Brian Friel Friel, Brian (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Brian Friel 1929-

Brian Friel is an acclaimed contemporary Irish playwright whose works have enjoyed popular and critical success in Ireland as well as Britain and America. Friel' s plays, which are often set in rural and small-town Ireland, commonly feature characters who are alienated from an Irish society that is suffering a breakdown of social and cultural traditions. Friel has been praised for his sensitive depiction of these characters as well as for his ability to compose realistic dialogue and his use of innovative dramatic techniques.


Friel was born in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland on 9 January 1929. When he was ten years old he moved with his family to Deny (Londonderry), where his father took a position as principal of Long Tower School. Friel attended St. Colcumb's College in Derry between 1941 and 1946, before enrolling in St. Patrick's College, a seminary in Maynooth, from which he received a bachelor's degree in 1949. Giving up his plan to become a priest, Friel studied to become a teacher at St. Mary's Training College (now St. Joseph's College of Education) in Belfast from 1949 to 1950. He then returned to Derry and for the next ten years taught primary and intermediate school. In 1954 Friel married Anne Morrison, with whom he has five children. During his teaching career Friel wrote short stories and both radio and stage plays. His short stories were often published in American magazines such as the New Yorker, and in 1959 his first stage play, A Doubtful Paradise, was produced at the Group Theatre in Belfast. In 1960 Friel left teaching to become a full-time writer. He spent five months in 1963 at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where he wrote Philadelphia, Here I Cornei This play opened at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre on 28 September 1964, and was well received by critics. The play was Friel's first major success, and over the next several years, it enjoyed long runs in New York and London. In 1980 Friel co-founded the Field Day Theatre Company with actor Stephen Rea; their first production was a staging of Friel's Translations, a work that has received a number of awards. In 1992 the Broadway production of Dancing at Lughnasa was presented the Tony Award for best play. Friel's most recent play, Give Me Your Answer, Do opened in Dublin in 1997 to favorable reviews.


Friel's early plays often center on a single character who experiences emotional conflicts. In Philadelphia, Here I Come! for instance, Friel dramatizes a few hours of the life of a young man, Gar O'Donnell, who will soon board a plane to leave his hometown in Ireland to start a new life in America. Friel uses two actors to express Gar's feelings of ambivalence towards his departure and his difficulty expressing himself to his loved ones. One actor portrays Public Gar who interacts with his family and friends, and another portrays Private Gar who is seen and heard only by the audience and Public Gar. The Mundy Scheme, produced in 1969, marked a change by Friel toward writing plays that deal with political issues. This work is a satire of Irish politics, in which the Prime Minister of Ireland consents to turning the western part of the nation into an international graveyard to help the country's failing economy. Freedom of the City, which Friel wrote in 1973, takes place on a day on which three Irish civil-rights demonstrators are killed by British troops. Although the events of the play clearly allude to Northern Ireland's Bloody Sunday in 1972, on which thirteen demonstrators were killed, the play mainly concerns itself with the personal motivations of the characters rather than political issues. Translations also enacts a story derived from actual events. It takes place in Donegal in 1833, when, despite native resistance, English soldiers succeeded in closing the "hedge schools," which emphasized Gaelic culture, and opening English language schools. Dancing at Lughnasa marks a departure from his political plays and focuses on the lives of a family consisting of five sisters, their brother, and the youngest sister's son. The play, set in 1936, opens with a portrayal of the passionless and routine lives of the sisters. The tide refers to the harvest festival of Lughnasa, an ancient pagan ritual with dancing and drinking which is celebrated in the "back hills" outside the sister's small-town community. After one of the sisters suggests that they attend the festival, the sisters one by one break into "pagan" dancing to music that plays from their radio, expressing primal impulses and temporarily letting their sensibility of order and propriety fall away. Although the music ends, the sisters' lives are already changed and the breakup of their family has begun.


Critics have noted that many of Friel's plays render poignantly the struggles and frustration of the individual within an Irish society that suffers from social, economic, and cultural problems. Friel has also been lauded for focusing, in his political plays, on the characters' personal motivations rather than promoting a partisan agenda. Jack Kroll, for example, has written that "Translations is no lyrical snarl at British beastliness; it shows cultures and people trying to 'translate' each other's signs and souls." Several of Friel's plays have attracted favorable comparisons to those of Anton Chekhov. William A. Henry III has even found Friel superior in some respects to the Russian playwright. In a review of Dancing at Lughnasa, Henry has asserted "Chekhov never attempted anything like Lughnasa's narrative complexity, and never wrote so richly about the unprivileged." With a career that has spanned 30 years, Friel continues to create plays that are lauded by audiences and reviewers alike for their sensitive depictions of Irish society.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


A Doubtful Paradise 1959

The Enemy Within 1962

The Blind Mice 1963

Philadelphia, Here I Come! 1964

The Loves of Cass McGuire 1966

Lovers [Two one-act plays, "Winners" and "Losers"] 1967

Crystal and Fox 1968

The Mundy Scheme 1969

The Gentle Island 1971

The Freedom of the City 1973

Volunteers 1975

Living Quarters 1977

Faith Healers 1979

Aristocrats 1979

Translations 1980

Three Sisters [translator; from the play by Anton Chekhov] 1981

The Communication Cord 1982

Fathers and Sons [adaptor; from the novel by Ivan Turgenev] 1987

Making History 1988

Dancing at Lughnasa 1990

The London Vertigo 1992

Wonderful Tennessee 1993

Molly Sweeney 1995

Give Me Your Answer Do 1997


A Sort of Freedom 1958

To This Hard House 1958

A Doubtful Paradise 1962

The Enemy Within 1963


The Saucer of Larks (short stories) 1962

The Gold in the Sea (short stories) 1966

The Diviner: Brian Friel's Best Short Stories (short stories) 1983

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Daniel Leary (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Romanticism of Brian Friel," in Contemporary Irish Writing, edited by James D. Brophy and Raymond J. Porter, Iona College Press, 1983, pp. 127-40.

