Brian Friel Friel, Brian (Vol. 115) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Saucer of Larks (short fiction) 1962
The Enemy Within (drama) 1962
Philadelphia, Here I Come! (drama) 1964
The Gold in the Sea (short fiction) 1966
Faith Healer (drama) 1979
Selected Stories (short fiction) 1979
Translations (drama) 1980
The Diviner (short fiction) 1983
Dancing at Lughnasa (drama) 1990
Wonderful Tennessee (drama) 1993

James Coakley (essay date Fall 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chekov in Ireland: Brief Notes on Friel's Philadelphia," in Comparative Drama, Vol. VII, No. 3, Fall 1973, pp. 191-97.

[In the following essay, Coakley draws parallels between Friel's methods and themes in Philadelphia, Here I Come! and the "artistic, poetic and moral" procedures of Russian author Anton Chekov.]

Probably no recent Irish play of more than passing interest has been so largely ignored by critics as has Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! A success in Dublin and New York, it enjoyed inclusion in the annual, dreary volume which grants the title of "Best" to scripts sometimes, though not always, "Good" or "Better" than most of the...

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Edmund J. Miner (essay date Spring 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Homecoming: The Theme of Disillusionment in Brian Friel's Short Stories," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 1977, pp. 92-9.

[In the following essay, Miner addresses the theme of disillusionment in Friel's "Among the Ruins" and "Foundry House" by examining the details of the characters' reevaluation of childhood from an adult perspective.]

Brian Friel is probably best known to both Americans and Canadians for such commercially successful plays as The Loves of Cass McGuire and Philadelphia, Here I Come! Born in County Tyrone in 1929, he spent many years, like Bryan MacMahon, his compatriot and fellow-playwright, as a school-teacher. Since...

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Richard Kearney (essay date Autumn 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Friel and the Politics of Language Play," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn 1987, pp. 510-15.

[In the following essay, Kearney speculates on the political and social dimensions of language as text and subject matter in Friel's Translations and The Communication Cord.]

Brian Friel's drama has sometimes been accused of engaging too directly in Irish nationalist politics. In a recent issue of the Belfast magazine, Fortnight, Brian McEvera offers a typical example of this accusation; "Friel's work is directly political in its implications," he charges, "and its 'awareness' is one-sided. The 'shape' observed is a nationalist...

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Marilyn Throne (essay date September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Disintegration of Authority: A Study of the Fathers in Five Plays of Brian Friel," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3, September 1988, pp. 162-72.

[In the following essay, Throne studies the features of the fathers in Friel's plays, drawing conclusions about the social and political implications of the characters.]

In his introduction to Brian Friel's Selected Plays, Seamus Deane observes that several of Friel's plays "have in common an interest in the disintegration of traditional authority…." In particular, Deane is thinking of Living Quarters (1977) and The Aristocrats (1979) where that traditional authority is clearly...

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Eric Binnie (essay date September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brecht and Friel: Some Irish Parallels," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, September 1988, pp. 365-70.

[In the following essay, Binnie considers Friel's plays and his involvement with Field Day Theatre Company, drawing parallels to the work of Bertolt Brecht.]

In the ancient and troubled frontier city of Derry, Brian Friel established the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980. He was joined in this bold endeavour by a number of other artists, including the actor Stephen Rea and the poet Seamus Heaney. All of the Board of Directors are Northerners. Their motives, in founding the new company, were to reappraise the political and cultural situation in Northern...

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Richard Tillinghast (essay date October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brian Friel: Transcending the Irish National Pastime," in The New Criterion, Vol. 10, pp. 35-41.

[In the following essay, Tillinghast discusses the function of language in Friel's plays and its pertinence to issues of Irish society.]

HUGH: Indeed, Lieutenant. A rich language. A rich literature. You'll find, sir, that certain cultures expend on their vocabularies and syntax acquisitive energies and ostentations entirely lacking in their material lives. I suppose you could call us a spiritual people.

OWEN: (Not unkindly; more out of embarrassment before the Lieutenant) Will you stop that nonsense, Father?...

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Robert Tracy (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Work in Progress," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 17-18.

[In the following review, Tracy considers the Dionysian motifs in Wonderful Tennessee and in some of Friel's other work.]

A Donegal pier fills the stage left to right, one of those long stone piers, walled on the seaward side, that are common all along the Irish coast. On this pier's two levels, Friel's six characters in search of a meaning pass the time, from late afternoon until 7:30 a.m., waiting to be ferried to the island they cannot see clearly: "Oileán Drafochta … Island of Otherness. Island of Mystery."

Stephen Dedalus defined a pier as...

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Helen Lojek (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brian Friel's Plays and George Steiner's Linguistics: Translating the Irish," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 83-99.

[In the following essay, Lojek establishes the concept of "translation" as a central metaphor for Friel's concerns as a playwright.]

The tremendous success of Brian Friel's 1980 play Translations—and the vigorous discussion which it still elicits—is one sign of the deep resonances it struck in a country where, as Seamus Deane has noted, "The assertion of the existence of a cultural (and largely literary) tradition … depended to an extraordinary degree on a successful act of translation". That the play...

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Martine Pelletier (essay date Autumn/Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Telling Stories and Making History: Brian Friel and Field Day," in Irish University Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, Autumn/Winter 1994, pp. 186-97.

[In the following essay on Friel's drama and his association with Field Day Theatre Company, Pelletier examines Friel's treatment of Irish history.]

As a short-story writer and as a playwright Brian Friel has been busy telling his audience stories; but as co-founder of the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980 one could argue that he has also literally been 'making history'. Whereas the early plays tend to concentrate on the individual's need for consoling or enabling fictions and the role of the artist as story-teller, the...

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Maureen S. G. Hawkins (essay date Fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Schizophrenia and the Politics of Experience in Three Plays by Brian Friel," in Modern Drama, Vol. 39, No. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 465-74.

[In the following essay, Hawkins establishes some characteristics of Schizophrenia and applies these to an analysis of the characters and situations in Friel's work.]

In Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics, Nancy Scheper-Hughes states that the Irish and Northern Irish have the world's highest rates of hospitalization for schizophrenia, and, to establish that these rates do not merely reflect the availability of beds for treatment, she adds that Irish-Americans and Irish-Canadians are more frequently treated for...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cullingford, Elizabeth. "British Romans and Irish Carthaginians: Anticolonial Metaphor in Heaney, Friel, and McGuiness." Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 111, No. 2 (March 1996): 222-239.

Elaborates the "imaginative Irish resistance" to British colonialism found in the work of Friel and two prominent contemporaries.

Grene, Nicholas. "In a Dark Time." Irish Literary Supplement (Spring 1995): 25.

A review of Molly Sweeney that compares the play to John Millington Synge's The Well of the Saints.


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