Brian Friel Drama Analysis
Brian Friel’s dramatic output, wide-ranging in subject matter though it is, possesses a notable consistency of theme, tone, and attitude to the stage. Whether a Friel play’s pretext is the mission of St. Columbia, Derry’s patron saint, to the island of Iona in the sixth century (The Enemy Within), or the living room of decaying gentlefolk (Aristocrats), a hedge school in nineteenth century rural Ireland (Translations), or the encampment of a traveling show (Crystal and Fox or rather differently, Faith Healer), familiar themes recur. Their recurrence, however, is invariably fresh, given new life by the author’s unfailing sympathy and the suppleness with which he shapes unexpected cultural nuances. Such flexibility and control may be seen as an expression of the author’s essential good nature. In his plays, one can also see, however, one of his uvre’s most consistent traits, his daring use of theater itself. Friel’s work shows a marked flair for dramaturgical experimentation, but the experiments themselves are exclusively in the service of broader human concerns, revealing how hollow yet how inevitable ritualized behavior can be, for example, or economically contrasting characters’ public and private spaces. A consummate orchestrator of theatrical space and (as is increasingly evident from his later work) the possessor of a light, though commanding, touch with ensemble work, Friel’s is preeminently a writer’s theater rather than a director’s or a star’s.
Foremost among Friel’s broad human preoccupations is love—its persistence, its betrayal, its challenge. Few of Friel’s characters manage to rise fully to the challenge of loving adequately. Their inadequacy is transmitted from one play to another, like a cynosure of frailty. What is significant, however, is not success but the apparent inevitability of exposure to a sense of human limitation and imperfection. Love generates many other important Friel themes. The affection for common people—uneducated, shrewd street-folk—which is unsentimentally present in all of his plays, has a sympathetic loving kindness in it that his characters themselves generally decline to embody. The destructiveness of family life, particularly the unhappy effects that parents may have on children—in Friel’s world an unredeemable original sin—is also a feature of the author’s preoccupation with love. Love likewise informs such concerns as fidelity to place and to cultural inheritance. A marked sharpness in attitude toward behavior that is determined by cultural institutions rather than by the vigor of the individual psyche is, again, motivated by Friel’s concern with love. In fact, love has developed in Friel’s work from being, in early plays, a matter of impossible romance, family bitterness, or sexual buoyancy to being the finely calibrated optic of a worldview. Friel’s manipulation of the optic in later plays reveals love as a saving grace, not only personally but also culturally—and usually both, interdependently, offering at once the tolerance of charity and the zest of passion, a healing ethic and a moral force.
Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Yet division, symptomatic of love’s failure, is very much in evidence in Friel’s work. In Philadelphia, Here I Come!—his first and major international success—the dichotomy between self and world is given novel dramaturgical embodiment through the device of having two actors play different aspects of the protagonist, Gar O’Donnell: Public Gar and his alter ego, Private Gar. The world sees only the former, while the audience readily perceives that it is the latter who has the greater authenticity, by virtue of his ability to satirize Public’s gaucherie and emotional timidity. (Gar O’Donnell is the most winning representative of the naïve, ardent youth, a type beloved of Friel, first seen as the novice in The Enemy Within.)
The action takes place on the night before, and early morning of, Gar’s emigration to...
(The entire section is 4,539 words.)