Brian Friel

Brian Friel

Brian Friel (born 9 January 1929) is a playwright and, more recently, director of his own works from Northern Ireland who now resides in County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland.


Friel was born in Omagh County Tyrone, the son of Patrick "Paddy" Friel, a primary school teacher and later a borough councillor in Derry, and Mary McLoone, postmistress of Glenties, County Donegal (Ulf Dantanus provides the most detail regarding Friel's parents and grandparents, see Books below). He received his education at St. Columb's College in Derry and the seminary at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth (1945-48) from which he received his B.A., then he received his teacher's training at St. Mary's Training College in Belfast, 1949-50. He married Anne Morrison in 1954, with whom he has four daughters and one son; they remain married. From 1950 until 1960, he worked as a Maths teacher in the Derry primary and intermediate school system, until taking leave in 1960 to live off his savings and pursue a career as writer. In 1966, the Friels moved from 13 Malborough Street, Derry to Muff, County Donegal, eventually settling outside Greencastle, County Donegal.

He was appointed to the Irish Senate in 1987 and served through 1989. In 1989, BBC Radio launched a "Brian Friel Season", a series devoted a six-play season to his work, the first living playwright to be so distinguished. In 1999 (April-August), Friel's 70th birthday was celebrated in Dublin with the Friel Festival during which ten of his plays were staged or presented as dramatic readings throughout Dublin; in conjunction with the festival were a conference, National Library exhibition, film screenings, outreach programs, pre-show talks, and the launching of a special issue of "The Irish University Review" devoted to the playwright; in 1999, he also received a lifetime achievement award from the "Irish Times". He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the (British) Royal Society of Literature and the Irish Academy of Letters. [ [ Royal Society of Literature website.] ]

On 22 January 2006 Friel was presented with a gold Torc by President Mary McAleese in recognition of the fact that the members of Aosdána have elected him a Saoi. Only five members of Aosdána can hold this honour at any one time and Friel joined fellow Saoithe Louis leBrocquy, Benedict Kiely (d. 2007), Seamus Heaney and Anthony Cronin. On acceptance of the gold Torc, Friel quipped, "I knew that being made a Saoi, really getting this award, is extreme unction; it is a final anointment--Aosdana's last rites."

Early career through 1979

Friel began writing short stories for "The New Yorker" in 1959 and subsequently published two well-received collections: "The Saucer of Larks" (1962) and "The Gold in the Sea" (1966). His first radio plays were produced by the BBC, in 1958, and he later went on to write two plays for Radio Telefís Éireann as well (all unpublished); Richard Pine's discussion of Friel's six unpublished early plays remains the most thorough discussion of these otherwise unavailable works (see Books below). While working as a struggling writer, Friel wrote 59 articles for "The Irish Press," a Dublin-based newspaper, from April 1962 through August 1963; this diverse series included short stories, political editorials on life in Northern Ireland and Donegal, his travels to Dublin and New York City, and his childhood memories of Derry, Omagh, Belfast, and Donegal (see Boltwood under Books below). He struggled with little initial success to gain recognition as a playwright from 1958 through 1964; at one point the Irish journalist Sean Ward even referred to him in an "Irish Press" article as one of the Abbey Theatre's "rejects" (1962) and Friel later admitted in a 1965 interview that his play "A Doubtful Paradise" (1960) nearly dealt the death blow to the Belfast-based Ulster Group Theatre. While only on the Abbey stage for 9 performances, "The Enemy Within" (1962) enjoyed some success: it was revived by Belfast's Lyric Theatre in September 1963 and was aired on both the BBC Northern Ireland Home Service and Radio Eireann in 1963. Although "The Blind Mice" (1963) was later withdrawn by the author, it was by far his most successful play of this very early period: playing for 6 weeks at Dublin's Eblana Theatre, revived by the Lyric, and broadcast by radio Eireann and the BBC Home Service almost ten times by 1967. Shortly after his return from a short stint as "observer" at Tyrone Guthrie's theater in Minneapolis from April through July 1963, Friel wrote "Philadelphia Here I Come!" (1964), the play that was to make him immediately famous in Dublin, London, and New York; this plays retains its status as a turning point in Irish drama (away from the tired and ossified genre of peasant plays) and one of the most important plays of the 1960s. "The Loves of Cass McGuire" (1966), and "Lovers" (1967) were both successful in Ireland, with "Lovers" surprisingly popular in America.

