Eileen Battersby on Friel: ‘Astonishing, a privilege’

‘Our world is better for having had Brian Friel in it and now seems a lot smaller’

It all began with a note, welcoming me to sit in on the dress rehearsal of the revival of his masterwork, Faith Healer.

Brian Friel said it would be a good experience, and "nice to share". Seldom has the word "nice" been so understated; it was astonishing, a privilege, and an honour.

The background to the note has a bit of a story to it. Mercurial actor Donal McCann was preparing to return after a decade of difficult living to one of the most compelling roles in modern theatre, that of Frank Hardy, seer or conman, fallen angel or malevolent sprite, or a combination of all things. Hardy is Friel’s portrait of the artist, any artist.

McCann had cooked me Irish stew and insisted I ate it, I said I didn’t eat meat. He looked annoyed and heaved a great sigh: he was a genius and a bit overwhelming, playful and intimidating, with a chaotic flamboyance that kept one guessing.


‘Clean the plate’

After a pause, he announced it wouldn’t kill me to eat it after the effort he’d gone to cooking it, and added if I didn’t “clean the plate” he wouldn’t even bother asking Brian Friel if I could attend the rehearsal, “they happen behind locked doors you know.”

Down went the mutton. The next day a note was delivered to the office, the old one in D’Olier Street. Brian Friel’s invitation was polite and to the point: “You might like to join us; actors are interesting to watch when they are preparing.” On meeting him a few nights later in the Abbey, Brian Friel smiled his countryman’s smile and said in a low voice: “You needn’t have eaten that stew.”

He said he was glad that I had liked Dancing at Lughnasa so much - I had reviewed the British premier that October at the Lyttleton, part of the National Theatre complex at London’s Southbank, which had followed the Irish premier in April 1990. Then he asked, again in a whisper, how I “managed” with Mr McCann. He spoke like a concerned father, perplexed by a gifted if wayward son.

It was late 1990 and the Abbey theatre auditorium was in darkness and empty, aside from the small cluster of activity near the stage and just beyond it. Brian Friel sat very still, watching it all, I felt really privileged. Joe Dowling was the director; Friel pointed him out to me and said "There's the man in charge."

Ironically up to then although I had read Faith Healer several times, the first time I ever saw it performed was that night, at the dress rehearsal. It was magic, like having a private showing - I kept reminding myself that the dress rehearsal was not done for me. I was nervous about admitting that I had not actually seen the play, but felt I should confess, perhaps expecting to be forgiven. It sounds corny at this time when Ireland and the world is lamenting the loss of a great playwright and his family are grieving for him, but of the many writers and artists my job has given me access Brian Friel in common with Seamus Heaney was one of those special people, rare humans who have a goodness about them. Our world is better for having had Brian Friel in it and now seems a lot smaller. Heaney, Friel and William Trevor, where do these special humans emerge from?

Friel was fatherly, kind, practical and funny. He seemed to look deep into the centre of things.

A few nights later at the opening night performance as the audience responded and the theatre was full, so much warmer, I remembered the darkness of the dress rehearsal when it was so quiet I was conscious of being able to hear the breathing of the man who had written the play, as he sat, watching his work come to life.

Secretly I preferred being at the dress rehearsal, it was a gift I had been given. The lighting desk was directly behind us so it was easy to see Friel's face as he replied that it was good to read plays and see how the words stood up without actors to help them. "I also used to write stories" he said. When The Gallery Press re-issued his Selected Stories in 1994, the cover a Basil Blackshaw portrait of a stern-faced Friel, a hint of a fox about it, intelligent and wary. Brian Friel sent me a hardback copy with another of his nicely typed notes - by then I had a few, - he wrote that he thought I might like to read them. I had the first edition but it was a thrill to receive the book from him.