[In the following essay, Leary examines the themes of "life and death, exile and home, being and loss, " which recur throughout Friel's work.]

Some day when I'm awf'ly low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.

The Kern-Fields song runs throughout Brian Friel's Faith Healer (1979) and resonates in all his earlier stories and plays. Friel is part of the romantic tradition, a sour variety that foresees little for man, but one that treasures early memories as visions to be drawn upon in later, bleaker years and views authority in its various forms-—familial, religious, civil—as the destroyer of that vision.

Citing that Fields verse may be misleading. The vision in Friel is seldom of an amorous nature. The memories are prepuberty and often—again a romantic tendency—involve a magical place in Northern Ireland, often in County Donegal, frequently in Derry City, the town where Friel was born in 1928 and has lived most of his life.

Our concern is the plays but occasionally I will refer to stories from Friel's first collection of fiction to illustrate recurring themes. In the story that furnishes the title of his first volume, The Saucer of Larks (1962), Friel's description of a blessed place in Donegal where a World War II aviator is buried—a German aviator, an alien and an enemy—captures the mood of the narrator, contrasts it with the "obdurate, peaty, rocky earth," and conveys a complicated feeling about life and death, exile and home, being and loss that is quintessentially Frielian, typically romantic:

The path dipped sharply into … a saucer of green grass bordered by yellow dunes. … For a few seconds after they entered the valley, their ears still heard the rush of the breeze and they were still inclined to call to one another. Then they became aware of the silence and then, no sooner were they hushed by it, than they heard the larks, not a couple or a dozen or a score, but hundreds of them, all invisible against the blue heat of the sky, an umbrella of music over this tiny world below.

All the romantic themes are caught in this depiction of a womb-tomb place revealing a sensibility half in love with easeful death.

In the plays the romanticism is seldom as pure. It is self-conscious, wry, often humorous. Kern's song on a battered Astaire record serves as a pathetic introduction to the faith healer's meetings with the blind, the lame, the diseased of whatever woebegotten town he has stumbled upon, seated anxiously, despairingly before him. This blending of reality and show, pain and dream, sensitivity and routine, is the basis for most of Friel's humor, but though we laugh, we do so conscious of the frustrations at the heart of the humor. The minor key of the song and the graceful colloquial line of the verse nicely mirror the controlled rhythms Friel uses as he has characters almost touch the lost vision. Controlled, I say, because Friel uses the Irish cadences while avoiding the Irish blather.

Friel's career as a playwright began with radio scripts for the Northern Ireland B.B.C. in the late 1950s. The two I have read, A Sort of Freedom and To This Hard House, focus on fathers: in the first a man loses contact with family and friends because of his need to maintain authority, in the other a father loses a sense of purpose as his children demand and win their freedom. Taken together the two scripts suggest there is happiness neither in having authority nor in losing it, that it is impossible to strike a balance between autonomy and loyalty to family.

In 1959 Friel wrote his first stage play, A Doubtful Paradise, which is clearly a reworking of materials in To This Hard House. Friel confessed that it was a very bad play and we can safely move on to his next, The Blind Mice (1960). This one too Friel dismissed but I find the dialogue very much alive. Some of it may have been drawn from conversations leading to Friel's decision not to enter the priesthood upon leaving the Catholic seminary at Maynooth College. In the play Father Cris Carroll returns to Derry City, a hero, after five years in a Communist Chinese prison. Triumph turns to disgrace, however, when it is revealed that Father Carroll was released because he signed a confession renouncing his faith. As in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, the conflict is between the individual and society with an ending both ambiguous and unresolved. Two people stand by him: a "whiskey priest" who warns him not to indulge in a sense of guilt; and his mother who sees him experiencing the humiliation of Christ's lowliest. Their loyalty may be ill-placed since Father Carroll gives signs of becoming the worldly compromiser he was before his ordeal. The lost vision of a triumphant martyr and the reality of a calculating priest are juxta-posed and linger bitterly in the mind long after the final curtain.

One play in the Friel canon presents a priest positively, The Enemy Within (1962), his first truly successful play. The hero is the sixth-century Irish founder of monasteries, Saint Columba. His vision, as in "The Saucer of Larks," is of an Ireland worth dying for. Columba explains why he was late in returning from the fields with Father Cormac and confesses his growing weakness:

And I was back in Tirconaill; and Cormac was Eoghan, my brother, humming to himself; … and the blue sky was quick with larks as long as I did not lift my head; and the white point of Errigal mountain was behind my shoulder as long as I kept my eyes on the ground.

Columba has much in common with Father Carroll of The Blind Mice: he too is a practical man, a man of action in the world. The enemy within is the Columba who prizes Ireland more than service to God. His temptation is to return to "the wrack of Gineebarra, the woodpigeons in the oaks of Derry" and fight for the honor of his family, using his calling as a weapon.

