Brian Friel Friel, Brian (Vol. 5) - Essay

Friel, Brian (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Friel, Brian 1929–

Friel is an Irish dramatist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

The "real" world of Brian Friel's short stories reaches from Kincasslagh in the west of Donegal through Strabane, Derry City, and Coleraine to Omagh and County Tyrone. Alongside, at times superimposed on, these actual places are the imagined towns, villages, and country districts—Beannafreaghan, Glennafuiseog, Corradinna, Mullaghduff. These are composites and extensions of reality, given substance by an intense receptiveness to the atmosphere of a day or season, to the run of landscape, the play of light and shade, all the tangibles that localize a time and place. The vibrant solidity of the settings is perhaps the strongest single impression left by the world of these stories, memorable because never merely a background décor. (p. 31)

[The] protagonists of [Friel's] stories often have very strongly the feeling that they are of a piece with a place. They are, however, anything but creatures of circumstance. The kinship between man and place may satisfy because it has the assurance of familiarity. But the familiarity may be harsh, demanding; and it is inexhaustible, liable always to disclose unsuspected outlines. There is a process of learning and readjustment. The individual remains his own man. (p. 33)

Friel's regional background and his period give him a quite different point of departure from that of O'Faolain's squireens and peasants. Yet [he] produces similar perceptions of past working into present, of waning life, and the prospect of new growth. For all its melancholy, "Foundry House," like "Among the Ruins," leaves as its final impression, "continuance, life repeating itself and surviving."

It is an arduous survival. Adversity, self-deception, illusion, are the constant challenges in the homogeneous world that knits together … from the stories. We are not in the stereotyped Ireland of holy peasants and farcical roisterers. Defeated, or clinging to reality, the characters have the perplexed humanity that earns them Friel's compassion. Though they will not confess, they may recognize, their own illusions, which do not supplant reality but make it tolerable. (p. 42)

The realities of … life are subsistence farming and parish horizons, romantic to the tourist, but for the locals meaning drudgery and, often, little-minded parochialism. This parochialism figures in the Ireland of these stories, along with its aging bachelors and outnumbered women. It has its share of stifling respectability, ever ready to be outraged or titillated. (pp. 43-4)

The environment of his stories is a Catholic one. He is not an artist of the whole community, Protestant and Catholic. It is likely impossible that he could be. So widely are the two groups set apart by different school systems, by divergent historical loyalties, by sectarian government, that neither has any real and natural intimacy with the other…. [None] of the Northern Writers, of either persuasion, has been able to "transcend the divisions of the region," where sectarian politics thrive on the archaic enmities it is their business to foster. Yet it is also true that Friel's stories betray no least hint of rancor in their author, and, though not "political," irradiate political correspondences, in their recurring motifs of flight and exile, and the whole complex medley of the shifting alliances between man and place.

Friel's settings are mostly rural and the people he writes about poor…. [Although] the characters are often hardy, spirited, and their presentation lighthearted, the tone of the stories seems to me predominantly elegiac: for loves, friendships, observances, past or fated to pass. They establish a transient but crucial mood, generated by the traffic between past and present, place and person. The moments to cherish are those that isolate the quality of a life, of a relationship with one's fellows or one's region. The participants sense rather than define their significance; and the stories' purpose is not only to state the moment but to preserve that indeterminateness. As Bernard feels at the end of "Aunt Maggie, the Strong One"…, knowledge "of all he had witnessed could no longer be contained in the intellect alone but was dissolving already and overflowing into the emotions." The stories too retain within themselves a core of meaning that resists paraphrase. (pp. 46-7)

Philadelphia [Here I Come!, Friel's first major play, was] of a totally different order of achievement from its predecessors…. The logic of the play is not in plot contrivance or "what-happens-next," but in its delicate montage of past and present experience and feeling.

Technically, the most striking device is the representation of Gar by two actors, one the Public, the other the Private, self. Through them, we see him, within the present of this life with father, relive his crucial memories. (pp. 62-3)

The situation and its people exist in depth, through Friel's discerning management of the kinds of statement made accessible by Joyce and O'Neill; and to an extent, though Friel would disagree, by Beckett, if one can conceive of Beckett without the grotesque.

It is a statement first of all, and necessarily, about particular people in a particular grouping. More generally, it is a statement about Ireland, the Ireland of religious and sexual frigidity, of overbearing old age, of joyless, close-mouthed rural puritanism; and of their opposites. The play's humor reflects them and is often, understandably, savage enough…. Beyond these peculiarly regional truths, its ironies and an underlayer of certain images carry the play to a wider statement still. Gar's—especially Private's—eloquence, and the inarticulateness it operates on and variously responds to, set up a pattern of speech and silence that enlarges the personal failures of communication. Ample scenes, notably in Gar's symbolic recollection, accentuate the restrictions of closed-up doors and streets, material images of their spiritual counterparts. Ultimately, the play is talking in the broadest terms about estrangement, loneliness, and human hopes of understanding and intimacy. Unequivocally "Irish," Philadelphia traverses its regional boundaries.

The language of The Loves of Cass McGuire, like that of Philadelphia, is naturalistic. Raised and tensed above its actual speech models, it is perfectly authentic in all its registers, remarkably so in Cass's own Americanized idiom. Again, too, it is the language that carries the transitions of mood and, especially here, of perception. For Cass, like some of the short stories, is about escape, and the accelerating process of escape, from reality to dreams, an impairment of vision willed or accepted. (pp. 69-71)

In Philadelphia, in Cass, in Lovers, high spirits, laughter, whatever opposites they may have to contend with, are genuinely a release. Crystal and Fox has no uncompromised gaiety. At his most lighthearted, there are reservations in Fox, undeclared but evident in how he goes about what he says and does. There are cracks in Fox's behaviour—his bitterness, his enthusiasms and sudden bland indifferences—which are tokens of the faults beneath. A stage-direction suggests their nature: "his exultation … has also a cold brittle quality, [an] edge of menace."