Ivan Turgenev

Before that though, a couple of years earlier, he had spoken to me about his relationship with the work of Ivan Turgenev. It was shortly before his version of Turgenev's A Month in the Country opened at the Gate Theatre. For Friel the Russians, Turgenev and Chekhov had changed the face of European drama. Some five years earlier, in 1987, he had "made a play" of Turgenev's great novel Fathers and Sons (1861). He said he always felt a closeness to the 19th century Russians. "I don't feel at all distant from their world." It is true, Aristocrats (1979) for all its Irishness, is a Russian play in all but setting. He grasped the spirit and sensibility of the Russian masters.

He described Turgenev as “a decent man” who courageously risked more in his life than in his art.” Of the many qualities Friel possessed as a writer was his sense of responsibility, he looked to the political and his theatre openly confronted the tribal politics of his native Ulster when Irish novelists were looking elsewhere. To my question of why he had been drawn to re-working A Month in the Country, Friel’s response was deliberate and exact: “I find the process - the exercise - of translating, both interesting and satisfying. Because you are presented with a complete fiction - given characters, given situations. Your ‘creative’ responsibilities are circumscribed. You may present the characters with situations, not in the original, but if you do, these characters must still be subjected to Turgenev’s psychological imperatives.” For Friel his first duty was to “transpose the text into a key that is comfortably within the range of Irish actors, using Irish accents.”

The second time we had lunch, I paid although he put up a struggle. “Thank you very kindly - as my mother-in-law used to say” said the note that followed a day later.

On a cold April day in 2006 before John McGahern’s funeral, Brian Friel stood beside me as we noticed a car parked badly on a grassy bank. “It’ll be rightly stuck” he said, “You’re the one with the jeep. We need rope.’’ I had some but he said we had to wait and find the driver. “You can do nothing without the keys.” He said John McGahern would have been amused at the notion of us hauling a car from the ditch at his funeral. But later, the service was beginning.

Inside the small church he sat with Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, all looked upset, but Friel's expression was one of quiet sadness. Afterwards we went looking for the stranded car but it was gone. There had been a lunch in Carrick and later, when it was dark, I returned to the grave. On the way up the little hill on the approach to the church yard an owl swooped down low, white against the black sky in the car lights. Some months later I told him about the ghostly owl and he had nodded, saying little yet would mention it a few times in subsequent encounters. We agreed it was a symbol.

Again at another burial, Benedict Kiely’s, less than a year later in February 2007; we waited in a vicious wind, outside the graveyard at Omagh. When Kiely’s elder sister, and only surviving sibling Kathleen, one week short of 94 at that time and devastated at the death of her baby brother, arrived, sitting in the passenger seat, weary from a long day, down to Dublin for the service and then back for the internment, Brian Friel leaned in over the car door, and touched her arm, gently, saying “I was a friend of Ben’s.” Just that, a smile of sympathy and he stood away, leaving a family to grieve in private.

In response to a piece I wrote about Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, he sent me a lovely Faber edition of his Fathers and Sons - After Turgenev with a sweet inscription, that was signed Brian - nothing more.

A shared love of Chekhov has created many bonds and friendships between people of all kinds for the past 100 years or so, I have Friel’s versions of Uncle Vanya and of Three Sisters in their elegant Gallery Press editions.

Early in 2010, he sent me Three Plays After and dated it St Brigid’s Day - “the beginning of Spring.” The Yalta Game is a dramatised version of The Lady with The Little Dog. “We did it in the Gate with Ciaran Hinds and Kelly Reilly - and they were magnificent. Afterplay is a conceit: what if Andrey from Three Sisters and Sonya from Uncle Vanya were to met up years after their respective plays ended?” He concluded with his usual quick wit: “The Bear is just a piece of nonsense. Anyhow you may enjoy them…..” And I did.

Mourning will continue

The mourning will continue and the work will live. Brian Friel who endured the loss of his daughter Paddy in 2012, will be remembered with love, respect and admiration. It will be wonderful though if his artistic daring, innovation, loyalty to his country and instinct are also celebrated - as they will be. Most of all though, there is his humour and a comic timing second to none.