Order, industry, fixity, and quiet are the hallmarks of Brian Friel’s life. He was born in Killyclogher, near Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, on January 9, 1929, the son of a teacher. The family lived in Omagh for ten more years before moving to Derry, the second city of Ulster and the place that, along with its County Donegal hinterland, may be properly considered to be Friel’s homeland.
Friel was educated at St. Columb’s College, Derry, and at Maynooth, the Irish national seminary, where he was graduated in 1948, though it was not his intention to study for the priesthood. He attended St. Joseph’s Teacher Training College, Belfast, from 1949 to 1950, and for the next ten years taught in various schools in Derry. In 1954, he married Anne Morrison, with whom he would have four daughters and a son.
During this period, Friel began to write in his spare time, and from the mid-1950’s, he was a regular contributor of short stories to The New Yorker. During this period, he also turned to drama as a form, beginning with two radio plays, which were broadcast in 1958, and at the end of the 1950’s, he branched out into staged drama.
In 1960, Friel resigned from teaching to devote himself to writing. The wisdom of that decision has been confirmed by the continuing string of international successes that has ensued. English and, particularly, American audiences have greeted his plays at least as enthusiastically as have Irish ones. Friel’s rapid development as a playwright was decisively influenced by the celebrated director Tyrone Guthrie, at whose theater in Minneapolis Friel spent some months in 1968, in his words, “hanging around.”
Beginning in 1980, a more public Friel has been in evidence as the moving spirit behind Field Day Productions , a theater company formed in collaboration, chiefly, with the actor Stephen Rea. Based in Derry, the company’s objective is to renew the theatrical life of provincial Ireland by means of touring productions. Friel has also been instrumental in establishing Field Day Publications. This imprint has issued, most notably, an important series of pamphlets on Irish cultural matters by leading contemporary Irish poets and critics.
In 1991, the three-volume The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, edited by Seamus Deane, was published, extending and consolidating much of the range and interest of the Field Day pamphlet series and creating a landmark in the development of Ireland’s conception of its literary culture. This publication coincided with the international success of Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa, which played to packed theaters not only in Dublin but also in London’s West End and on Broadway, and which brought its author a large number of theater awards. Friel resigned from Field Day in 1994. That same, year he debuted as a director with the premiere of Molly Sweeney at the Gate Theater in Dublin.
Since 1998, his work for the theater has been dominated by his treatments and interpretations of the stories and plays of Anton Chekhov, with whose work his own has been favorably compared. Afterplay, which debuted at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2002, is an original play based on an imagined meeting between characters from Chekhov’s plays Dyadya Vanya (pb. 1897, pr. 1899; Uncle Vanya, 1914) and Tri sestry (pr., pb. 1901, revised pb. 1904; The Three Sisters, 1920), both of which Friel adapted.
According to his birth certificate, Bernard Patrick Friel was born in Killyclogher, near Omagh, Northern Ireland, on January 9, 1929. However, according to the parish register, his name at baptism was Brian Patrick O’Friel, the substitution of the more Anglo version of his name perhaps owing to the Protestant bureaucracy’s habit of discouraging Gaelic names at the time of his birth. He was educated at Long Tower School and Saint Columb’s College in Derry, after which he earned a B.A. degree at St. Patrick’s College in Ireland’s national seminary at Maynooth in Kildare. After training...
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