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.