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 Brian Joseph Friel 

Brian Friel (born 9 January 1929) is an Irish dramatist and theatre director, originally from Northern Irelandmarker, now a resident of the Republic of Irelandmarker.


Friel was born in Omaghmarker, County Tyrone, the son of Patrick "Paddy" Friel. His father was a primary school teacher and later a councillor (or 'corporater') on Londonderry Corporation (as it was, up until 1970, officially called), the local city council in Derrymarker. Friel's mother, Mary McLoone, was postmistress of Glentiesmarker, County Donegalmarker (Ulf Dantanus provides the most detail regarding Friel's parents and grandparents, see Books below). He attended St Columb's College in Derry, received his B. A. from St. Patrick's College, Maynooth (1945-48), and qualified as a teacher at St. Joseph's Training College in Belfastmarker, 1949-50. He married Anne Morrison in 1954, with whom he has four daughters and one son; they remain married. Between 1950 and 1960, he worked as a Maths teacher in the Derry primary and intermediate school system, taking leave in 1960 to pursue a career as writer, living off his savings. In 1966, the Friels moved from 13 Malborough Street, Derry to Muff, County Donegal, eventually settling outside Greencastlemarker, County Donegal.

He was appointed to the Seanad Éireann in 1987 and served until 1989. In 1989, BBC Radio launched a "Brian Friel Season", a series devoted a six-play season to his work, He was the first living playwright to receive such an honour. 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. 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 ran in conjunction with the festival. In 1999, he also received a lifetime achievement award from the Irish Times.

On 22 January 2006 Friel was presented with a gold Torc by President Mary McAleese in recognition of his election as a Saoi by the members of Aosdána. Only seven members of Aosdána can hold this honour at any one time, and Friel joined fellow Saoithe Louis le Brocquy, Patrick Scott, Camille Souter, Seamus Heaney, Seóirse Bodley, 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."

In November 2008, The Queen's University of Belfastmarker announced its intention to build a new theatre complex and research centre, to be named The Brian Friel Theatre and Centre for Theatre Research.

To commemorate his 80th birthday in 2009, the Gate Theatre repeatedly staged three plays (Faith Healer, The Yalta Game, and Afterplay) during several weeks in September. In the midst of the Gate's productions, the Abbey Theatre presented "A Birthday Celebration for Brian Friel," on 13 September 2009 - an evening of staged readings (excerpts from Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Translations, and Dancing at Lughnasa), the performance of Friel-specific songs and nocturnes, and readings by Thomas Kilroy and Seamus Heaney. Although somewhat of a recluse, Friel attended the performance amid regular seating, received a cake while the audience sang "Happy Birthday," and mingled with well wishers afterwards.


1950s, 1960s, and 1970s

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 Ronald Mason for the BBC Northern Ireland Home Service in 1958: A Sort of Freedom (16 January 1958) and To This Hard House (24 April 1958). These were followed by A Doubtful Paradise, his first stage play, produced by the Ulster Group Theatre in late August 1960. While the play was politely received, such review titles as "Difficulties for cast in Group play" in the Belfast Telegraph and "New Ulster play at Group just avoids bathos" in The News Letter convey the play's reception.

While working as a struggling writer, Friel wrote 59 articles for The Irish Press, a Dublin-based newspaper, from April 1962 to 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.

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). Friel later admitted in a 1965 interview that he feared that his play A Doubtful Paradise (1960) contributed to the collapse of 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 Éireann 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 Éireann 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, during May and June 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. On 30 January 1972, Friel marched with the crowds in a Civil Rights Association protest against internment in defiance of a government ban. In circumstances that remain under intense debate, the soldiers of the British 1st Battalion Parachute Brigade opened fire on the crowd, killing thirteen and injuring thirteen others in what was to become known as "Bloody Sunday". Although in a 1973 interview with Eavan Boland Friel pointed out that he had been working on the play for about ten months prior to the event, he later added in a 1982 interview with Fintan O'Toole that Bloody Sunday transformed and sharpened the earlier play that became Freedom of the City. Along with such plays as John Boyd's The Flats (1971), Stewart Love's Me Oul Segocia (1979), and Martin Lynch's The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty (1982), Friel's play has become one of the essential plays about the Troubles that remain popular in Northern Ireland.