"The Freedom of the City" (1973) is an explicitly political work about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, while "The Mundy Scheme" (1969) and "Volunteers" (1975) are pointed, and in the first case bitter, satires of the Irish government. However, by the mid 1970s, Friel had moved away from overtly political plays to examine family dynamics in a manner that has attracted many comparisons to the work of Chekhov (see Dantanus, Andrews, and Pine in Books below). "Living Quarters" (1977), a play that examines the suicide of a domineering father, is a retelling of the Theseus/Hippolytus myth in a contemporary Irish setting; that play, with its focus on several sisters and their ne'er-do-well brother serves as a type of preparation for Friel's more successful "Aristocrats" (1979), a Chekhovian study of a once-influential family's financial collapse and, perhaps, social liberation from the aristocratic myths that have constrained the children.

Many plays of this period incorporate assertive avant-garde techniques: splitting the main character Gar into two actors in "Philadelphia, Here I Come!"; portraying dead characters in "Winners" of "Lovers " or the dead and Brechtian choric figures in "Freedom of the City"; and metacharacters existing in a collective unconscious Limbo in "Living Quarters". These experiments came to fruition in "Faith Healer" (1979), a series of four conflicting monologues delivered by dead and living characters who struggle to understand the life and death of Frank Hardy, the play's itinerate healer who can neither understand nor command his unreliable powers, and the lives sacrificed to his destructive charismatic life.

1980s and 1990s

"Translations" was premiered in 1980 at the Guildhall in Derry, Northern Ireland by the Field Day Theatre Company, with Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson, and Ray MacAnally. Set in 1833, it is a play about language, the failed meeting of British and Irish cultures, the looming potato famine, the coming of a free national school system that will eliminate the traditional hedge schools, the English expedition to convert all Irish place names into English, and the crossed love between an Irish woman who speaks no English and an English soldier who speaks no Irish. Yet it was an instant success because of the play's deft ability to reference the Troubles and English-Irish relations without condemning or idealizing any side. The innovative conceit of the play is to stage two language communities (the Gaelic and the English), which have few and very limited ways to speak to each other, for the English know no Irish, while only a few of the Irish know English. "Translations" has gone on to be one of the most translated and staged of all post-World War II plays, having been performed in Estonia, Iceland, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Norway, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, along with all the world's English-speaking countries (including South Africa and Australia).

Despite his growing fame and success, the 1980s are often referred to as Friel's artistic "Gap" because he published so few original works for the stage: "Translations" in 1980, "The Communication Cord" in 1982, and "Making History" in 1988. Privately, Friel complained both of the work required managing Field Day (granting written and live interviews, casting, arranging tours, etc.) and of his fear that he was "trying to impose a 'Field Day' political atmosphere" on his work. However, this is also a period during which he worked on several minor projects that fill out the decade: translations of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" (1981), Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons" (1987), an edition of Charles McGlinchey's memoirs entitled "The Last of the Name" for Blackstaff Press (1986), and Charles Macklin's play "The London Vertigo" in 1990. Friel's decision to premier "Dancing at Lughnasa" at the Abbey Theatre rather than as a Field Day production initiated his evolution away from involvement with Field Day, and he formally resigned as a director in 1994; Field Day survives as a journal under the auspices of the University of Notre Dame and a publisher of academic scholarship.