In Crystal and Fox the menace is always at hand. Its most obvious manifestation is in physical brutality, on and off stage…. This violence echoes the destructive impulses in him that he half willingly lets take command. (pp. 93-4)

The setting, and the characters that go with it, are different [from his preceding plays]. The only—distant—relative of devices like the Private Gar, direct address to the audience, the "rhapsodies," is the play-within-the-play and the audience at Fox's show. There is no Gar to voice hidden thoughts, no Cass to soliloquize. The method of Crystal is more fully naturalistic. Linguistically, too, it is in comparison stripped and severe, working to other purposes the manner of scenes like Master Boyle's leave-taking in Philadelphia, where words touch obliquely on feelings. These purposes, most important of all, darken the humor, and in The Gentle Island, Friel's next play, trace in human illusions and suspicion the roots of violence. (pp. 94-5)

This is in a way Friel's most Irish play. Its point of departure is the peculiarly regional one of the depopulated offshore islands. The point of departure, however, is exactly that, a certain state of affairs in a particular locality, circumstance, family. Its purpose is not to elegize the past, to interpret social causes, to attribute any superior "reality" to the simple life. Though all these notions glance through the action, they are not its subject, nor does the play tidy them into answers. The action itself generates its own questions. (p. 97)

The Gentle Island is not only about Inishkeen. Ireland has been historically, and is, a violent land. The play makes an image of this which, in one aspect, has the significance of Seamus Heaney's "The Last Mummer." It expresses also a sense—or the loss of a sense—of possessing, and of belonging (to farm, region, culture), the ownership of land: closely woven, in Irish life and writing, with the violence and bitterness that Yeats, if he did not commend, acknowledged. More broadly, it is a parable of human groping after communion and permanence, and the elisions of contact that frustrate it. The Gentle Island marks a new direction in Friel. It very firmly develops new themes and, in the ways indicated, new methods.

The Gentle Island is as different from its predecessors as Philadelphia was, promising a continuing evolution in Friel's approach to his medium and what he has to say in it. The two years after The Gentle Island precipitated for him a dramatic fable that insisted upon yet different forms to image the continued Northern violence. The Freedom of the City … took shape over those years, though its origins shelve further back. As a play about the present North, set in Derry in 1970, it engages the problem of maintaining the prismatic individuality of character in a situation—that is, the real-life situation—readier to assume the simplicities of political dogma. (pp. 99-100)

Friel observes an urban face—and catches the urban as accurately as the rural voice—of the society familiar in his work. He has observed in it its "peculiar spiritual, and indeed material, flux." The imprint of that we may identify, for example, in Gar or in Fox; as we may, differently manifested, in The Freedom of the City, the same individual search for some covenant with dissolving, once familiar, prospects. Its methods too—the recurrent dissolves of scene, the forceful management of shifting viewpoints, the commentaries—are revisions of technique that appropriate the new location. The play is recording tremors of a social mutation. (pp. 105-06)

Of … Irish dramatists, Friel has unquestionably the body of work most distinguished by its substance, integrity, and development, well able to stand with that of his English contemporaries. Their writing has a variety and intensity which, even where he does not particularly take to it, Friel much admires. There is no question, however, of an "influence" from any of these sources other than in [an] indirect way…. Nor is it easy to enter Friel into any of the Irish "schools." His plays are obviously not isolated from the Irish traditions; but he is a Northern Catholic, the first important dramatist from that background, which inflects his distinctive, personal voice.

"I would like," he has said, "to write a play that would capture the peculiar spiritual, and indeed material, flux, that this country is in at the moment. This has got to be done, for me anyway, at a local, parochial level, and hopefully this will have meaning for other people in other countries." This is a fair description of the plays Friel has already written, regarded as a composite, a single, continuing testimony. Their content has its own interest, but the content does not explain their force…. In each of his plays Friel achieves the process of dramatic organization, the conjunction of its parts, that discovers order in observed facts, and conveys their meaning. In each of them too,… he has varied his method and changed the point of attack.

This inventive command of design gives Friel's plays their excellence. (pp. 109-10)

Both his short stories and his plays supply the creative premises where writer and audience collaborate. In the plays his development has been toward a greater simplicity, but no less subtlety, of method. (p. 110)

D. E. S. Maxwell, in his Brian Friel (© 1973 by Associated University Presses), Bucknell University Press, 1973.

Brian Friel's The Freedom of the City is about the troubles in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, during 1970. It is marred by several narrative knotholes…. But the author is not aiming at suspense nor does he desire his play to be "thrilling." He is setting forth a simple stream of events which have a meaning he wishes us to contemplate in a quasi-Brechtian mode.

It may also be objected that, given the play's subject matter, its tone is much too mild. On the other hand, it is possible that the low key Friel employs may be intended to undercut the accusations of mere "propaganda" that often are leveled at such plays. He avoids the specific political issues involved. What he shows is the innocence of most of the people hurt—in this casè, killed—in such social struggles, and, more important, what moves them to take part in them when they are ignorant of what is basically at stake….

The play's importance for me is that it deals with an immediate situation typical (or symbolic) of much more than itself. Its very lack of sensational dramatics or clamorous partisanship lends it a peculiar pathos. Such plays are perhaps more telling and useful at present than fashionable declarations of cosmic "absurdity." The Freedom of the City is decently written with quiet touches of humor which make it the more affecting. (pp. 315-16)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 9, 1974.