Volunteers (1975) stages an archeological excavation on the day before the site is turned over to a hotel developer, and uses Dublin's Wood Quay controversy as its contemporary point of reference. In this play, the Volunteers are IRA prisoners who have been indefinitely interned by the Dublin government, and the term Volunteer is both ironic, in that as prisoners they have no free will, and political, in that the IRA used the term to refer to its members. Using the site as a physical metaphor for the nation's history, the play's action examines how Irish history has been commodified, sanitized, and oversimplified to fit the political needs of society.

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. 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. This 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 assertively avant garde techniques: splitting the main character Gar into two actors in Philadelphia, Here I Come!; portraying dead characters in "Winners" of Lovers, Freedom, and Living Quarters; a Brechtian structural alienation and 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 itinerant healer who can neither understand nor command his unreliable powers, and the lives sacrificed to his destructive charismatic life. Later in his career, such experimental aspects became buried beneath the surface of more seemingly realist plays like Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990); however, avant-garde techniques remain a fundamental aspect of Friel's work into his late career.

1980s and 1990s

Translations was premiered in 1980 at Guildhall, 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 most of the world's English-speaking countries (including South Africa, Canada, the U.S. 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) and 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 premiere 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.

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. 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 was first considered a writer of the Irish male experience. However, he begins writing soroal plays--plays with numerous strong female parts—as early plays as Living Quarters (1977) and Aristocrats (1979), a development that culminates in the plays of the 1990s.

Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) is probably his most successful play; it premiered at the Abbey Theatremarker, transferred to London's West Endmarker, and went on to Broadwaymarker, 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 ecstasies. 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 composed 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.

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 conform 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 Yalta Game" is concerned with Chekhov's story "The Lady with the Lapdog", "Afterplay" is an imagining of 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 and love in a long one-act play, combining drama with a staged performance of Leoš Janáček's Intimate Letters four string quartet. In this play Anezka Ungrova, a graduate researching the impact of Janáček's platonic love for Kamila Stosslova on his work. It playfully and passionately argues with the composer, more than 70 years after his death about 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 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. 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 tenants by seeking to advance his anthropometric research. The resulting crisis places his son in an 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 Theatremarker in Dublinmarker, it transferred to London's West Endmarker on 25 May 2005, making its American premiere at the Guthrie Theatermarker (Minneapolismarker, MNmarker) in September 2007.


1. The National Library of Irelandmarker houses the 160 boxes of The Brian Friel papers (Collection #73 [MSS 37,041-37,806], given as a gift 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. 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 Donegalmarker 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 under debate. For example, uncertainty remains as to whether his father was named "Patrick," which is the general consensus, 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 and reclusiveness. 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 Éireannmarker 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. 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 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. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the British Royal Society of Literature and the Irish Academy of Letters. 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, Illinoismarker in 1974.



Further reading

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

  • Brian Friel in Conversation (ed. Paul Delaney). University of Michigan Press, 2000.
  • Brian Friel: Essays, Diaries, Interviews, 1964-1999 (ed. Christopher Murray). Faber & Faber, 1999.

See also


  1. Brian Friel Article archives
  2. Dantanus, Ulf, Brian Friel: A Study. Faber & Faber, 1989.
  3. Pine, Richard, The Diviner: The Art of Brian Friel. University College Dublin Press, 1999.
  4. Boltwood, Scott. Brian Friel, Ireland, and The North. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  5. Andrews, Elmer, The Art of Brian Friel. St. Martin's, 1995.
  6. Vincent Canby, "Seeing, in Brian Friel's Ballybeg", New York Times, 8 January 1996.
  7. Royal Society of Literature website.

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