During the 1990s Friel was seen to return to a position of dominance of Irish theatre with the premiers of "Dancing at Lughnasa" (1990), a version of Turgenev's "A Month in the Country" for the Abbey Theatre (1992; revived by the RSC 1998), "Molly Sweeney" (1994), and "Give Me Your Answer Do!" (1997), along with the less critically successful "Wonderful Tennessee" (1993). Friel's reputation as a playwright who creates compelling plays for women rests largely on the works of this period; however, Boltwood reminds us, in his discussion of what he calls Friel's "sororal plays" (see below in Books), that during his early career he was largely a playwright of the Irish male experience (for discussions of Friel's strong interest in father/son dynamics, see Maxwell and Pine below under Books), with 2 plays before 1975 with all-male casts ("The Enemy Within" and "Volunteers" [1975] ), and an overall male to female ratio of 4 male to every female character in his plays from 1963 to 1975. Friel's ability to transform himself into a playwright of strong female roles is associated with the growth of his playwrighting relationship to actress "Catherine Byrne," who had the lead in all four plays of the 1990s; this artistic dynamic eventually motivated Friel to direct his own plays for the first time in his career: beginning with the Gate Theatre production of "Molly Sweeney" and continuing with the Abbey Theatre production of "Give Me Your Answer Do!" (1997).

"Dancing at Lughnasa" (1990) is probably his most successful play, premiered at the Abbey Theatre, and then transferred to London's West End and went on to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards in 1992, including Best Play. This play is loosely based on the lives of Friel's mother and aunts who lived in the Glenties, on the west coast of Donegal. Set in 1936, during the summer before de Valera's new constitution was approved by referendum, the play depicts the late summer days when love briefly seems possible for three of the Mundy sisters (Chris, Rose, and Kate) and the family welcomes home the frail elder brother, who has returned from a life as missionary in Africa. However, as the summer ends, the family foresees the sadness and economic privations under which the family will suffer as all hopes fade.

Friel had been thinking about writing a "Lough Derg" play for several years, and his "Wonderful Tennessee" (1993) stages three couples in their failed attempt to revive a pilgrimage to a small island off the Ballybeg coast. As they await their ferryman who never comes, the couples are forced to spend a night on an abandoned pier, singing (both inspirational songs and show tunes), recounting local history, expounding on religious myth, and reminiscing on their lives, friendships, secrets, and mishaps. As the night fades into morning, they are seized with the passionate determination to sacrifice one of their group--unconsciously re-enacting a local murder in the 1930s that was inspired by religious ecstasis--their friend survives, though all pledge to return next year to re-enact their ritual.

"Molly Sweeney" (1993) enjoyed considerable success on the stage, but it attracted little critical interest, perhaps because of its superficial similarities to "Faith Healer" (1979), another play comprised of a series of monologues delivered on an empty stage by characters who have no interaction. This play is about a blind woman in Ballybeg who constructed for herself an independent life rich in friendships and sensual fulfillment and her ill-fated encounter with two men who destroy her life--Frank, the man she marries who becomes convinced that she can only be complete when her vision is restored, and Dr. Rice, a once-renowned eye surgeon who uses Molly to restore his career. In a note in the programme of the 1996 Broadway production Friel says that the story was inspired in part by Oliver Sacks's "To See and Not See". [Vincent Canby, [ "Seeing, in Brian Friel's Ballybeg"] , "New York Times", 8 January 1996.]

"Give Me Your Answer Do!" recounts the lives and careers of two novelists and friends who pursued different paths--one writing shallow, popular works and the other writing works that refuse to compromise to popular tastes. After an American university paid a small fortune for the popular writer's papers, their careers are cast into stark contrast when the same collector comes to review the manuscripts of the impoverished artist. They all gather for a dinner party as the collector prepares to announce whether he will recommend the papers to his university, but at the last moment the existence of two "hard-core" pornographic novels based on the writer's daughter forces everyone to reassess his career.

