Brian Friel 1929–-
(Born Bernard Patrick Friel) Irish dramatist and short-story writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Friel's short fiction from 1973 through 1999.
Although primarily recognized as a playwright, Friel is also known for his short stories set in the border region between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic that explore the lives of characters who struggle with strict social, religious, and moral conventions. Critics note that the themes of his short stories—such as poverty, disillusionment, the role of childhood memories, and man's connection to nature—reappear in his drama. Despite his limited short fiction oeuvre, commentators contend that his stories are a vital part of his literary output and should be considered independently of his better-known dramas.
Friel was born outside Omagh, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, on January 9, 1929. At the age of ten, his family moved to Londonderry. In 1941 he began attending St. Columb's College, a secondary school, and then entered a seminary, St. Patrick's College, in preparation to enter the priesthood. After receiving his B.A. in 1948, he left the seminary and entered St. Joseph's Teacher Training School in Belfast. Upon graduating in 1950, he became a teacher in primary and secondary schools around Derry City. Around this time, his short stories started appearing in the The New Yorker, and, in 1960, his steady success prompted him to quit teaching in order to concentrate on writing full-time. Much of his early work consisted of radio plays and short stories. He began to write plays that were produced at the Abbey Theatre, renowned for its association with the prestigious Irish playwrights William Butler Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Sean O'Casey. In 1963 he began study in dramaturgy and theatre arts at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The following year he completed his play Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), which ran for 326 performances and established his international reputation as a playwright. In 1973, Friel returned to Ireland and eventually founded the Field Day Theatre Company in London's West End with Stephen Rea in 1980. The theater company provided Irish playwrights with a platform for addressing relevant social and political issues. He has received several awards for his work, including an Olivier Award in 1991 and a Tony Award in 1992 for his successful play Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). He currently lives in County Donegal, Ireland.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Friel's short stories have been published in two collections of short fiction: The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966). These stories are set in Ireland and explore the social and political struggles of the Irish Catholic rural poor. In “The Potato Gatherers,” two young boys skip school in order to make some money helping a farmer dig his potatoes. After a day of backbreaking work, both boys are reminded of their own poverty and limited prospects. Many of the stories focus on the landscape of childhood, such as “Among the Ruins,” in which a wife convinces her husband to take their family on a visit to his childhood home in Corradinna. When he finds his old house decaying, he realizes that his romantic memories of a halcyon childhood were an illusion; yet despite his disappointment, he takes comfort in the activities of his son and the idea of the cycle of life. The power of childhood memories plays a central role in one of Friel's most well-regarded stories, “Foundry House.” Now grown, Joe Brennan returns to visit Hogan's Foundry, the place where his father worked for many years and where he grew up. He is shocked to discover the toll time has taken on the owners of the business, the Hogan family. In particular, Mr. Hogan, who was once intimidating to the young Joe, has become an old man afflicted by several health problems, including violent seizures. Yet when he tells his wife about his visit later, he refuses to surrender his childhood vision of the Hogans. Critics view this story as an allegory for the changing social order in Irish society. Other stories consider the effects of encroaching technological progress and industrialization on rural areas. In an early comic story, “Kelly's Hall,” the small rural village of Beannafreaghan in County Donegal erupts in chaos upon the arrival of a gramophone machine. “Mr. Sing My Heart's Delight” chronicles a young boy's visit to his grandmother, who lives in a very isolated farmhouse on the top of a cliff. The grandmother's loneliness is assuaged by the visit of a traveling Indian merchant selling gaudy items. The exotic background of the merchant inspires the old lady's fantasies about faraway places and counteracts her own bleak and isolated existence.
At the time Friel turned his attention from short fiction to drama, he was regarded as one of Ireland's leading short-story writers. Although a few critics view his stories as the apprentice work of a well-known playwright and explore the connection between his short fiction and drama, others argue that his stories should be considered separately from his drama and in their own right. They praise Friel's humor, strong sense of place, vivid characterizations, and his thoughtful treatment of sensitive themes. They note that he utilizes traditional forms to explore such thematic concerns as poverty, disillusionment, alienation, the meaning of dignity and honor, the role of memory, and man's connection to nature. Commentators identify the tension between the individual and the prevailing social order as a central theme in Friel's short fiction. They analyze his stories as a reflection of the changing social order in twentieth-century rural Ireland. Although some critics have classified his stories by setting, or other criteria, others assert that the stories resist facile categorization. Some critics have underscored the lack of thematic development in his stories and view his short fiction as derivative in tone and theme. Moreover, they perceive his fictional oeuvre limited in scope and essentially regionalist in nature. Commentators have considered the role of his short fiction in Friel's literary career and have compared his short stories to those of Seamus Heaney and Anton Chekhov. Despite his limited output of short fiction, critics commend his achievement as a short-story writer and regard his stories as enduring portraits of the Irish people during the mid-twentieth century.