Like Father Carroll, Columba is warned that he must prevent guilt from destroying his mission. The guilt stems from Columba's angry slapping of a postulant who idealizes him. The boy's vision disturbed Columba because it was another form of the enemy within. In confronting that guilt with humility, Columba avoids the mistake of using his priestly role for secular purposes, though now cursed by his own people. All the major characters are Columba's inner enemy, his Irish family obviously so but also his monastic family from the youngest postulant to the oldest of the fathers. When Columba's beloved old associate Father Caornan dies we are told that Caornan's final wish was to "go to the Isles of Orkney and … do penance for all the joy he found in the life here." The wish ironically reflects on the lifetime mission of Columba, who sought exile by founding homes away from home, away from the Ireland he loved so much.

The Enemy Within was a commercial and critical success but Friel was not satisfied. The historical distancing of the play had certainly given him more artistic freedom than he had had in The Blind Mice, but the narrative line was still that of the short stories. He may have released himself enough to shift from place and focus on person but the first three plays were not truly dramatic events. Of Friel's preoccupations, the sense of home might be realized but the sense of loss, of exile, of yearning, the dynamic presentation of those living experiences eluded him. He took a kind of sabbatical for five months in 1963 to observe Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis at work directing Hamlet and The Three Sisters.

We have seen the repetitive romanticism in Friel, how the plays return to the stories, more specifically how A Doubtful Paradise was a reworking of To This Hard House how The Enemy Within was a reworking of The Blind Mice. It is a pattern that continues in the plays to follow. In those few months with Guthrie, Friel must have seen what that return implies. The content remains much the same as in the stories and earlier plays but the innovations in form—breaking of time frame, opening of sub-conscious drives, fragmenting of central characters—reveal the awakening of the true dramatist to the truth of Eliot's "We had the experience but missed the meaning / And approach to the meaning restores the experience / In a different form …" [T. S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages," in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1952]. Friel's real interest, he discovered, was in the inner movement, the inner action. Drama was a search but, unlike the writing of a short story, this search needed an audience which ritualistically had to share in the search and the discovery. The dislocations in the rhythms of Friel's subsequent dramas reflect his search, but are also attempts to produce a dislocation in audience consciousness, attempts to break through its confused dream of life in order to place it before the reality of a human action to be purely contemplated and judged by author, players, and audience. The discovery is twofold with both insights involving death: death in life and death in masks. Friel is in the tradition of Ibsen, who knew that when we dead awaken we will find that we were dead; and he is in the tradition of Jean Genet, who knew we are prevented from living our lives by the constant and inevitable conflict between the part we find ourselves playing and the image we have of ourselves as free agents. In a play such as Philadelphia Here I Come! (1964) Friel gives us both the living dead and the acting non-actors.

"Philadelphia here I come / Right back where I started from." The melody lingers on. In two hours and three episodes Philadelphia presents eight hours in the life of young Gar O'Donnell as he prepares to become an exile from Donegal by emigrating to America, by leaving an antiquated general store and his inarticulate father for a second-rate hotel in Philadelphia and his crudely demonstrative aunt. Gar leaves to find the City of Brotherly Love that he never found in Donegal, leaves to find—and he knows the truth even before he goes—to find that he is "right back where I started from."

Gar's vision of Philadelphia is not of America at all. It has to do with a remembered moment of what he believes was a shared vision:

The music says … that once upon a time a boy and his father sat in a blue boat on a lake on an afternoon in May, and on that afternoon a great beauty happened, a beauty that has haunted the boy ever since, because he wonders now did it really take place or did he imagine it? There are only the two of us, he says; each of us is all the other has; and why can we not even look at each other?

The vision is as elusive as the gold the California-here-I-come 49'ers sought. It is the same vision that crops up in his short stories "Among the Ruins," "My True Kinsman," and "Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight"; it is a moment of understanding and fellowship between authority and self, a remembrance from childhood of a fleeting harmony between a boy and a parent in a place that suggests organic harmony between man and nature. In the play we find that all authority figures fail: the local priest makes no effort to initiate real conversation; the old teacher is caught in his own memories; his girl's father breaks up the relationship between his daughter and Gar.

But Philadelphia goes beyond the stories. Friel actually communicates the longing, the frustration of a young man discovering how close to impossible it is to communicate that longing. The principal dramatic device is the dividing of Gar into two actors—Public Gar and Private Gar, with Public maintaining the usual mask demanded by society while Private gives voice to all the unsaid remarks, enacts all the gestures that we live our days suppressing. The effect is hilarious as Private, anticipating every exchange in the conversation of Public and his father, the Canon, and the housekeeper, seems to be pulling their dummy strings, speaking lines just before they are spoken, anticipating actions a moment before they are repeated by those capable of nothing but rehearsed responses. The resulting laughter is a dislocation that leads to audience recognition. The place may be Donegal but on stage it is represented by a stylized interior. Gar may be a Donegal boy debating the wisdom of leaving home but his is also the universal experience of finding that though you have out-grown the nest, it is painful to face the fledgling flight.

In terms of the play Gar never leaves home. The hours on stage are spent with Public/Private Gar confronting his "enemies within," the other selves he might become if he stayed in Donegal: his dour father, the fossilized Canon, the broken schoolmaster, the aimless "boys" bragging of their imaginary sexual adventures. The closing lines of the play, Gar's to himself, underscore the play's inner action: "Why do you have to leave? Why? Why?" The answer rests not so much in what he does not want to become as in his vision—his father now displaced—of his young vital mother who died in his infancy. It is a vision adumbrated in the short story "Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight" in which an impulsive girl is forced to marry an old farmer who is as rocky and forbidding as the spot in Donegal where they live. She remains, nonetheless, so vital, curious, and playful that she becomes a perennial vision for the now adult narrator. Why does Gar leave Donegal? Perhaps to find the mother he never knew, to find the free impulsive life, the dream of the romantic.