Late works

Entering his eighth decade, Friel found it difficult to maintain the writing pace that he returned to in the 1990s; indeed, between 1997 and 2003 he produced only the very short one-act plays "The Bear" (2002), "The Yalta Game" (2001), and "Afterplay" (2002), all published under the title "Three Plays After" (2002). The latter two plays stage Friel's continued fascination with Chekhov's work: the former staging Chekhov's story "The Lady with the Lapdog", the latter imagining a near-romantic meeting between Andrey Prozorov of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" and Sonya Serebriakova of his "Uncle Vanya". However, the most innovative work of this period is "Performances" (2003), a meditation on the fears of aging and the intersection of life, love, and art in a long one-act play that combines drama with a staged performance of Leos Janáček's "Intimate Letters" for string quartet. In this play Anezka Ungrova, a graduate working on the impact of Janáček's unrequited love for Kamila Stosslova on his work, playfully and passionately argues with the composer--more than 70 years after his death--on his life and her life, while players of the Alba String Quartet interrupt their dialogue, warm up, chat, and finally play the first two movements of his Second String Quartet in a tableau that ends the play. In some transparent ways, "Performances" suggests Friel's personal concerns since the composer Janáček is portrayed as Friel's age at composition (74 years), and he expresses his anxiety over not being up to the challenges of scaling for a final time "the mountain" of creating a full-scale work.

The final, full-scale work that Friel had in mind while writing "Performances" was "The Home Place" (2005), his final play set in Ballybeg. Although Friel had written plays about the Catholic gentry, this is his first play that directly considers the Protestant experience, and in this work, he considers the first hints of the waning of Ascendancy authority during the summer of 1878, the year before Charles Stuart Parnell became president of the Land League and initiated the Land Wars. The play focuses on the aging Christopher Gore, who struggles to maintain his authority over both maturing son David and restive peasants, the latter under the growing influence of local Fenians. Gore's ability to claim legitimacy as one of the region's model landlords is threatened by the arrival of his cousin Richard, who demeans the servants by seeking to advance his phrenological research, and the crisis that results places his son in the unresolved position as one who both usurps and submits to the paternal authority upon which the Gore family authority rests. After a sold-out season at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, it transferred to London's West End on 25 May 2005, making its American premiere at the Guthrie Theater (Minneapolis, MN) in September 2007.


1. The National Library of Ireland houses the 160 boxes of The Brian Friel papers (Collection #73 [MSS 37,041-37,806] , gifted to the state in December 2000), containing notebooks, manuscripts, playbills, correspondence, contracts, unpublished manuscripts, programmes, production photos, articles, uncollected essays, and a vast collection of ephemera relating to Friel's career and creative process from 1959 through 2000--note, it does not contain his Irish Press articles, which can be found in the Dublin and Belfast newspaper libraries.

2. Films have been made of "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" (1975), starring Donal McCann, directed by John Quested, screenplay by Brian Friel; and "Dancing at Lughnasa" (1998), starring Meryl Streep, directed by Pat O'Connor, script by County Donegal playwright Frank McGuinness. Neil Jordan completed a screenplay for a film version of "Translations" that was never produced.

3. "Lovers" was adapted into an opera entitled "Ballymore" (1999) by Richard Wargo.

