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A CurtainUp Feature
An Overview of Brian Friel's's Career
By Elyse Sommer
Check out our Playwright's Album for more famous playwright profiles
Trademarks Of Friel's's Work
Chronology of Produced Plays
Published and Unpublished Work
Films, Television, Radio
Awards and Honors
Links To Reviews
Quotes By Brian Friel and About Him
Brian Friel was born January 9, 1929 in Omagh, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland and has been one of Ireland's most celebrated playwrights for five decades. His father was a primary school teacher who became a member of the local city council in Derry. His mother, Mary McLoone, was postmistress of Glenties, County Donegal. Friel attended St Columb's College in Derry, received his B. A. from St. Patrick's College, Maynooth in 1948 and became a teacher at St. Joseph's Training College.
In 1954 Friel married Anne Morrison in 1954. They have four daughters and one son. In addition to his prolific writing he served from 1987 to 1989 in the Seanad Éireann.
As he approached his seventies, Friel's writing pace slowed and after 1997 his main output consisted of some short on-act plays -- The Bear (2002), The Yalta Game (2001), and Afterplay (2002). These one-acts were published in 2002 under the umbrella title Three Plays After. He did publish another full-scale play in 2005 that took place in the famous fictional Ballybeg -- The Home Place (2005), the last of his plays set in Ballybeg.
Friel's life as a writer began in earnest when in 1960 he took leave from his job as a teacher. The family eventually settling outside Greencastle, County Donegal.
While still struggling as a full-time writer Friel wrote articles and short stories. He began writing short stories for The New Yorker in 1959. This was followed by two collections: The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966). He also wrote for The Irish Press, a Dublin- newspaper. He also wrote several radio plays for the BBC Northern Ireland Home Service: A Sort of Freedom, (January 16, 1958) and To This Hard House (April 24, 1958)
The first Friel stage play, A Doubtful Paradise in 1960, was not a big success and its author was later quoted as saying that he feared that his play contributed to the collapse of the Belfast-based Ulster Group Theatre that produced it. His 1962 play, The Enemy WithinThe Blind Mice (1963) , was the most successful effort of this fledgling playwriting period; its 6-week debut ran at Dublin's Eblana Theatre was followed by a revival at the Lyric, and numerous radio airings by radio Éireann and the BBC Home Service. Back to the top
Shortly after a two month stint as "observer"at Tyrone Guthrie's theater in Minneapolis (May and June 1963), Friel wrote Philadelphia Here I Come! (1964), which immediately made him famous in Dublin, London, and New York. Philadelphia. . . retains its status as a turning point in Irish drama, moving it (away from the genre of peasant plays) and as one of the most important plays of the 1960s. Further success came with The Loves of Cass McGuire in 1966), and Lovers in 1967; the latter expanded Friel's success to the United States.
In 1973 Fried wrote an explicitly political work about the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, The Freedom of the City. This unflinching take on the Irish government was also depicted in The Mundy Scheme (1969) and Volunteers. But Friel's political activism wasn't limited to his plays. On the day known as "Bloody Sunday" (January 30, 1972), he joined a crowd of marchers in a Civil Rights Association protest against internment. Thirteen marchers were killed, and another thirteen wounded when armed British 1st Battalion Parachute Brigade opened fire on the crowd. The Freedom of the City, which was then in the works, took on a sharper edge as a result of that day's events and became one of the major plays about the "Troubles."
A few years later Friel's plays morphed from the political to the familial which led to frequent comparison with Chekhov. Living Quarters (1977), about a family of sisters, a ne'er-do-well brother and a domineering father's suicide paved the way for his most successful foray into Chekhov teritory, Aristocrats (1979). It was during this period that the playwright also used various cutting edge techniques: splitting the main character into two actors, portraying dead characters, alienated Brechtian and choric figures, metacharacters within a collective unconscious Limbo. These experimental techniques gained full force with Faith Healer (1979) with its four conflicting monologues delivered by dead and living characters who struggle to understand the life and death of Frank Hardy, the title character. Though Friel's experimental dramaturgy eventually gave way to more realistic plays like Translations in 1980 and his super hit, Dancing at Lughnasa in 1990, he never completely abandoned his penchant for avant-garde playwriting.
