Colm Tóibín on a time of theatrical miracles for Brian Friel

With the opening, in 1979 and 1980, of three extraordinary plays – ‘Aristocrats’, ‘Translations’ and ‘Faith Healer’ – Brian Friel became one of the great playwrights of his age

The two years 1979 and 1980 came, courtesy of Brian Friel, as a time of miracles and sheer theatrical excitement for Irish audiences. In the early summer of 1980 an actor friend showed me the script of a new Friel play called Translations. In one sitting that afternoon I caught my first sight of what will remain one of the best pieces of writing for the theatre anyone will ever create. In that first reading I was overwhelmed by the polished structure of the play, the way in which innocence and irony and then love and beauty and then cruelty and hardness are conjured with and dramatised.

At first the changing of the names of the places in Ireland seems, in Translations, almost an innocent task, something that has to be done, but slowly it becomes almost insidious in the mixture of the carefree and careless way it is being carried out, and then the seriousness of the intent. And these names of places also become the bedrock for the great love scene in the play, and then appear once more when the places themselves, as they are named once more, are threatened by what is, in fact, a conquering army.

As with some of his earlier work, it was notable how Brian Friel had managed to create both a deeply political work that would takes its bearings from history and conflict in Ireland and, at the same time, would use the stage as an alternative space, where illusions could be created and self-delusions could have the force of comedy or tragedy or quick playful movement between the two.

Miraculous time

Friel’s style was restless; it was ready to change and shift; it was ready to release energy for the sheer sake of it and then force that energy to undergo every possible dark pressure.

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Those two years – 1979 and 1980 – remain a miraculous time not only for Friel, but for Irish theatre itself, which he remade in his image. With the opening of Aristocrats at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in March 1979, with John Kavanagh playing Casimir; and with the opening of Translations in Derry, which included Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally; and with one of the most extraordinary events I have ever witnessed in the theatre – Donal McCann as Frank Hardy in Friel's Faith Healer, which opened at the Abbey, directed by Joe Dowling, in August 1980 – Friel became one of the great playwrights of his age.

I have a vivid memory of sitting at the very back of the old balcony of the Abbey as the fourth monologue of Faith Healer began, the one when Frank Hardy returns. I suddenly realised that he was speaking from the dead, that he was going to describe his own death. However the play was lit and directed, however Donal McCann began to speak the words, however the words were written, the space around McCann began to lift and shiver; the space began to transform itself until he did too. The actor seemed both there speaking and, at the same time, to be part of some ghost world.

Years later, when I was researching the relationship between Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge and the Abbey, I realised that this play by Brian Friel, which I had witnessed in the theatre they founded, was beyond their dream of what Ireland could imagine, what Ireland could be. Friel had become their match, their equal, as he would become the way the rest of us would learn to measure the world.