4. Over the course of his career Brian Friel has guarded his private life to such a great extent that many of his basic biographical details remain unclear; for example, uncertainly remains whether his father was named "Patrick," which is the consensus belief, or "Sean," as listed in "The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel." Similarly, Dantanus, Pine, and Boltwood disagree regarding the length and itinerary of Friel's 1963 sojourn to the United States. While he was unusually responsive to interview requests from 1980 through 1985 because of his role as Field Day's premier artist, most of his career is marked by a public reluctance that often becomes reclusiveness. Unlike most writers, he has written very few essays, and after 1970 they have been very brief and increasingly rare--sometimes merely a page or two. Thus, the two published versions of his "Self Portrait," both of 1972, have attained a place of primacy for those practicing biographical criticism; in his book, Boltwood argues for a greater prominence for The Irish Press series in understanding Friel's intellectual and ideological development. (Boltwood further argues that Friel has sought to expunge these essays from his body of work--they are not included in the otherwise comprehensive Friel Papers housed in the National Library of Ireland--because, he argues, they are often too personal and revealing for the playwright.) Indeed, while Friel is occasionally filmed staring pensively into the distance in the authorized, year 2000 documentary produced by Ferndale Films (written by fellow playwright and Friel's personal friend Thomas Kilroy), he only speaks briefly at the film's end. Similarly, when Radio Telefís Éireann presented a series, entitled Reading the Future (1999), of hour-long interviews with Ireland's greatest living authors (including Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Edna O'Brien, and William Trevor), Friel was the sole designee not to participate--the Friel interview featured theater critic Fintan O'Toole, Irish scholar Declan Kiberd, and director Patrick Mason in a discussion of his work. Despite his famed public reticence, Friel is noted for his conversation and wit in private settings.

5. Twelve of Friel's plays have been set either in the fictional town of "Ballybeg" (from the Irish for "Small Town"--Baile Beag)) or in its environs: "Philadelphia, Here I Come!", "Crystal and Fox", "The Gentle Island", "Living Quarters", "Aristocrats", "Translations", "The Communication Cord", "Dancing at Lughnasa", "Wonderful Tennessee", "Give Me Your Answer Do!" and "The Home Place", while the seminal event of "Faith Healer" takes place in the town. (Pine additionally argues that "The Loves of Cass McGuire" belongs among the Ballybeg plays.) According to such scholars as Dantanus and Pine, Ballybeg is based upon Friel's childhood memories of Glenties, Co. Donegal, his mother's home town, while Boltwood has also traced aspects of the town's depiction to a series in his "Irish Press" essays that depicts Friel's attempts to gain social acceptance in a small Donegal town where he had bought a summer cabin. These plays present an extended history of this imagined community, with "Translations" and "The Home Place" set in the nineteenth century. With the other plays set in "the present" but written throughout the playwright's career from the early 1960s through the late 1990s, the audience is presented with the totalizing evolution of rural Irish society, from the isolated and backward town that Gar flees in the 1964 "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" to the propserous and multicultural small city of "Molly Sweeney" (1994) and "Give Me Your Answer Do!" (1997), where the characters have health clubs, ethnic restaurants, and regular flights to the world's major cities.

6. Most of Friel's plays have been performed extensively in Dublin at the Abbey, Gate and Olympia theatres, in many West End theatres in London and on Broadway. '

7. During the 1970-71 academic year, he was Visiting Writer at Magee College. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Rosary College, River Forest, Illinois in 1974.

8. Friel's plays are often characterised by very heavy stage directions, from which much information is alluded to, and can be gleaned about the setting, characters and meaning. Richard Allen Cave, Joanne Tompkins, and Anna McMullan have written various articles on Friel's staging directions, physicality, and scenography.

9. Friel uses a lot of foreshadowing in many of his plays, sometimes subtely and sometimes (when analysing the text, it seems) more heavy handedly.

10. Friel's only known hobby is bee keeping, though he has elsewhere expressed some interest in other nature-based activitiies; he is not traditionally associated with environmentalism per se, yet his work does express an abiding interest in the interaction between nature and the individual: see especially, "The Enemy Within", "Crystal and Fox", "The Gentle Island", "Wonderful Tennessee", and "The Home Place".