Friel's next play, The Loves of Cass McGuire (1966), dramatizes the return of the exile and the displacement of vision with illusion. Cass's return to Ireland from America after fifty-two years to live with her brother's family might be one version of the other half of Gar's story. Cass is a variation of the strong, life-loving woman caught in the deadly drabness of a morally smug society that we have already heard of in the reports of Gar's mother. Cass's vitality surfaces soon after her return in a bar-room brawl which so offends her brother's genteel wife that she has Cass sent off to a rest home called Eden House.

The vision this time is of total independence with an understanding father who worked on the railroad in the back-ground. As Cass drifts into illusion she tries to reassure herself: "I live in the present … if things get too rough I can go and hide in the signal box. … The signal box … it' s the safest … no one ever looks there." In the home, the overwhelming temptation is to succumb to a recreated, comfortable past. The play, however, is not a dramatized lecture on geriatrics. The passage above ends with Cass's cry to the audience, "Where are You?" She frequently addresses the audience from the opening scene when she insists that the play begin with her arrival at Eden House until the close when she can no longer see the audience.

As in Philadelphia, time shifts between then and now and Cass's dialogue, like Gar's twin self, catches the audience off guard, makes them laugh, and then, when the mood shifts abruptly, uneasily consider what they have been laughing at. The audience sees that all the characters inside and outside Eden House are sustained not by visions but by illusions: the elderly in the institutional home obviously but also in the domestic home of Cass's brother where the grandmother lives in another generation, where the brother and his wife speak affectionately of their children who never visit them, where their youngest son has day-dreams fed by pulp magazines. Cass's last line is her capitulation to Eden House, the giving up of the autonomy Adam and Eve had sinned for, the return to unthinking dependence. Her line refers to all the characters and perhaps most of the audience: "Here at last. Gee, but it's a good thing to be home."

I find something of a falling off in The Lovers (1967). The play is actually two one-acters which deal with the theme of love from the vantage points of youth in "Winners," and middle age in "Losers." Experimentation with form continues but the content does not come alive. The fault may be in the brevity of the plays that affords only short-story-like glimpses of the characters. Moreover, "Losers" is a reworked version of Friel's short story "The Highwayman and the Saint" and its appearance with "Winners" seems forced, since the forms of the two works are quite different.

In the first segment, two teenagers are "winners" in the game of love because they die before being tested by time. At first it seems to offer only the wryly romantic lyrical cry of Housman's "To An Athlete Dying Young," but there is more. Joe and Mag's last afternoon together is in microcosm a lifetime of work, fun, arguing, planning, sensing defeat and sensing also the vision. Mag confides to Joe that "I think this is the most important moment in my life. … I think sometimes that happiness, real happiness, was never discovered until we discovered it. … And I want to share it with everyone, everywhere." The vision is undercut by two dispassionate commentators who fill in family and social background, make clear that no adult in either family is happily in love, that the youngsters, if they had lived, were doomed to repeat the pattern. Those commentators also bother me. I recall Our Town, but the irony of their distanced omniscience is too easy; they should have had more of the balanced concern of Wilder's Stage Manager.

The middle-aged love affair of "Losers" is recounted by Andy, who good-naturedly tells of his frustrated mating with Hanna when they were both in their fifties. He wins his bride despite the efforts of Hanna's mother, but in the end he and Hanna are losers. The old lady, who is described as looking "angelic … with a sweet, patient invalid's smile," uses her illness and her religion to beat them both into submission. Paired with "Winners," the second play throws Friel's love message off balance: one is too distant; the other too light. Still, in fairness to Friel, these plot accounts miss the sound, verve, humor of the dialogue. Andy and Hanna do have their initial victory and Andy at least preserves a kind of balance as he grudgingly admits, "By God, you've got to admire the aul bitch. She could handle a regiment."

Crystal and Fox (1968) is next in a string of plays investigating love. From Philadelphia on they had their center in drab middle-class homes. This time the characters have no home and are in constant exile. They are a group of itinerant players offering a romantically sentimental play—sections of which we see—that heavy-handedly treats of Friel's central theme, the conflict between a calling and individual love. The central love in the play proper is that of Fox Melarkey and his wife Crystal, owners of the raggle taggle traveling show, who as middle-aged lovers re-calling the vision of their young love merge the two plays of Lovers.

The search this time is a total stripping. By the close Fox has separated himself from everything and everyone including all the members of his group, the show itself, and his only son. He proves to himself that even Crystal's love can break when she leaves on being told by Fox—false-ly—that he betrayed their son to the police for a reward. Even the audience that is experiencing this exercise in nihilism seems to be rejected: in the show within a show, Fox loses patience with the absurdly romantic play he puts on and the audience that supports it—"All the hoors want is a happy ending." At the close of the play, alone on the stage, Fox twirls a wheel of fortune—the last remnant of his show—and mumbles, "That's what I remember, just you and me as we were, but we were young then, and … there were hopes—there were warm hopes; and love alone isn't enough now, my Crystal."

