Brian Friel obituary: The most acclaimed Irish playwright of his generation best known for ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ and ‘Translations’

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The Independent Online

The work of Brian Friel unquestionably places him in the great tradition of Irish theatre, with a dramatic landscape as distinctive as those of his 20th century predecessors O’Casey and Beckett. Many of his plays travelled widely beyond Ireland, and some – the haunting monologue -structured Faith Healer, Translations and his worldwide success, Dancing at Lughnasa – will surely survive as classics.

 Most of the Irish stage greats of his era – Cyril Cusack, Donal Donnelly, Donal McCann, Ray McNally, Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson, Marie Kean, Rosaleen Linehan, Siobhan McKenna – appeared in Friel’s plays, which also provided rich roles for actors such as Ruth Gordon, Helen Mirren, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Fiennes, John Hurt, James Mason, Alec McCowen and Jason Robards.

Many of his plays take place in or evoke the past – tradition’s collision with the present or the future is a constant undertow – frequently set in isolated rural communities, with decaying mansions a recurrent setting, inhabited by characters with unfulfilled lives on the cusp of change. This, together with his concentration on character rather than crowded action, led to the repeated labelling of Friel as “the Irish Chekhov”; but while Friel, like Chekhov, also wrote short stories as well as translating several Chekhov plays and, in his later career, using Chekhov’s stories or characters for his own work, the label covers only an aspect of his output.

The “Chekhovian” plays may have provided him with a large part of his most commercially successful work but Friel was clear-eyed and could be a tough-minded writer. In a sense, with so much of his work scrutinising his characters’ lives against Ireland’s history, its colonial past and seismic shifts in their society, Friel was to a degree always a political writer. However, there was a marked change of gear in the early 1970s.

In the wake of Bloody Sunday he wrote The Freedom of the City (Dublin and London 1973, New York 1974), premiered at Ireland’s National Theatre, the Abbey – very different from previous work. Using a Brechtian “distancing” trial-format and a linking Balladeer figure to frame its focus on three innocent people trapped inside Derry’s Guildhall building during the 1972 civil rights protest, Friel produced a play which wrong-footed not a few critics.

A concomitant was Friel’s founding with Stephen Rea of the Field Day Company in 1980 ( Translations, in which Rea appeared, was its inaugural production), both to establish a major Northern Irish theatre company and to create “a fifth province” to focus on the schisms in Irish politics. Friel’s friend Seamus Heaney came on board. Field Day produced more than plays; pamphlets and an Anthology of Irish Writing were also part of the organisation’s focus on concepts of nationalism and colonialism as it took the temperature of the political situation and Ulster’s often violent history.

Field Day, with which Friel was involved for a decade, was based in Derry where Friel had lived, close to the border – a geographically significant place during the Troubles, its location reinforcing the old division between the east and the more rural west. Some of his most overtly “political” plays, including Making History (Derry and London, 1988), an unusually raw piece covering various legacies of colonisation using events from 16th century Ulster history such as the Battle of Kinsale, were produced originally by Field Day although throughout his career Friel also had work premiered in Dublin at the Abbey or the Gate.

There was little in his background to suggest a literary or theatrical career; Friel remained a retiring figure among show business’s flim-flam, rarely giving interviews, reluctant to comment in depth on his work.

Born in Killyclogher in Co Tyrone, Friel was educated in Derry and then for two years at St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, traditional training ground for the priesthood, before deciding on a career in education and a period at Belfast’s St Mary’s College. Throughout the 1950s he worked as a teacher, at 25 beginning a long and happy marriage which produced four daughters and a son. Once established as a writer after quitting teaching in 1960 he moved to the quiet countryside of  Donegal, which would remain his home.

Short stories, first appearing in the New Yorker (ever welcoming to Irish writers), and radio plays occupied Friel before his first significant play, The Enemy Within, a somewhat arid history play with a 7th century background, was produced at the Abbey in 1962; he did not return until 1973.

