Known as the Irish Chekov, Brian Friel wrote masterful plays about his country's troublesby Michael Coveney / October 2, 2015 / Leave a comment
Extravagant tributes have been paid, rightly, to Brian Friel, the Irish Chekhov, who died aged 86 on the morning of 2nd October. But it’s worth remembering that he was an outcast for years—as was Sean O’Casey—from his own theatre in Dublin, and made his reputation first as a fiction writer for the New Yorker and then as a playwright on Broadway and in London before coming home.
He was always ambivalently positioned between home and away, north and south Ireland. This was inevitable given he was a Catholic in Donegal, a place he fictionalised as Ballybeg in so many of his plays, and which came to represent the emotional and political melting pot of his writing.
He was born in Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1929 and had two conflicting birth certificates (9th and 10th January), which may explain his deep-rooted scepticism about absolute truth. Still, he nearly became a priest, studying at Maynooth College before finding his vocation as a writer, a transition brilliantly evoked in camouflage in his dramatic masterpiece Faith Healer (1979).
By now Friel was established alongside his friend Seamus Heaney as the quiet dramatic voice of Irish sensitivity during the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. I recall meeting them both, and the great conciliatory nationalist politician John Hume—all three friends were educated at St Columb’s College in Derry—in 1980 at the first night of Friel’s Translations in the Guildhall, Derry. It was the launch, too, of Friel and actor Stephen Rea’s groundbreaking, cross-boundary company Field Day.
Purple-faced, soft-spoken, accompanied as always by his delightful wife Anne (they had five children), Friel sat through that first night, and the after party, in the Union club round the corner with the detachment of a placid priest.
Translations, now a modern classic, is a play about colonialism, language and cultural identity set in a 19th-century rural hedge school where they still taught Latin. The British army are re-drawing the maps of the area. The local populace get involved. In a pivotal love scene, a soldier speaks English, the girl Irish but they still manage to understand each other. It was a brilliant dramatic metaphor and reverberated in the performance at the National Theatre in London, and then around the world.
Other Derry premieres included a Friel re-write of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters (surveillance helicopters and barbed wire surrounded the Guildhall premiere for a play about the impact of a military posting on a small rural community) and a potent political farce The Communication Cord. He became a poet of dualism, a spokesman for divided loyalties, domestic conflict, two languages, two Irish parliaments.
His early theatrical breakthrough with Philadelphia, Here I Come in 1964—a split-personality play about dreams of leaving and coming home—only filtered through to renewed popular stage success after Faith Healer in 1990 and Dancing at Lughnasa in 1992. This last play—known in Little Italy, New York, as “Dancing with Lasagna”—was a glorious moon-struck celebration of “those five Glenties women,” including his mother, with whom Friel grew up in the 1940s. His documentation of the Irish wobble between background and political reality is unparalleled.
Friel was a wonderful prose writer and a great poetic dramatist. But he will also be remembered as one of the great Irishmen of his generation. “Occasionally the film world is tempting to me,” he once said, “but I don’t need the money. It’s easy to live here and it’s cheap [in Donegal] As writers we’re tax-free here.”