Brian Friel

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Brian Friel has published two collections of short stories, The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966). Two selections from these works have appeared: The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland (1969) and Selected Stories (1979), reprinted as The Diviner (1982). The short stories in these collections are gentle, well-turned tales of ordinary people caught, largely, in the coils of personal circumstances. They belong firmly in the tradition of pastoral frustration, to which the majority of modern Irish short stories belong. The narrative tone of Friel’s stories is genial, quizzical, and often humorous, and it anticipates the affection and dignity that Friel’s plays typically accord the common person.


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After a modest but assured beginning as short-story writer, Brian Friel has grown, thanks to his plays, into one of the most important figures in the cultural phenomenon that will surely come to be known as the Ulster Renaissance. Like many other artists from the North of Ireland, Friel has had his work deepened and darkened by the history of his native province, yet it is also true that his willingness to face that history and its web of cultural subtexts has thrown into bolder relief the innate humanity of all of his work, rendering it all the more estimable.

Throughout his plays, Friel has persistently exposed stereotype, cliché, and narrowness of various kinds. In their place, he has substituted joy, openness, and individuality, qualities that enhance the human lot and for which his birthplace has not been noted. A deep sense of division informs both his characters and his dramatic practice, yet acknowledgment of division is an avenue to sympathy, not a recipe for impairment. Emphasizing with increasing vigor, range, and sophistication the value of spontaneity and the necessity of love, Friel’s work is a moving—and stirring—statement of human solidarity in a dark time.

This statement is constantly renewed by the author’s formal innovations. Friel’s technical brilliance, however, does not permit him to break faith with the heritage of twentieth century Irish drama: its attachment to a sense of locale, its concern for the common lot, and its resistance to institutionalized modes of thought. In fact, Friel makes these elements interrelate fruitfully and unexpectedly by subjecting them to the clear, unblinking light of his moral intelligence.

Historically and artistically, Friel’s place as Ulster’s most important dramatist ever and as one of Ireland’s most significant dramatists in the twentieth century is secure. Friel’s achievements have been acknowledged with numerous drama awards on both sides of the Atlantic, and in 1981, Translations received the Ewart Biggs Memorial Prize, instituted to recognize outstanding contributions to Anglo-Irish understanding. In 1992, Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the 1991-1992 theater season. Also in 1992, Dancing at Lughnasa received a Tony Award for best play in addition to two other Tony Awards: for featured actress (Brid Brennan) and for director (Patrick Mason).

The American staging of Molly Sweeney in 1996 received both the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding Off-Broadway play of the season.

Friel was elected to Aosdana, a national association of Irish artists, in 1982. He received an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the National University of Ireland in 1983 and was elected to the Irish senate in 1987. The Irish Times awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 for his contributions Irish literature and theater. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.

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Although Brian Friel began his literary career writing short stories, he has achieved critical acclaim and popular success with...

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his plays, the most famous of which arePhiladelphia, Here I Come! (pr. 1964), Translations (pr. 1980), and Dancing at Lughnasa (pr., pb. 1990).


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Brian Friel is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters and Aosdana, the national treasury of Irish letters. He received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland in 1982. In 1986, he accepted a seat in the Irish senate, the lower house of the Irish parliament. Aristocrats (pr. 1979) won him a 1989 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best foreign play, and Dancing at Lughnasa won him an Olivier Award in 1991. His play The Loves of Cass McGuire was produced on television in Dublin.


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Bonaccorso, Richard. “Back to ‘Foundry House’: Brian Friel and the Short Story.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 17 (December, 1991): 72-77. Claims the story can be read as a satire of two bankrupt worlds or as an elegy of a lost past; argues that part of the problem with the story is Friel’s reticence and use of the dramatic mode without commentary.

Bonaccorso, Richard. “Personal Devices: Two Representative Stories by Brian Friel.” Colby Quarterly 32 (June, 1996): 93-99. Discusses the comic-elegiac tone and the transactions between character and community in “The Flowers of Kiltymore” and “The Saucer of Larks.” Argues that in Friel’s stories technique is embodied in the creation of characters whose hearts are free.

Cronin, John. “‘Donging the Tower’—The Past Did Have Meaning: The Short Stories of Brian Friel.” In The Achievement of Brian Friel, edited by Alan J. Peacock. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1993. 1-13. Discusses how Friel’s stories anticipate themes and techniques used more effectively in his plays. Argues that the stories are largely derivative of other Irish writers but contain hints of what is to come.

Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist. Göteborg, Sweden: ACTA Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1985. Although most of this study focuses on the plays, a long chapter on the short stories explores the physical and political landscape of Friel’s fiction, including his focus on community, imagination, poverty, the past, and family. Includes a detailed discussion of “Foundry House.”

Kerwin, William, ed. Brian Friel: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997. A selection of essays by leading critics covering most of Friel’s major plays, providing a variety of critical perspectives on themes that range from Friel’s use of history, myth, religion, comedy, and language to his depiction of women.

McGrath, F. C. Brian Friel’s (Post)colonial Drama: Language, Illusion, and Politics. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999. An accessible study by one of Friel’s more ambitious critics that views him working in the same tradition as Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, and other authors who blend historical fact and personal memoir to a create a new national mythology that breaks with that of the Ireland’s colonial past.

Maxwell, D. E. S. Brian Friel. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1973. A chapter on the short stories provides a general introduction to Friel’s basic themes, with discussions of several major stories. Argues that although Friel’s stories are not political, they feature recurring motifs of flight, exile, and shifting allegiances.

Murray, Christopher. Brian Friel: Essays, Diaries, Interviews, 1964-1999. London: Faber & Faber, 1999. Chronologically ordered culling of Friel’s own thoughts on the playwright’s craft and specific works. Includes his seminal autobiographical essay “The Theatre of Hope and Despair.”

O’Brien, George. Brian Friel. New York: Twayne, 1990. The first chapter of this general introduction to Friel’s works provides an overview of his short stories. Argues that his stories speak for a culture, not a political entity; thus, Friel does not deal with the ideological division between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Discusses the themes in a number of Friel’s stories.

O’Connor, Ulick. Brian Friel: Crisis and Commitment. Dublin: Elo, 1989. A pamphlet by a well-known playwright and biographer. Addresses the problems of the writer’s social and cultural responsibilities in times of civic crisis, using as its focus the work of Friel in the context of the crisis of authority in Northern Ireland.

Pine, Richard. Brian Friel and Ireland’s Drama. London: Routledge, 1990. In his chapter on the short stories, Pine argues that Friel’s main themes are illusion, expectation, and dignity; claims that Friel’s basic technique is to draw the reader into the characters’ illusions, disillusions, and attempts at dignity and thus involve the reader in the resolution of such crises as loss of faith, disintegration of the family, and failure of memory.

Roche, Anthony, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007. Covering Friel’s entire body of works, this collection of essays discusses some common themes in his plays and his depiction of social issues. It offers insight into his texts and into the act of performing them. Includes a time line, biography, and index.


Critical Essays