The death of dramatist and storyteller Brian Friel
His words came from a place where his keen sense of language picked up the cadences of poetry
Brian Friel would have been the last person to see himself as a national cultural icon. He was not only that but also a national voice – he did once suggest that the dramatist is someone who delivers “a public address”, whose language is a “public canticle”. Since the first production of his brilliantly inventive Philadelphia Here I Come in 1964 (as relevant today as when he wrote it) Friel has been the dominant storyteller on the contemporary Irish stage. With that early play he not only arrived to set the standard but presented himself as a master of the essence, grammar and wisdom of great theatre.
Since then he has ennobled the stage with some of the most memorable scenes and characters in Irish drama. Through those characters Friel’s insightful and forensic mind has conducted its quest for an understanding of a world without sureties, of what he once referred to as “the dark and private places of individual souls”.
His work did much to redefine Irish theatre and re-establish its international reputation after some decades of stagnation. It also elevated its themes. His virtuosity and scope of vision was demonstrated in a succession of plays that has enriched not only the canon but also the emotional and intellectual lives of theatre-goers: Translations, Dancing at Lughnasa, Making History, Aristocrats, The Freedom of the City, as well as those versions of Chekhov and Turgenev in which his Russian masters found an accommodating alternative home place.
With his masterwork Faith Healer he produced what playwright Tom Kilroy called “one of the great theatrical texts of our time in the English language”. Friel once said about his art that “words are at the very core of it all”. His words came from a place where his keen sense of language picked up the cadences of poetry.
Friel’s genius – for that is what it was – was his ability to cross and re-cross boundaries, into history, identity, politics, the tragedies of miscommunication and exclusion, the worlds of the aristocrat and civil rights protester, and the intimate and large-scale zones of family life and nationhood.
Ballybeg, that intimate, mythical place of memory and metaphor, and the setting for so many of his major dramas, has been the personal Ithaca to which he always returned. In imagining and animating that make-believe corner of Donegal he contrived a microcosm of the universal struggle against outer and inner forces.
His great gift was giving speech to characters who otherwise might have remained taciturn in the face of that struggle. In Translations, Friel has his character Hugh tell us to remember that words “are not immortal”. It could be said that he got it wrong when it comes to his own words which have been deeply and indelibly etched into a place of permanence in the theatre of the sublime.