Thomas Kilroy: I have lost a close friend in Brian Friel. The country has lost a great dramatist

In 1969 I heard for the first time the irreverent voice, the marvellous mimicry, of the man behind the plays

I first met Brian in 1969, in Mary Lavin's house in Bective, Co Meath, by the River Boyne. That evening I heard for the first time the witty, irreverent voice, the storytelling, the marvellous mimicry, of the man behind the plays. He was already a leading playwright of the English-speaking stage with Philadelphia, Here I Come!, The Loves of Cass Maguire and Lovers.

I had just had a first production of my own play The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche at Dublin Theatre Festival. Much to my astonishment a well-known New York agent arrived on my doorstep in Dublin waving a letter from a well-known New York producer, offering me a Broadway production of the play. I hadn't a clue what to make of any of this. "Brian Friel will give us advice," Mary said. He most certainly did, with many swooping asides on the shark-infested waters lapping the Broadway theatres. The word of an agent meant nothing. Nor did the promises of a producer. All that mattered in theatre was the signed contract. He was right, of course. Not for the last time, Brian had brought me down to earth. He had also displayed a tough understanding of what commercial theatre was all about.

For those, like myself, who saw the first, lucid production by Hilton Edwards of Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Gaiety Theatre in 1964 the shock was not that of new material. This was yet another play about the Irish family in its familiar Irish domestic interior. What was startling was the modernity of its treatment, in particular the sophisticated intelligence of the writer. In his stage directions he calls for a fluidity in the use of space and movement, and this is the key to the play's originality. At once Irish theatre would never be quite the same again. This success was to be repeated across the decades with Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) like a brilliant trajectory across the face of world theatre.

I have lost a close friend. But the country has lost a great dramatist.


Faith Healer is a sublime work of theatrical imagination that is also an achievement of high, literary art. You don't often get the two together. Like many great works of art it creates its own distinctive form, a group of monologues in direct address to the audience. This, of course, conflicts with the traditional mode of narrative in drama, a fact that bothered the first audience and critics of the play in New York. Friel had to educate his audiences in how to read his play.

We saw one another regularly, made some memorable trips together and, of course, wrote letters. There must be a couple of hundred letters between us over the years, and many of these were on the work and the exchange of plays-in-progress. He was a great letter-writer and, like Mr Beckett, a master of the postcard. The postcard often carried a single, hilarious one-liner. It came through the letter box like a burst of laughter. On one occasion he sent one such from what was clearly a trying holiday sojourn at a French gite. “Out of here in one week,” the message read, “depending upon good behaviour.”

The first thing he sent me of Faith Healer was a single monologue of Frank Hardy, in effect a distilled version of the two Hardy monologues of the finished play. It was a privilege to be so close to him in the writing development of this great work. What he did was to prise that first monologue apart, expanding the resulting two new monologues of Hardy. Between these he placed the newly written monologues of Grace and Teddy, and the work was complete.

What was fascinating was to observe Brian discovering the two haunting, central stories of the play in the process of this rewriting, the miracle-making, if such it can be called, in the old Methodist hall and the bloody miscarriage at Kinlochbervie. I remember thinking, as you do before all great writing in draft form, that the possibilities here were endless, that a final structure would, indeed, give it a finished quality but that its echoes would continue off in different directions into the shadows, defying finality.


Some of his letters were about my own plays. He could be razor sharp in dealing with a work's limitations but was also generous with work that he admired. I remember one long fax – he loved the fax machine, perhaps because of its speed – about a play of mine called The Shape of Metal, which had its own difficulties in production. He was fascinated by the lead character, Nell, in that play, and he helped me to find her voice.

There was a particular flurry of letters during the early days of Field Day. In October 1982 he wrote a long letter to me reporting on a meeting at Annaghmakerrig at which the Field Day board was expanded. Seamus Deane, Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin and David Hammond joined himself and Stephen Rea on the board. I had not joined the board yet, but clearly I was involved in discussions with the group.