Recall "The Saucer of Larks," the title story of Friel's first short-story collection and its depiction of an idealized harmony between a Donegal scape and man both living and dead. In The Mundy Scheme harmony is impossible in a world where the authorities replace scape with scheme. Self-serving politicians propose to solve Ireland's fiscal problems by turning the western counties into an international cemetery. The satire is in the Jonsonian vein, but in lacking a moderating sensibility to measure its madness against, it becomes a caricature. The play could use the voice of the Sergeant in the early short story who bewailed what the land developers were doing: "They would destroy it! … Dig it up and flatten it out and build houses on it and ring it round with cement!" It is the laying waste of the spirit as much as of the land that he cries out against. In spite of its outrageously funny dialogue the play fails because it is filled with fools. We miss the other voices, internal and external, that flesh out Friel's more naturalistic plays.

The Gentle Island (1971) is thematically related to The Mundy Scheme for it also deals with the dying of Ireland and the waning of a romantic, pastoral life. The vision and the voices articulating the vision form a complex dramatic pattern which suggests that the roots of evil are found not simplistically at the politician's doorstep but in the heart of man. The island in question, if not gentle, is passive, allowing each character to see it in terms of his own needs. Literally, it is Inishkeen, off the Donegal coast, recently abandoned by all but one family, but it is by extension Ireland with love of the land coupled to high emigration figures, and symbolically it becomes the home some in the audience cling to, others escape from, most are formed by.

The Sweeneys are the family that remains on the island: Manus, the father, with his two sons, Joe and Philly, and Philly's wife, Sarah. The two other characters are a pair of summer tourists, the middle-aged Peter Quinn and his young lover Shane Harrison. Each character is revealed through his attitude toward the island. Manus presides over a family that has begun to question his authority. For him the island is a tribal territory in which he is chief. For Joe it is a place to leave as soon as possible. For Philly, it is justification through unending labor; for his wife, Sarah, there is the dream of having a child. To Quinn's tourist eyes, the island is an idyll, with man "a part of a permanence" with the sea and the land. Shane Harrison, however, sees beneath the gentle dream of harmony. He notices the war booty taken from the sea by Manus, has to refuse Sarah's advances, probably has a sexual encounter with Philly, is shot almost fatally by Sarah. Shane introduces and mocks a series of romantic myths he associates with the island: cowboys and Indians, the Pied Piper; plantation life in the old south—all of them tales in which the innocent suffer. Shane, shipped back to Dublin with a shattered spine, is another damaged innocent. But then it was Shane who questioned whether "there is an ultimate reality." Neither his cynicism nor their dreams have any-thing to do with the reality of the island.

In the confrontation of rural family and urban tourist that is the action of The Gentle Island, Friel was experimenting with an insight that obviously continued to trouble him. On Saint Patrick's day, 1972, he observed in an article in the Times Literary Supplement that "What may well be worthy of the dramatist's probe is the deep schizophrenia of the city, because it is there, and only there, that the urban man and the rural man meet and attempt to mingle" ["Plays, Peasant and Unpeasant," TLS, 17 March 1972]. In The Freedom of the City (1973)—Friel's first dramatic attempt to engage the problem of increasing violence in Northern Ireland—he has three characters meet in Derry City: Lily, Michael, and Skinner, representing respectively the peasant mind, middle-class values, and urban cynicism. When the play begins they are already dead, having been killed by English soldiers, justly according to the play's Judge who conducts an inquiry into their deaths, unjustly in the light of the play which itself is an inquiry. A number of impersonal authorities report to the Judge including a sociologist who also acts as a commentator as in "Winners," dispassionately noting that the real conflict is not so much between the three "outlaws" and the authorities as among the three while they illegally but accidentally occupy the Guildhall for a day. In the short time and tight area they share, we see that the old culture is breaking up: for Lily the securities of place and family, however dismal, are being eroded; for Michael, middle-class values no longer work; for Skinner, his urban Dandyism, his calculated dismissal of place, family, and values, threaten to evolve into a commitment to inter-national terrorism.

Escalating civil tensions are faced by characters who refuse to be reduced to the political banalities of T.V. commentary or the sentimentalizing of a balladeer's verses. Friel avoids what I find to be the dangerous tendency toward icy distance of his earlier plays and permits—controlled and warranted—sympathy for his characters. In a brilliant stroke he has the dead provide their own epilogue. Lily, speaking now with words she could never have mustered while alive, sums up the blind acceptance of Michael and the blind rejection of Skinner in a confession of her own blindness that reminds me—and this not for the first time in Friel—of Thornton Wilder:

And in the silence before my body disintegrated in a purple convulsion, I thought I glimpsed a tiny truth: that life had eluded me because never once in my forty-three years had an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening been isolated, and assessed, and articulated. And the fact that this, my last experience, was defined by this perception, this was the culmination of sorrow. In a way I died of grief.

Again we have a human action purely contemplated and judged by an author, by an audience, after wrenching dis-location of consciousness.

Volunteers (1975) continues Friel's inquiry into the breakup of our culture. The place is an excavation of a Viking site that is soon to be buried under a multi-story hotel. The volunteers are five political prisoners on parole helping with the work. Now that the dig is drawing to a close, they learn that their fellow-prisoners intend to kill them when they return to the cells because they cooperated with the authorities. Two of the prisoners, Butt and Smiler, are from the country, two others, Keeney and Pyne, in their city brashness and flow of routines and impromptu jokes, recall Skinner in The Freedom of the City. The fifth prisoner, Knox, comes from an upper-level family but has abandoned all the values held by his class. The five represent the three social levels of Freedom and share with the three characters of the earlier play an intimate awareness of death.