International success came with Philadelphia, Here I Come! (Dublin, 1964). One of Friel’s enduring pieces – revivals have confirmed its vitality –it is set in the rural Donegal community of Ballybeg (Baile Beag, “Small Place”) which would become a recurring landscape in his work. He adroitly fuses comedy and pathos in a rites-of-passage story of a young man, Gareth, during the long night’s journey into the day of his emigration to America. Friel splits his central character into two, Gar Public and Gar Private, the latter communicating Gar’s unvoiced thoughts, a potent device – especially when he tries to communicate with his emotionally costive father, peaking in an outstanding late scene in which both struggle to reach out to each other. The play is cunningly shaped to include flashbacks, including one of Friel’s funniest episodes with a visit from Gar’s voluble Aunt Lizzy.

Immediately subsequent plays were less commercially successful and sometimes bypassed mainstream London theatres, a particular loss in the case of Crystal and Fox (Dublin, 1968), an uneven but fitfully crackling tragi-comedy. The Loves of Cass McGuire (Dublin, 1968,), a reworking of a radio play, has a central character returning to a tight Irish community to rediscover the home she has dreamt of over half a century working among Skid Row characters in New York.

Other plays in these earlier years include the uncharacteristically broad-stroked satire of The Mundy Scheme (1969) which posits the Taoiseach in retreat at home with panic attacks while a wily ex-bookie Foreign Minister invents a scheme to save Ireland’s tottering economy by buying up rural graveyard plots on the cheap as development land.

After what some saw as an over-didactic strain in The Freedom of the City, in Volunteers (Dublin, 1975) Friel’s interest in myth was extended in a variation on the Phaedra story; in a riven Irish family, when war hero Frank returns from the Middle East the festivities collapse with the shattering discovery of his younger wife’s infidelity. In this powerful study of primal emotions, somewhat recalling Eugene O’Neill, Friel concentrates more on his Good Soldier’s sense of vainglory, ending in his suicide, than on the erotic triangle, again using a framing-device, a quasi-authorial figure who on occasion can intervene in the action.

A golden period saw Faith Healer (Dublin, 1979), Aristocrats (Dublin, 1979) and Translations (Derry, 1980), three major plays in succession. Faith Healer comprises four linked monologues, opening and closing with those from the titular travelling shaman/showman, with those from his sad wife (mourning a dead child) and his perky Cockney manager in between. As in 1995’s Molly Sweeney, another monologue-structured piece, this time centred round a blind woman and also mining the recurring Irish theme of exile, Friel superbly balances the variant viewpoints of the same events in the characters’ different voices; both plays are charged with much of Friel’s most effective muted poetry (the litany of place names in Faith Healer is memorably resonant).

Although Aristocrats opens with violent sounds – from offstage civil rights’ demonstrations in nearby Derry – the Chekhovian comparisons were especially pervasive. It is set in the dilapidated “Big House” on the edge of Ballybeg, inhabited by a once-influential and prosperous Catholic family; they still regard themselves through a romantic lens although gradually it becomes apparent that they are in fact trapped between two social and political worlds, as anatomised by a visiting American academic. Populated by some of Friel’s most individual characters, Aristocrats is sad, rueful and often very funny.

Translations is even more potent, remarkably layered but totally accessible, set in a hedge school in Ballybeg in 1833, interlocking a skein of themes of communication, language, Irish history and cultural imperialism. Friel uses language – Latin and Greek are spoken in the school – to highlight the way in which generational and cultural issues impact on communication, but his play is not remotely didactic; with one of its strands the delicately shaded love story of a young local girl (speaking only Irish) and an English soldier, this most richly characterised play remains one of Friel’s outstanding achievements.

Following the angry intensity of Making History, in Dancing at Lughnasa Friel returned to Ballybeg and lives of quiet desperation in the past of 1936 at the time of the festival of Lughnasadh, the Celtic harvest festival. It is a memory play, seen from the point of view of Michael Evans as he recalls the summer spent in the cottage of his five unmarried aunts also welcoming home their elderly brother Jack after his life as a missionary in Africa. As in Chekhov, while initially little seems to be happening, the tectonic plates beneath the characters’ lives and their world are shifting, with tensions between Catholic orthodoxy and the emotional paganism of some local people similar to that of the tribal world in Jack’s Uganda.

