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 United States, and consists less of a plot than of a tissue of what Friel in later plays calls “episodes.” In effect, Gar’s past life passes before him. The passage takes place in two dimensions—the public, by means of farewells, and the private, by means of Private’s somewhat manic and mordantly witty analysis of that life’s nugatory achievements. The only thing which will relieve life at home in Ballybeg of his abiding sense of depletion, as far as Gar is concerned, is an expression of affection by his father. It is never made; Gar is obliged to carry his incompleteness with him. In that case, staying or going becomes moot.
As in The Enemy Within, the conclusion is inconclusive. The difference is that in the earlier play, inconclusiveness was enacted in a condition; here, rather more satisfyingly, it is embodied in a character. Philadelphia, Here I Come! also benefits from having its cultural resonances localized, as well as having its treatment of division given clever dramatic form. This play launched Friel’s mature playwriting career. It contains an affectionately critical characterization of restlessness and brio, as well as failed love and a lament for it, and longings for a fuller life and a fear of it.
Crystal and Fox
Friel’s preoccupation with love, familial relations, and romance is offered in a delicate, bittersweet blend in Crystal and Fox, one of his most effective works. Crystal and Fox, a man-and-wife team, own a traveling show of no particular distinction. At first, audience response is poor, and Fox, in a typical fit of recklessness, fires some of the players. The company is now reduced to four, one of whom is Crystal’s ailing and incompetent father, who is soon hospitalized. The traveling show, for so long an expression of Fox’s restlessness, now attains a stasis, a condition that makes Fox mean and destructive. All that can save the situation is the unwavering romantic attachment, tantamount to worship, that Crystal and Fox have for each other. Into their impoverished encampment comes Gabriel, their son. Gabriel has spent years in England, like Cass in The Loves of Cass Maguire, the victim of a family row. Now, however, all is forgiven, and Gabriel is seen as an embodiment of renewal. He soon tells Fox that he is on the run from the English police, having, in desperation, committed robbery with violence. This information is kept from Crystal until Gabriel is arrested before her eyes. As a result, Crystal and Fox sell the show’s remaining properties to help Gabriel, but en route to Gabriel’s trial, Fox lies, telling Crystal that he informed on his son for the sake of the police reward. A demented Crystal leaves her husband, allowing the play to conclude with a statement from Fox about the motivation for his destructiveness. He wanted the whole of life to be reduced to one ardent form—namely, his romantic love of Crystal. Such a love, he believes, expresses the best in him. Everything else is tainted with contingency, incompleteness, and mortality. Yet the finality and totality of his love for Crystal is what prompts treachery and ruin.
The play is satisfying on a number of levels. Its spare language complements its essentially violent action. Friel’s metaphoric use of playing and roles is deeply ingrained in the piece’s fundamental texture. Bleakness and joy are communicated with great clarity and economy. The need for romance—the desire that there be something more to life than the mere role one plays in it—is boldly established and subjected to an impressively unsentimental critique. In all, Crystal and Fox is a fitting culmination of Friel’s early phase. From this point onward, his work, while not forsaking love as a theme or the family setting as its representative focus, has engaged more public issues and has placed less emphasis on individual destiny than on collective experience, a departure that has meant the virtual elimination of the often stereotyped minor characters present in his early work.
The Freedom of the City
With The Freedom of the City, Friel began his major phase. Innovative dramaturgy, a marriage of private and public themes, and a major renovation of the part played by love in human affairs, all make this play a work of notable theatrical events.
The city in question is Derry, and the play is inspired by, though it does not mimic, the events of Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, when British forces killed thirteen civil rights demonstrators. Friel opens the play’s action by having his three protagonists flee from the violent disruption by army and police of a banned civil rights demonstration. They seek refuge successfully in the Mayor’s parlor of the Guildhall (the ease with which they do so being one of the play’s many ironies about “security”), and with nothing better to do, they have a party. They drink the Mayor’s liquor, smoke his cigars, dress up in ceremonial robes, and parody official ceremonies, including the conferring of the freedom of the city. Skinner, the most restless, deprived, and anarchistically inclined of the threesome, does a minimal amount of damage to property, stabbing a city father’s portrait with a ceremonial sword. His opposite is Michael, a clean-cut embodiment of civil rights aspirations, who, without skepticism, wants nothing more than a fair chance to better himself. Between them stands Lilly, a blowsy mother of eleven, who approves of Michael’s respectability yet is stimulated by Skinner’s vitality. Eventually, summoned by military bullhorn to emerge, the three (now thought of, thanks to rumor, as forty) emerge from the circumscribed freedom of their refuge, to be shot in cold blood on the Guildhall steps.
The play’s action, however, is only one of its levels. It is surrounded by frameworks of judicial and intellectual evaluation. Thus, from the outset, the audience is privy to the findings of the court of inquiry, which examines and distorts the protagonists’ actions and characters. The audience is also periodically subjected to an analysis of the culture of poverty voiced by an American sociologist. These two framing devices—sophisticated revisions of an ironic use of omniscience, introduced in Lovers and used most tellingly in Living Quarters—help the audience appreciate the informal, living texture of the trio’s activities, as it is that very quality that the processes of evaluation and formal discourse are unable to admit.
Perhaps the play is overloaded with framing devices. In addition to the two central ones mentioned, there are also two that derive from the trio’s own cultural constituency, represented by the Catholic Church and by a ballad singer. These two also distort what the characters embody. The aim to be comprehensive is no doubt laudable, and the resultant verbal range is an impressive feature of the play, but the ensuing emphasis on the distorting effects of objectification is overdone. At the same time, however, such an...
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