from 2003, because, although the characters on stage may seem lost, we know we are secure. Friel takes great risks dramatically and emotionally, challenging his art and his audience – but, ever the consummate story spinner, he ensures we are never left adrift ourselves.
Friel is, luckily, not a writer whose work went unrecognised in his lifetime: he lived to see his work celebrated at home and abroad, with festivals of his work, frequent revivals and new international productions from Glenties to London to New York.
Friel’s papers are held by the National Library of Ireland; alongside his published plays, and our memories of their many productions, he has given this country a great legacy: of saying the words that matter. Emilie Pine teaches modern drama and Irish studies at University College Dublin