Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875

Brian Friel is one of the leading Irish playwrights of the twentieth century. Friel's works have been praised for their skillful focus on Irish cultural identity. Referring to Friel as a ‘‘modern master,’’ and ‘‘Ireland's most important contemporary writer,’’ Richard Pine praises the playwright who ‘‘has maintained a tradition of...

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Brian Friel is one of the leading Irish playwrights of the twentieth century. Friel's works have been praised for their skillful focus on Irish cultural identity. Referring to Friel as a ‘‘modern master,’’ and ‘‘Ireland's most important contemporary writer,’’ Richard Pine praises the playwright who ‘‘has maintained a tradition of Irish literature by addressing local themes which have universal significance.’’ Pine goes on to describe the thematic concerns of Friel's dramatic settings in Ireland:

Friel's Ireland, if it exists at all, is a complexity of loyalties, horrors, hopes, confused time sequences, hostilities of the sacred and the profane, a constant probing of its role as victim, a continual belief in the restoration of a way of living and thinking which was beneficent and provident but which has somehow turned tragic and punitive.

Critics particularly note Friel's use of language as a means of expressing issues of Irish nationalism. F. C. McGrath notes that, in Dancing at Lughnasa, ‘‘the language ... is intensely lyrical.’’ Richard Pine asserts that ‘‘Friel has provided us with a new language, an Irish-English more powerful than English-English, to express ... ‘concepts of Irishness.’’’ Alan J. Peacock states that several of Friel's plays ‘‘make exhilaratingly explicit a preoccupation with the dubieties, the duplicities, limitations and simultaneous analytical, expressive and transcendent qualities of language which is ubiquitous in Friel's drama.’’ Peacock goes on to list some of the thematic concerns addressed by Friel's use of language:

The power of naming and its political or metaphysical consequences; the problematics of self-definition through language and the tyranny of imposed definitions at a personal, social or national level; emotional inarticulacy at the individual level and cultural aphasia at the national; authentic and inauthentic narrative—these are the kind of themes which insistently feature in Friel's drama.

His 1990 play, Dancing at Lughnasa, is one of Friel's most popular and most critically acclaimed. It has garnered many awards, including the Evening Standard, Writers Guild, Plays and Players, and Olivier, as best play of the 1990-91 season, as well as the Tony and the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best new play of the 1991-92 season. Critics especially note the scene in Act I during which the Mundy sisters spontaneously break into expressionistic dance, inspired by the music from their new radio. Claire Gleitman asserts that ‘‘this scene, so quickly famous, is strikingly effective in its invocation of the repressed impulses that lie beneath the sisters' calm exteriors.’’ Gleitman goes on to explain that ‘‘for a brief moment, the play modulates from Friel's characteristic naturalism into an expressionistic interlude that reveals, with breathtaking compression, the subterranean lives of the characters.’’ Christopher Murray concurs that ‘‘the most extraordinary scene in the play, as anyone who has seen Lughnasa on stage can testify, is the spontaneous dance which erupts in Act One, as the five sisters join in a wild response to traditional Irish music on the radio.’’ Fintan O'Toole agrees that ‘‘the play's most vibrant moments—the wild dance in the first act—are moments of surrender by the sisters to the force of music, the urge of the dance, a force at once joyous and tyrannical, a dance of grief and liberation.’’ Peacock refers to this scene in the Abbey Theater production as ‘‘a piece of pure theatre: Ireland's finest theatrical writer had brought off the core scene in his drama entirely in non-verbal terms.’’

Friel's first critical and popular success was the production of Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), which garnered the author immediate international acclaim. It became the longest running Irish play on Broadway, playing over 300 performances at the Helen Hayes Theater. Friel followed this success with approximately one play per year for the next ten years. In The Loves of Cass McGuire (1966), an eighty-nine-year-old Irish woman returns to Ireland after living in America for thirty-four years. This production was followed by Lovers (1967), Crystal and Fox (1968), and The Mundy Scheme (1970), a political satire that met with resounding failure; according to June Schlueter, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, ‘‘The play's inadequacies were confirmed by its unhappy reception on Broadway ... where it closed after only four performances.’’ The Gentle Island (1971) centers on the Sweeney family, the only remaining inhabitants on the island of Inishkeen, off the coast of Ireland. The Freedom of the City (1973) is set in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, when, in 1970, British troops killed three civil rights demonstrators in Northern Ireland. Subsequent plays by Friel include Volunteers (1975), Living Quarters (1977), Faith Healer (1979), and Aristocrats (1979).

In 1980, Friel and actor Stephen Rea founded the Field Day theater, devoted to Irish plays of social and political significance. The first production of the Field Day was Friel's masterpiece, Translations (1980). Translations takes place in Donegal, Ireland, in 1833, and focuses on the closing of Irish schools by English authorities, who imposed English language schools on the local Irish populations, in spite of their protests. Schlueter comments that ‘‘the contemporary struggle in Northern Ireland resonates in Friel's sensitive treatment of the collision between the English and the Irish.’’ In Wonderful Tennessee (1993), Friel focuses on a group of characters as they await a ferry that never comes. Molly Sweeney (1994), is about a forty-one-year-old blind Irish woman who regains her sight after an operation. Friel's most recent play to date is Give Me Your Answer, Do! (1997).

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