The site is described as an "encapsulated history, a tangible précis of the story of Irish man." But like Freedom it expands beyond Ireland. The site "looks more like a bomb crater—or maybe a huge womb—or … like a prisonyard." The play becomes an "encapsulated history" of the culture that is passing, including references to God, Adonis, Thor, Jesus, the Queen of the May, Leif Erikson, the Pope, Calvinism, Knox, Sir Thomas More, Sir Francis Drake, Shakespeare, the Christian Brothers, Keats's "To a Grecian Urn" and "To Autumn," Wellington, Karl Marx, the Titanic, Woodrow Wilson, Parnell and O'Shea, De Valera, Hitler, and King Kong. I am tempted to include King in the list, the often repeated name of the off-stage chief archeologist who profits from everyone's digging while aborting the whole effort.

The major findings are the remnants of a Viking home, the skeleton of a tenth-century exiled Viking, and the patched-together shards of an ancient vase. The home and Viking dominate the stage, though all that is left of the home is an outline; of the Viking, a skeleton. The home, particularly cared for by the countryman Butt, is described as "the size of a prison cell." Again home is lost security, prison, need for escape. As with the home, so with the digs which are described as looking like a womb and a bomb crater: security, prison, need for escape. As with the digs, so with the world. The prison officer says of the prisoners: "Outside it's the same thing—they're a dirty word with their mates outside, too." There is no security out there and there is no place to escape.

Keeney, describing the aims of archeology, provides us with the inner action of the play: "What we are all engaged in here is really a thrilling voyage in self-discovery." The prisoners' speculations about the life and death of the skeleton—familiarly known as Lief—become a Rorschach test. Characteristically, Keeney does not tell a direct story; he plays around the skeleton, calls to it, unveils it, provides it with a mock Christian burial—a clown being his own grave digger. No wonder Keeney asks at the beginning of the play and reports that Lief asks the same question at the close: "Was Hamlet really mad?"

Smiler, a simple, inarticulate countryman, does not tell his story. His intellect—like the urn he is associated with—has been shattered, in his case, by police brutality. Smiler was the one who found the urn shards. When patched together, the urn is identified by Keeney as "Smiler restored; Smiler full, free and integrated." But for all our science and art, culture fails. Near the close we hear that during her music exams the prison officer's daughter played the cello with "grace and discretion" but presumably without understanding, duplicating her father's performance with the men. At the close, Butt, the other countryman and protector of Smiler, picks up the urn and smashes it in front of the archeologist. The remnants of the Viking home are already washing away, the urn is smashed, the Viking is described at his reburial as "one of nature's gentlemen" and "hungry and vicious." Science and art fail man, and man fails himself.

In his recent work Friel has been continuing his experiments searching for new methods to express recurring patterns while avoiding allegorical rigidity by remaining true to the cadences and characters of the people he knew and knows. In Living Quarters (1977), the self destruction of an Irish family is informed by a Celtic variation of the House of Atreus. In his last play to date, Faith Healer (1979), the informing vision is the scapegoat, who saves by dying, the fate of Christ.

The Clytemnestra of Living Quarters is related to women in such stories as "Aunt Maggie" and "Stories on the Verandah," as well as the "aul bitch" in "Losers"—women who control through sickness, religious commitment, and willfulness. The deadly mother, Louise Butler, died six years before the events of the play and we only see her in the disturbed family she leaves behind: her husband Frank Butler, her twenty-four-year-old son Ben who is described as a "mother's boy," and her three daughters, Helen, a divorcee of twenty-seven, Miriam, a married woman of twenty-five, and Tina, eighteen, "the pet of the family." When the play opens the Commandant is the returning hero of a U.N. campaign in the Mid-East. This Agamemnon attributes his victory to the memory of his young bride of a few months, Anna. He meets death at his own hand but it is as though the house rose against him. Butler fulfilled his duty toward his family but was never able to communicate with them. His wife held him responsible for her ill health and alienated him from both Ben and Helen. During the father's absence, Ben has an affair with his father's young wife and permits the news to spread to the barracks. Helen gives the father no support since she feels he failed her at the time of her divorce by not standing up to her willful mother's intimidating ways. In the dead Mrs. Butler and the living Mrs. Butler, Friel contrasts the two types of women that recur in his work: the death bringer, usually associated with religion, and the life bringer, "passionate," as Anna is described, and "direct in speech and manner."

Friel's formal approach in Living Quarters is reminiscent of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. The events leading up to Butler's suicide are reenacted by the family years afterward. Again Friel uses a commentator, who also is the director of the action. "Sir," as he is called, prompts thoughts of Auden's "Petition" and a distant, formal God. But Friel succeeds in both distancing and giving warmth to "Sir" because he is made in the characters' own images. He reads from a ledger which he explains the family conceived "out of some deep psychic necessity" to "record … everything that was said and done that day." He himself was conceived of the same psychic need as "the ultimate arbiter" to whom they give a total authority they constantly try to circumvent. Under "Sir's" direction the reenactment is a realization of Lily's longing in The Freedom of the City to have had even one experience in life "isolated, and assessed, and articulated." From another perspective "Sir" is the ideal psychologist opening the play's Oedipus/Atreus implications, leading characters into a better understanding of themselves, especially Ben who recalls his uncontrollable laughter at his mother's funeral and his childhood confession to his father that "I always loved him and always hated her." At the close "Sir" apologizes to Anna for not introducing her. She claims there is no need and intimates that her story is not over. The curse of the House of Butler is upon her and will continue to be worked out in her life, Helen's and Tina's.

