Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168
Brian Friel (freel), born Bernard Patrick Friel, is an important literary figure who secured for himself a place among Ireland’s great dramatists. His writing is always powerful, his characters’ struggles always provocative.
Friel was educated first at Derry’s Long Tower School, where his father taught, and later at St. Columb’s College. He then attended Maynooth College in Kildare until 1948, when he left for St. Joseph’s Teacher Training College in Belfast. A Derry schoolteacher for ten years, Friel left the profession in 1960 to turn his efforts entirely to writing. During his ten-year teaching stint, however, Friel was writing stories for The New Yorker and radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). His work was met with enthusiasm: He received the Arts Council Macaulay Fellowship, and in 1965 he was appointed shareholder of the Abbey Theatre. Friel has been a member of the Irish Academy of Letters since 1972, and in 1979, he received an honorary degree from the University of Chicago. A founder of the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980, Friel nurtured Irish letters by writing and producing plays and publishing pamphlets that debate aspects of Irish history, politics, and culture.
A Doubtful Paradise is Friel’s first produced play, but the earliest play he regards as successful is The Enemy Within, performed at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1962. Two years later, his highly acclaimed Philadelphia, Here I Come! played at the Dublin Theatre Festival. It was then moved to Broadway, where it enjoyed a long and seasoned run in 1966. A play about the exile of character Gareth O’Donnell from the dreary life of Ballybeg, Ireland, Philadelphia, Here I Come! is centered on the eve of his voyage to the United States at the invitation of his aunt; it is a poignant portrayal of the young man’s coming to terms with the relationships between him and his uncommunicative father, his dead mother, and his lost sweetheart, Kathy Doogan. Arguably one of the classics of contemporary Irish theater, Philadelphia, Here I Come! dramatizes with humor and psychology the leave-taking of an emigrant. It is also the play that introduced Friel to an international public.
Among his most notable plays in the late 1960’s and 1970’s were Crystal and Fox, The Freedom of the City, Volunteers, and the highly acclaimed Faith Healer. In Crystal and Fox, Friel presents the character Fox Melarkey, a traveling showman, through a series of caustic rejections that lead him inevitably to destroy his traveling show in an effort to recover an incomprehensible past.
The Freedom of the City is one of Friel’s more overtly political dramas. Set in Londonderry in 1970, the drama unfolds as an unauthorized civil rights march is scattered with the help of tear gas. Three demonstrators take cover in the mayor’s parlor in the town hall, but their number is inflated, through rumor, to forty, and they are besieged by tanks. After they surrender in accordance with instructions shouted from a loudspeaker, holding their hands high above their heads, they are shot. Like The Freedom of the City, many of Friel’s plays are rooted in Ireland, but a number of his later plays concern themselves with the larger issue of history, particularly the writing and creation of history and one’s relationship to it.
Faith Healer, for example, is as much a drama about the artist’s relationship to his community as it is about historiography, the writing of history. Just as art has become cubist in the twentieth century, so, too, has history—it is pieced together, fragmented. A four-act play consisting of four disjointed monologues, Faith Healer details the experiences of Frank, the faith healer; Grace, his wife; and Teddy, Frank’s promotional warm-up man. Dramatically, the trio recounts the story of their short lives together, each describing very differently the events leading up to one fateful night, a faith healing “performance” in Ballybeg. Frank Hardy’s faith healing, which sometimes works and sometimes fails, is a brilliant metaphor for the unintelligible nature of the artistic muse that inspires, abandons, and sometimes destroys its own. As a faith healer, Hardy moves among the crippled, the blind, the disfigured, the deaf, and the barren—those very figures who attract the artist. These figures make up the grotesques of literature, whom writers try to adjust, refashion, and re-create in their art.
In 1980, Friel produced Translations, a play set in late August, 1833. The action takes place in a hedge school attended by the local community in the town of Baile Beag/Ballybeg, an Irish-speaking community in Donegal. Translations dramatizes the change in culture effected in Ireland by the establishment of British-sponsored, English-language primary education in 1831. Taking place nearby is Great Britain’s first Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and the plot centers on the comical but jarring ritual of naming and the resulting “translations” of Ballybeg’s local Gaelic place-names. A play focused on language, emigration, and colonialism, Translations comments on all three issues while it successfully depicts the scholarship of the nineteenth century Irish.
The love story in Translations between Maire, a young Ballybeg woman, and Yolland, a British soldier, reflects the larger clash of cultures. Friel skillfully uses this technique again in Making History, set before and after the Irish defeat at Kinsale in 1601. Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, marries an Englishwoman whose family has settled in Ireland, Mabel Bagenal, the sister of Queen Elizabeth’s marshal and the daughter of the retired marshal. Friel demonstrates that, no matter what actions O’Neill takes thereafter, history is still written and interpreted by those in power. Despite O’Neill’s insistence that his biography be “the truth,” portraying him as “the schemer, the leader, the liar, the statesman, the lecher, the patriot, the drunk, [and] the soured, bitter émigré” he maintains himself to be, Archbishop Lombard (O’Neill’s self-appointed biographer) instead creates a history that presents O’Neill as a near-mythical national hero for Gaelic Ireland. Just as in Translations, Friel examines the true power of language to make, and remake, history and culture.
Culture is again a focus in Dancing at Lughnasa. Here Friel returns to Ballybeg as a setting, this time in August, 1936. The Mundy family is viewed through the memories of Michael, the narrator. The adult Michael recalls his childhood home, where he was the only child in a houseful of unmarried adults: his mother, her four sisters, and their brother, an excommunicated priest recently returned from a mission in Uganda. Interweaving rumors of pagan Celtic rituals (the play takes place during the feast of Lugh, the sun god), Catholicism, and Jack’s knowledge of native Ugandan rituals (his suspected participation was the cause for his dismissal from the priesthood), Friel creates a cross-cultural matrix that conveys a new outlook on the Irish colonial situation. In Molly Sweeney, Friel returns to a dramatic structure similar to that of Faith Healer, using a set of monologues rather than dialogue. Three characters, including Molly, describe the miraculous restoration of her sight at age forty.
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