Literary role

The first thing he talked about in the letter was the effect on Field Day of the expansion of the board. The newcomers were not, in any obvious way, theatre people, although two of them, Heaney and Paulin, went on to write extremely effective stage plays. What Brian is talking about here, however, is the way the enterprise was now taking on a new intellectual, literary role. He wrote:

“It was a good get to-gether in Monaghan. The presence and authority of the four non-theatre people (the two Seamuses, Tom Paulin and David Hammond) is very important to Stephen and me. (Maybe more important to me than Stephen – the actor is thoroughbred theatre, the dramatist only half-bred.) But they have a sense that a) they don’t, can’t contribute enough and b) their only contribution could be literary. So we spent most of the time discussing the b) option with suggestions that I’d like to talk about to you and, if they attract you, would involve you.”

I was obviously talking to them at this point about how Field Day might develop, and I must have made some comments to him about the burden of the Northern conflict and its toll on artists from the North. In response he produced an extraordinary statement about his own relationship to England and English culture:

“When you say that FD has to transcend the particulars of the North and the weary and wearing squabble between neighbours you must know a part of me applauds heartily and spontaneously. Of course the quarrel is shabby and demeaning and has blighted a portion of the spirit that might have blossomed in a different climate. I hate it. And I hate the way it has inverted and diverted us. I think what I hate most is that it has diminished in me an open and comprehensive response to so much of England’s richness. But then I can’t deny either that the same particulars have fashioned and pigmented me. Nor can I deny the certainties of instinct. Oh, shit! Then I think: Isn’t it better than being born in Zurich? Let us fly away up together, my friend, and float about weightless in the Disinterested Passion out there.”

What we have to remember is that when my generation started out, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was hostility, a palpable resistance to Irish plays among London managements. We had plays performed there, but there was the clear indication from English reviewers that, somehow, Irish plays didn’t call for serious attention. Brian Friel and Field Day did an enormous amount to turn that around, unlocking that scene for other writers and other theatre companies in the future.

Cathedral cities

One of the trips that we talked about taking together was, at Brian’s own suggestion, a tour of the cathedral cities of England. I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I very much regret now that it never happened. We did make some great theatre trips, though, together with our wives, Anne and Julie, to Stratford, Paris, Berlin and, most memorably, Moscow. In each centre, doors were opened before him and people waited to meet him.

We also shared a passion for Chekhov. He was to give a more comprehensive expression of this in his own work than I did in mine. We made a number of Chekhovian pilgrimages, including to the writer's estate at Melikhovo, north of Moscow. I had a particular interest in going there. It was here, in a small, pretty wooden house on the grounds with an outside stairs to the top floor, that Chekhov wrote The Seagull.

But the big event was our journey to Yalta in 2008. This journey to the Crimean coast revealed many of the stresses that have since come to the surface in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The conflict had even reached the main house of the two Chekhov houses in Yalta, with neither government taking full responsibility for the upkeep of the house. This is the White Dacha that in Chekhov’s day stood in the countryside but is now surrounded by the town. Unfortunately, only part of the house was open, and even that showed neglect.

But the garden was entirely Chekhovian, planted with cedar, cypress and magnolia. He also planted 100 roses there in memory of Pushkin. The garden still has its roses. Gorky’s garden seat is still there in a corner. There is a famous photograph of the two writers sitting on it.

Chekhov craved isolation. At some point he fled the White Dacha and moved to a shack up the coast that he bought from a Tartar farmer in a locality called Gurzuf. With the help of a friendly taxi man we found it. The taxi had to be abandoned before the end of the trip, and we walked over the steep cliff to the end of the pathway. The shack was above a lovely, small beach on the Black Sea. Just a couple of rooms, no more. But there was the monastic, single bed and the desk, the walking stick, the elegant gloves and scarf and, most movingly for Brian, the first page of Three Sisters in Chekhov's handwriting, in a glass frame on the wall with other memorabilia of the distant Moscow Arts Theatre.

When we got home he wrote a letter to me about this experience: “I felt that perhaps in Gurzuf we did lift the veil; there certainly was a presence there. But – as is altogether appropriate – there was another veil behind that one and we got no further. Fair enough. The man retained his mystery.”

Chekhov left the shack to his wife, Olga. Apparently she loved to sunbathe on that little beach. Brian spent a long time standing by the stairs, looking down into the beach.

I like to think that he saw Olga there, turning as she heard Chekhov coming down the stairs in his straw hat, his approach signalled by that tubercular cough.

Thomas Kilroy's plays include The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche, Talbot's Box and Double Cross