In the four monologues that are Faith Healer, the play's three characters attribute the choice of "The Way You Look Tonight" as a theme song to one of the others: Frank, the faith healer, in his opening and closing monologues, attributes it to his manager Teddy, who, in his monologue, attributes it to Frank's mistress, Grace, who, in her monologue, attributes it to Frank. Facts are evasive even when the action, as here, is stripped to essentials.

The monologues go beyond the facts in their search for meaning. Teddy and Grace try to understand their years with Frank and he tries to understand the life he spent with them. Faith, art, people, prove as illusive as facts. Frank's final insight is the ultimate romantic one:

I became possessed by a strange and trembling intimation: that the whole corporeal world—the cobbles, the trees, the sky … somehow they had shed their physical reality and had become mere imagings … that even we had ceased to be physical and existed only in spirit, only in the need we had for each other.

Frank speculates about whether he has awesome powers or is only a con man, wonders whether when his powers work upon a maimed man, the cure is due to faith in the healer, the healed, or faith itself. In this multi-leveled narration all speculations are right and wrong. The one certainty is Frank's scapegoat role, his taking on others' pain, his emptying himself of vision, until finally upon his homecoming to Ireland, he is savagely murdered by disappointed peasants. Before his death, he celebrates with the wedding guests who will kill him, "toasts to the departed groom and his prowess, to the bride and fertility … to all things ripe and eager for the reaper. A dionysian night."

Exile, homecoming, loyalty, but autonomy at any cost, they are all in the play but the romantic theme that dominates is the search for harmony. Frank intones the names of the little towns his wagon wheels through in an incantation to the spirit of the land and a preparation for the broken-spirited audience he is to meet. Grace says of him that "Before a performance he'd be .… in such complete mastery that everything harmonized for him." Teddy says of a successful performance that the wonder was not only in the cures but that "he had given them some great con-tent in themselves." Before the bloody sacrifice of Frank's death, the thought crosses his mind of "a fulfillment, an integration, a full blossoming."

And in no play since Crystal and Fox does Friel better grapple with the question of drama itself and the ritual it is. The play opens with Frank addressing three rows of on-stage chairs so placed that the actual audience is a continuation of that other audience. The magic Frank's "other audience" half fears, half expects is the same magic Friel's "actual audience" has its ambivalences about. How many want the miracle of being raised from the dead? To draw the parallels more exactly between scapegoat and dramatist is outside the range of this paper. Grace touches on the matter when she recalls that the sick people who came to Frank were "to him … real enough, but not real as persons, real as fictions, his fictions, extensions of him-self that came into being only because of him."

Friel seems quite conscious of his bitter romanticism. In the T.L.S. article already cited, he writes that to understand anything about the history or present health of Irish drama, one must first "… recognize two dominant elements in the Irish mind: One is a passion for the land; the other a paranoiac individualism." Whether it be a monastery, a tent, a peasant hut, an archeological dig, a nursing home, a traveling show, we find the central character pre-occupied with home, knowing that even if you could go home again, you would not. Both Frank and Grace tell of earlier attempts to go home only to return to the road. Frank's final homecoming is the ultimate autonomy, the harmony of death.

In the T.L.S. article, Friel writes of form as well as content. He concludes that "there must be a far greater distinction between the Irishman who suffers and the artist's mind which creates." His plays taken in sequence are a demonstration of his effort to make that distinction, achieve that distance: the split character, the disinterested commentator, the voices of the dead, juxtaposed time, the play within a play, the prison within a prison, the myth within a plot. At his best the matter and the form are one, as in Faith Healer where he merges all his techniques and has the dead act out their own commentaries while maintaining a loyalty to his romantic contents, a vision of home that is so complex it demands being retold in new forms, though always in the cadences and confines of Northern Ireland.

Seamus Deane (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Brian Friel: The Double Stage," in Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880-1980, Faber and Faber, 1985, pp. 166-73.

[In the essay below, Deane explores the functions of the "secret stories" that lie at the center of many of Friel's plays.]

A closed community, a hidden story, a gifted outsider with an antic intelligence, a drastic revelation leading to violence—these are recurrent elements in a Brian Friel play. They are co-ordinated in the pursuit of one elusive theme, the link between authority and love. Most of the people in Friel's drama are experts in the maintenance of a persona, or of an illusion upon which the persona depends. But their expertise, which most often takes the form of eloquence and wit, and which is a mode of defence against the oppressions of false authority, has no power to alter reality. So they become articulators of a problem to such a degree that the problem becomes insoluble, so perfectly etched are all its numbing complexities. To be gifted at all, an expert, is to be displaced, a commentator, not a participant, an outsider, not an insider. Yet the sense of displacement is acute in such figures and it is the more profoundly felt when it is expressed for them in the secret or hidden stories of others. The stories are tales of passion, thwarted and violent; the displacement is a condition of lucid weariness, often witty and cruel in its responses. The tension between the two embodiments of thwarted desire disrupts the closed community, undermines its sham system of authority and leads to various kinds of break-down, individual and social. Friel's drama is concerned with the nervous collapse of a culture which has had to bear pressures beyond its capacity to sustain.

