Brian Friel 1929–
Irish dramatist and short story writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Friel's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 42, 59.
As part of the flourishing Irish literary movement that occurred at the turn of the century, Friel has produced drama that is clearly indigenous to Ireland. Friel's canon characterizes not only individuals but an entire people, whose hopes and disappointments play themselves out against a menacing undercurrent of violence and death. In nearly all his plays, the interplay of reality, memory, and dream suggests the spiritual flux of a people whose sense of tradition and place is frequently at war with contemporary realities. Yet even as Friel creates his cameos of Irish life, his themes acquire an elasticity stretching beyond the private lives of his characters to the unlocalized realm of the human spirit. Friel is also noted as a politically committed writer who has addressed pressing social concerns in his work, and at the same time achieved commercial and critical success.
Brian Friel was born outside of Omagh, Country Tyrone, Northern Ireland in 1929. At the age of ten, he left for Londonderry with his parents, Patrick and Christina MacLoone Friel. After primary education and some time at St. Patrick's College, a seminary from which he obtained a B.A. in 1948, Friel abandoned his plans for the priesthood and attended St. Joseph's Teacher Training school in Belfast from 1949 until 1950. In 1954, he married Ann Morrison, with whom he went on to have five children. Upon graduation he taught until 1960. After the steady publication of his stories in The New Yorker, he began writing full-time. His early work consisted of radio plays and stories, the latter collected in two volumes: The Saucer Of Larks (1962) and the Gold in the Sea (1966). His stage plays were produced at the Abbey Theatre, famous for being home to the dramaturgical talents of William Butler Yeats, J. M. Synge and Sean O'Casey. Although Friel dismisses much of his early work, plays such as The Enemy Within (1962) helped to establish his reputation. Seeking training in dramaturgy and theatre arts, Friel sojourned to the United States to study at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1963. The following year Friel completed the play that was to be his first commercial success and which would secure his international reputation: Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964). At the Helen Hayes Theatre, it played for 326 performances, the longest run for an Irish play on Broadway. A steady stream of dramatic works followed, and Friel returned to Ireland in 1973. The link between literature and politics, and between narrative and history led Friel, with Stephen Rea, to found Field Day Theatre Company, Northern Ireland, in 1980, a company that provided Irish writers with a platform for addressing pressing social and political matters. Translations (1980), considered by many to be his best play, was staged by Field Day. Friel has also produced several collections of short stories, Selected Stories (1979) and The Diviner (1983). His talent and contributions to his art have earned him many distinguished accolades such as the Olivier Award in 1991, a Tony Award in 1992 and honorary doctorates from several academic institutions.
Characterized as expressions of "the human spirit asserting itself in the face of impediments" by Richard Tillinghast, Friel's plays are at times reevaluations of historical-political realities. They also demonstrate, however, a subtle knowledge and handling of psychological complexities and the medium of language itself. Philadelphia, Here I Come! takes place the night before Gareth O'Donnell's departure from Ireland to the promise of a new life in Philadelphia and explores the issue of emigration by delving into the inner states of its central character. Friel's greatest critical success, Translations, concerns itself with the political intricacies of language as a colonizing tool, but is also an exploration of the nature of language itself. Faith Healer (1979) focuses on the writer's work itself in telling the story of Frank Hardy in the words of different characters and from different perspectives. Critics observed in Faith Healer and Translations a move away from overt political statements into a more subtle handling of truth, in a wider, deeper sense. Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), another metaphorically suggestive play, explores notions of the pagan and the profane, and elaborates a revision of received colonial-rooted ideas of culture. Notably, most of Friel's plays are set in Ballybeg, a name derived from the 19th century Baile Beag, a locale that functions as a paradigmatic microcosm of Ireland—no place in particular but giving Irish concerns a local habitation and a name.
Critics see language and translation as central themes in Friel's work, most clearly and artfully expressed in Translations, a touchstone work in the opinion of many commentators. In it one can observe the panoply of issues that appear in Friel's other works. Language is also an element that critics identify as common to the Irish dramatic tradition—from Richard Binsley Sheridan through Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, and Samuel Beckett. This tradition, states Richard Tillinghast, includes plays that are known for their dialogue rather than the "inventiveness of their dramatic structure." The lack of pure dramatic flare, a flaw noted by several critics of Friel's work, is amply compensated by Friel's knack for storytelling and ability to convey an intimate understanding of his subjects. These subjects range from a post-colonial reclaiming of Irish history and identity to the relationships between individuals, often within the family. Richard Kearney asserts that one of Friel's concerns is "to explore the complex relationship between political ideology and the problematic nature of language itself." According to Marilyn Throne, Friel's expression of Irish experience and sensibilities involves "the displacement of culture," a result of colonization and its effects. These effects are felt not only in the public sphere but in private life as well.