He was labelled ‘the Irish Chekhov’, but this covers only one aspect of his work

 

The tensions boil over in a scene involving a visit from Michael’s feckless travelling-salesman father with a fitfully-working “Marconi” which brings 1930s dance and folk music into the house, leading the women to take off into a wild outburst, a near-bacchanal of uninhibited dancing, for a while veiling the sense that their lives are irrevocably changing. This unforgettable episode, charging the theatre with exhilarating energy, fell flat by comparison in a strongly cast screen version (including Meryl Streep) which also fatally diminished its characters; the movie Jack has little of the sense of a character still capable of being surprised by joy, so powerful on stage.

Perhaps Lughnasa’s enormous success and multiple awards made it impossible for Wonderful Tennessee (1993) to match it (its Broadway run was brief). However, the play should rank with Friel’s finest. It sees six long-time friends, now middle-aged, on a Ballybeg pier awaiting a ferryman to take them over to an island, Oilean Draiochta (“The Island of Ourselves” – Friel’s original title was The Imagined Place).

With masterly skill Friel gradually reveals the problems and pressures – terminal illness, regret, suicidal despair – within the group, using the friends’ story-telling and songs as they wait the night through for the ferryman (who never arrives) as he dramatises that human yearning for something beyond ourselves but which still mystifies (Yeats’s work is briefly mentioned in the play). Ritual and ceremony become strong elements, most affectingly at the unusually affirmative close when, in the light of dawn, the exposed wounds are at least balmed as the friends build a cairn out of stones on the pier. Friel said that if Lughnasa suggested the necessity for paganism, then Wonderful Tennessee might deal with “the necessity for mystery”.

A similar seamless assurance stamped later plays as well as Friel’s excursions into translations and adaptations of other writers. The Home Place (2005) is set in 1878 Ballybeg against the background of Ireland’s Land War (at the opening the funeral of a local landlord murdered by revolutionaries is taking place offstage). A low-key, gentle play, The Home Place takes place in another “Big House”, the home of a well-intentioned English landlord, Christian (beautifully played by Tom Courtenay), whose Darwin-inspired anthropologist cousin has plans to use the science of eugenics to study and calibrate the local Irish, a plot woven alongside that of the complications caused by Christian and his son both falling in love with their housekeeper.

A relaxed buoyancy permeated Friel’s translations of Chekhov (he also produced a fine translation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler) and a version of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (1992); the latter concentrated less on the delicate “lacework” Stanislavsky saw in the play but teased out Turgenev’s sense of irrational obsession. He also worked in 1987 on Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons to create a robust play; the book’s fulcrum, the clash between tradition and change, and its setting of a crumbling country estate, made ideal Friel material.

As well as translating Chekhov plays, Friel wrote a play based on Chekhov’s short story The Lady with a Lapdog and another which used two characters from different Chekhov plays. The former, The Yalta Game (Dublin, 2009) , was included in Dublin’s Gate Theatre season for the writer’s 80th birthday; it is a beguiling reflection on the nature of the theatre’s artifice as two holidaymakers in the Crimean city speculate on the possible past lives of other tourists. In the brief and bittersweet Afterplay (Dublin and London, 2002) Friel brought Sonya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey from Three Sisters, moving them forward by a quarter of a century to a post-Revolution meeting in a dusty Moscow cafe.

Even these comparatively minor pieces or divertissements were informed by the unsentimental understanding of disappointed or unfulfilled lives and of self-deception and by the lucid compassion which underscored so much of Friel’s work over his long and constantly surprising career.

ALAN STRACHAN

Bernard Patrick (Brian) Friel, writer: born Killyclogher, County Tyrone 9 January 1929; married 1954 Anne Morrison (four daughters, one son); died Greencastle, County Donegal, Ireland 2 October 2015.

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