The closed community is that of the County Donegal village of Ballybeg, or of sectors within that generic community—monastic as in The Enemy Within (1962), psychological as in Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), sexual-familial as in The Gentle Island (1971) or Living Quarters (1977), political as in The Freedom of the City (1973) or Volunteers (1975). The cast of characters is tightly contained in a quarantined area, enclosed with the infection which is coming to a head on this particular moment, in this particular setting. The dramatic unities of time, place and action are strictly observed but the apparently effortless and often humorous registration of the details of provincial manners helps to disguise the structural tautness which gives these works their symmetry—although Friel's most recent play, The Communication Cord (produced in 1982) reveals more obviously than these others how strictly organized his plays are. The illness which plagues the small community is failure, cast in every conceivable shape, protean but always recognizable. The central failure is one of feeling and, proceeding from that, a failure of self-realization and, deriving from that, the seeking of a refuge in words or work, silence or idiocy, in exile or in a deliberate stifling of unrequitable desire. Every character has his or her fiction; every fiction is generated out of the fear of the truth. But the truth is nevertheless there, hidden in the story which lies at the centre of the play, a story which tells of how authority, divorced from love, became a sham. In Volunteers Keeney draws a distinction between himself and Butt:

All the wildness and power evaporate and all that's left is a mouth. Of course there is a reason—my over-riding limitation—the inability to sustain a passion, even a frivolous passion. Unlike you, Butt. But then your passions are pure—no, not necessarily pure—consistent—the admirable virtue, consistency—a consistent passion fuelled by a confident intellect. Whereas my paltry flirtations are just … fireworks, fireworks that are sparked occasionally by an antic imagination. And yet here we are, spancelled goats complementing each other, suffering the same consequences. Is it ironic? Is it even amusing?

The secret story in this play concerns Smiley, who has been reduced to idiocy by the brutal beatings he received at the hands of the police. It also touches upon Knox, who has also been degraded by the treatment he has received at the hands of the IRA. Most of all, it touches upon their common fate, for Keeney, Pyne, Butt and the others are going to face death at the hands of their comrades in prison once the archaeological excavation, for which they have volunteered, is over. The secret story is in this case, as in many others, a premonition of the violence to come. Its secrecy, which is there to be broken; its violence, which is there to be repeated; its degradation, which is there to be hidden or shunned, all conspire to transform the stage into a 'magic circle', a place into which the audience is being given a privileged insight. On the other hand, the surrounding commentary on this kernel story—that is, the chatter of people who try to preserve themselves from the truth it contains—displays the conditions of their social and personal lives in a sociological spirit, turning the stage into a public exhibition area. So, in Volunteers, the republican prisoners working on the archaeological site on which a new hotel is to be erected, provide us with an image of many of the characteristic political and economic forces in Irish society, all of them governed by corrupt authorities. Equally, in Living Quarters the Butler family, or in The Gentle Island the Sweeney family, or the central trio in The Freedom of the City, all provide us with this public display of existing conditions, of circumstances easily recognized as the sort which would make news—the return of Irish UN troops from a trouble spot, the mass departure of a community from an island, the official killings and inquiries of the Northern situation. Yet the recognizability of the conditions is one of Friel's...

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Philadelphia, Here I Come!

(Drama Criticism)


Stanley Kauffmann (review date 17 February 1966)

SOURCE: "Philadelphia, Here I Come! Arrives," in The New York Times, 17 February 1966, p. 28.

[Philadelphia, Here I Come! premiered at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in 1964. It opened 16 February 1966 at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York City. In the following review of the New York production, Kauffmann asserts that Friel's play "is like his hero: amiable and appealing enough but unexciting."]

"This is a great country for export," a man said to me once in Galway, "and what we export is young men." That is the theme of Brian Friel's play,...

(The entire section is 8604 words.)


(Drama Criticism)


Desmond Rushe (review date Winter 1980)

SOURCE: "Derry Translations," in Eire Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. XV, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 126-28.

[Translations debuted in the Fall of 1980 in a Field Day Theatre production at the Guildhall in Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland. The following April, it opened off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club. In the following review of the Derry staging, Rushe provides a historical background to the subject of the play, noting that the cultural conflicts of the past still exist today.]

Derry is an ancient and storied city. Its history can...

(The entire section is 16522 words.)

Dancing At Lughnasa

(Drama Criticism)


Claire Armistead (review date 27 April 1990)

SOURCE: Review of Dancing at Lughnasa, in Financial Times, 27 April 1990, p. 25.

[In mid-April 1990, Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. In the review below, Armistead finds the play "[r]ich with atmosphere, redolent with an admittedly equivocal nostalgia … unfolding like a slow smooch to the music of time. "]

A wheatfield spotted with poppies is the backdrop for Brian Friel's new play which reopens an Abbey expansive and spruce after phase one of a £5m development project. If the theatre's management is looking...

(The entire section is 11437 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)

Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. "British Romans and Irish Carthaginians: Anticolonial Metaphor in Heaney, Friel, and McGuinness." PMLA 111, No. 2 (March 1996): 222-39.

Contends that Translations "evokes the binaries of Carthage and Rome to indict the British destruction of Gaelic culture."

Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: A Study. London: Faber and Faber, 1988, 229 p.

Examines Friel's work within the context of "two dichotomies of place," representing divisions within Ireland that correspond to thematic divisions within his oeuvre.

Jent, William. "Supranational Civics: Poverty and the Politics of Representation in Brian Friel's...

(The entire section is 828 words.)