Despite his continued fame and success, the 1980s are often viewed as an artistic gap in Friel's artistic oeuvre, with fewer major new original works published. However, he did involve himself with a number of other worthy projects, notably his translations of Chekhov's Three Sisters (1981) and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (1987) .
During the 1990s Friel was seen to return to a position of dominance of Irish theatre with the premieres of his biggest hit, Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). This was followed by Molly Sweeney (1994), a story inspired in part by Oliver Sacks's To See and Not; also Give Me Your Answer Do! (1997). This period also included his version of Turgenev's A Month in the Country for the Abbey Theatre and a more minor fourth play, Wonderful Tennessee (1993). This last, about three couples's failed pilgrimage to a small island off the Ballybeg coast, was the culmination of years of thinking about writing a "Lough Derg" Back to the top
Trademarks Of Friel's Work
The playwright's work tends to be more notable for its talk than it's action and his plots tend not to leave you with any clear, definitive answers to questions raised. His favorite themes tend to focus on the interaction between various kinds of failed institutions which includes government, church, class and family, not to mention, the individual personality.
Beginning with his first international success, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, a dominant theme has been exile, as depicted by characters who feel compelled to leave a place to which they are deeply attached for the sake of personal growth and integrity. Gar of Philadelphia. . ., whose suitcase stands ready for his departure from his home, sums up this need as well as Friels habit of not providing clear answers. His response to his alter ego's question "Why do you have to leave? " is "I-I-I don't know."
Characters in other well known Friel plays echo his belief that too much certainty is not a good thing and that, as a character in Translations puts it "confusion is not an ignoble condition." A trademark setting in more than a dozen Friel plays is in or near the fictional town of Ballybeg which is Irish for Small Town or -Baile Beag. Viewed as a whole, the Bailybeg plays depict an extended history of the author's imagined community, ranging from the nineteenth century all the way to Give Me Your Answer Do! in 1997.
Irish he may be, but the characters and lives portrayed resonate universally -- very much like Chekhov's characters-- in fact, Friel has often been tagged as an Irish Chekhovian, with The Aristocrats his most Chekhovian play.
While he wrote two plays with all-male casts and other early plays featured more men than women characters, rich roles for women became a Friel trademark in the 1990s with plays like Dancing at Lughanasa. Back to the top
Chronology of Produced Stage Plays
This Doubtful Paradise produced by the Ulster Group Theatre, Belfast, in 1959
Philadelphia, Here I Come! (Dublin, 1964; NY, 1966; London, 1967)
The Loves of Cass McGuire (NY, 1966; Dublin, 1967) overs (Dublin, 1967; NY, 1968; London, 1969), consisting of two plays — Winners and Losers and Crystal and Fox (Dublin, 1968; NY, 1973).
The Freedom of the City (London and Dublin, 1973; NY, with Kate Reid, 1974) Faith Healer (NY, 1979; Dublin, 1980; London, 1981)
Aristocrats (Dublin, 1979; London, 1988)
Translations, premiered in Derry in 1980 by Field Day Theatre Company of which he was co-founder. Produced in New York and London in 1981
Communication Cord (1983)
and Making History (1988) a companion piece to Translations which re-examines the life of an Irish national hero.