(Dates indicate year of first production)
* "A Sort of Freedom" (unpublished radio play, 1958)
* "To This Hard House" (unpublished radio play, 1958)
* "A Doubtful Paradise" (unpublished, 1960)
* "The Enemy Within" (1962)
* "The Blind Mice" (unpublished, 1963)
* "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" (1964)
* "The Founder Members" (unpublished TV play, 1964)
* "Three Fathers, Three Sons" (unpublished TV play, 1964)
* "The Loves of Cass McGuire" (1966)
* "" (1967)
* "Crystal and Fox" (1968)
* "The Mundy Scheme" (1969)
* "The Gentle Island" (1971)
* "The Freedom of the City" (1973)
* "Volunteers" (1975)
* "Farewell to Ardstraw" (unpublished BBC TV play, 1976)
* "The Next Parish" (unpublished BBC TV play, 1976)
* "Living Quarters" (1977)
* "Faith Healer" (1979)
* "Aristocrats" (1979)
* "Translations" (1980)
* "Three Sisters" (Anton Chekhov translation, 1981)
* "American Welcome" (7-minute one-act play, 1981)
* "The Communication Cord" (1982)
* "Fathers and Sons" (Ivan Turgenev adaptation, 1987)
* "Making History" (1988)
* "Dancing at Lughnasa" (1990)
* "The London Vertigo" (Charles Macklin adaptation, 1991)
* "A Month in the Country" (Turgenev adaptation, 1992)
* "Wonderful Tennessee" (1993)
* "Molly Sweeney" (1994)
* "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" (1997)
* "Uncle Vanya" (Chekhov adaptation, 1998)
* "The Yalta Game" (one-act Chekhov adaptation, 2001)
* "The Bear" (one-act Chekhov adaptation, 2002)
* "Afterplay" (one-act play, 2002)
* "Performances" (70-minute one-act play, 2003)
* "The Home Place" (2005)
* "Hedda Gabler" (Henrick Ibsen adaptation, 2008)


* 1988 First London production of "Aristocrats" wins "Evening Standard" best play award.
* 1989 First New York production of "Aristocrats" wins New York Drama Critics Circle award for best foreign play.
* 1991 First London production of "Dancing at Lughnasa" wins Olivier award for best play of 1991.
* 1992 First New York production of "Dancing at Lughnasa" wins New York Drama Critics Circle award for best play.
* 1992 First New York production of "Dancing at Lughnasa" wins three Tony awards, including Best Play.
* 1996 First New York production of "Molly Sweeney" wins New York Drama Critics Circle award for best foreign play.
* 2006 The New York production of "Faith Healer" wins a Tony Award for best male actor (Ian McDiarmuid).

Books on Brian Friel

* Maxwell, D.E.S., "Brian Friel." Bucknell University Press, 1973.
* Dantanus, Ulf, "Brian Friel: A Study." Faber & Faber, 1989.
* O’Brien, George, "Brian Friel." Gill & Macmillan, 1989.
* Andrews, Elmer, "The Art of Brian Friel." St. Martin's, 1995.
* Pelletier, Martine, "Le théâtre de Brian Friel: Histoire et histoires." Septentrion, 1997.
* McGrath, F.C., "Brian Friel's (Post)Colonial Drama." Syracuse University Press, 1999.
* Pine, Richard, "The Diviner: The Art of Brian Friel." University College Dublin Press, 1999.
* Corbett, Tony, "Brian Friel: Decoding the Language of the Tribe." The Liffey Press, 2002.
* Boltwood, Scott. "Brian Friel, Ireland, and The North." Cambridge University Press, 2007.
See also
* "Brian Friel: Essays, Diaries, Interviews, 1964-1999" (ed. Christopher Murray). Faber & Faber, 1999.
* "Brian Friel in Conversation" (ed. Paul Delaney). University of Michigan Press, 2000.

ee also

*The Abbey Theatre
*The Gate Theatre
*Seamus Heaney
*Thomas Kilroy
*Frank McGuinness
*Stephen Rea
*Northern Ireland
*List of Northern Irish writersbobobobobob


External links

* [ Aosdána biographical note]
* [ Faber and Faber] - UK publisher of Brian Friel's plays
* [ About Friel: The Playwright and the Work] ed. by Tony Coult
* [ Brian Friel in Conversation] ed. by Paul Delaney
* [ The Diviner: The Art of Brian Friel] by Richard Pine
* [ Brian Friel, Ireland, and The North] by Scott Boltwood

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