Dancing at Lughnasa (NT, 1990; NY, 1991) Back to the top
Published and Unpublished Play Chronology
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)
Lovers: Winners and Losers (1967)
Crystal and Fox (1968)
The Mundy Scheme (1969)
The Gentle Island (1971)
The Freedom of the City (1973)
Farewell to Ardstraw (unpublished BBC TV play, 1976)
The Next Parish (unpublished BBC TV play, 1976)
Living Quarters (1977)
Faith Healer (1979)
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)
Film, Television, Radio
Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1975), starring Donal McCann, directed by John Quested, screenplay by Friel
Dancing at Lughnasa (1998), starring Meryl Streep, directed by Pat O'Connor, script by County Donegal playwright Frank McGuinness
Screenplay for a film version of Translations by Neil Jordan was never produced. Lovers was adapted into an opera entitled Ballymore in 1999) Back to the top
Awards and Honors
1966 Tony Award Best Play Philadelphia, Here I Come! [nominee]
1969 Tony Award Best Play Lovers [nominee] 1988 Evening Standard Award for Best Play - Aristocrats
1989 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play - Aristocrats
1991 Laurence Olivier award for Best Play - Dancing at Lughnasa
1992 New York Drama Critics Circle award for best play - at Lughnasa
1992 Tony awards, including Best Play - Dancing at Lughnasa
1992 Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Play Dancing at Lughnasa [nominee]
1996 New York Drama Critics Circle award for best foreign play - Molly Sweeney
1996 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Play - Molly Sweeney [nominee]
In 1989, BBC Radio launched a Brian Friel Season. This six-play season marked the first time a living playwright received such an honor. 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, 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. That same year Friel also received a lifetime achievement award from the Irish Times. In 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 honor at any one time.
2009 was the year of Friel's birthday which brought the somewhat reclusive playwright into the spotlight. Celebratory events included: The Queen's University of Belfast opened a new theater complex and research centre, to be named The Brian Friel Theatre and Centre for Theatre Research . . . the Gate Theatre celebrated the birthday by presenting three of his plays (Faith Healer, The Yalta Game, and Afterplay). . . the Abbey Theatre presented "A Birthday Celebration for Brian Friel," — 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. . . the journal, Irish Theatre International published a special Friel Issue with seven articles devoted to the playwright. Back to the top
Links To Reviews
Afterplay (London 2005)
Afterplay (DC 2005) Aristocrats(2009)
The Aristocrats (Lincoln Center Summer Festival
Dancing at Lughanasa(London 2009)
Dancing at Lughanasa(Off-Broadway-Irish Rep 2011)
The Faith Healer (London 2001)
The Faith Healer (Broadway 2006)
Freedom of the City(Lincoln Center Summer Festival
Give Me Your Answer DO! (Off-Broadway 1999)
Home Place (London 2005)
Lovers (Off-Broadway 2012)
Molly Sweeney/Brian Friel (Off-Broadway revival-Irish Rep 2011)
Philadelphia Here I Come (Williamstown Theatre Festival 2001)
Philadelphia Here I Come (Irish Rep 2005)
Back to the top
Quotes by and about Brian Friel
You work hard at your job, you try to keep the home together but suddenly you realize that cracks are formin' everywhere. It's all about to collapse, Maggie.--Kate Mundy, Dancing at Lughnasa
And so, when I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me. . .what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. — Michael in Dancing in Lughnas
Faith healer--faith healing. A craft without an apprenticeship, a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry. . .occasionally it worked. . .And when it did, when I stood before a man and placed my hands on him and watched him become whole in my presence, those were nights of exultation, of consummation. . .because the questions that undermined my life then became meaningless and because I know that for those few hours I had become whole in myself, and perfect in myself. . . - Frank, The Faith Healer.
Screwballs, we've eaten together like this for the past twenty-odd years, and never once in all that time have you made as much as one unpredictable remark. ---Private Gar, Philadelphia Here I Come
All this bloody yap about father and son and all this sentimental rubbish about homeland and birthplace -- yap! Bloody yap! Impernanence - anonymity-- that's what I'm looking for; a vast restless place that doesn't give a damn about the past. To hell with Ballybeg, that's what I say! --- Gar , to his now married sweetheart who has come to say goodbye on the eve of his leaving the dull certainties of Ballybeg for the uncertainties of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Here I Come.
It is sometimes hard to believe that there's only one Brian Friel -- Culture Critic UK
To remember everything is a form of madness.<-- Jimmy, Translations It is not the literal past, the 'facts' of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language -- Hugh, Translations
An autobiographical fact may be a lie and no less true for all of that.— Brian Friel, source unknown
Perhaps the important thing is not the accurate memory but the successful invention. And at this stage of my life I no longer know what is invention and what is "authentic." The two have merged into one truth, for me Ballybeg is a village of the minde , more a depository for the remembered or invented experience than a geographic location. -- Brian Friel in interview with D.E. S. Maxwell Back to Top
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