A writer whose fictional town of Ballybeg gave deep, resonant voice to generations of ordinary people living through times of deprivation, occupation and transformation, Brian Friel died on Friday at home in Greencastle, County Donegal, Ireland. Typically hypnotic in their use of language, Friel’s plays were catnip to a long roster of stage and film stars. Among his best-known works, Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Dancing At Lughnasa both were adapted for films, the first starring Donal McCann and Siobhan McKenna in 1975; the latter starring Meryl Streep and Michael Gambon in 1998, after winning the Tony Award for best play in 1992. His play Molly Sweeney, which had its American premiere in 1996 at the Roundabout Theatre Company, starred Catherine Byrne in the title role and Jason Robards and Alfred Molina.
Over the course of humor-suffused dramas including Translations, Aristocrats, Faith Healer (which starred James Mason in the Broadway premiere staged by Jose Quintero; Ralph Fiennes starred in a revival) and Lughnasa, Friel’s reinvention of his childhood home of Glenties in County Donegal gained a place in the literature, and more so in the hearts of theatergoers, comparable to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi and Horton Foote’s Harrison, Texas. These backwaters the writers captured vividly in the exacting details of lives that included struggle, love, passion, ambivalence, betrayal, disappointment — the full range of human emotion and experience — in settings suffused with the specters, sounds and smells of memory. As Friel himself said, quoting Oscar Wilde, the playwright enjoys the “inalienable privilege” of giving an “accurate description of what has never occurred.”
Often, and favorably, compared with Anton Chekhov, whose works he admired and adapted, Friel accented the revelation of character, though not at the expense of plot, a criticism often leveled against him. It’s just that his plots mimicked quotidian life in which revelation comes slowly and is very hard-won. Thus in Translations, which concerns the impact on Ballybeg of an order to Anglicize the Gaelic names of streets and places to conform with British cartography, a doomed romance between two young lovers, he a British soldier and she an Irish country girl, who do not share a common language is set against the universal conflict between those who hold fiercely to the old ways and those who would embrace change. “In a scene of throat-clutching poignancy, the two express their love for each other, he in English, she in Gaelic,” I wrote in Variety, “neither understanding what the other is saying (though it is all spoken in English), until at last Yolland begins speaking the Gaelic place names he has grown to love, she repeating them softly, like a chant, as they fall into one another’s arms.”
And in Molly Sweeney, the relationship between husband and wife is unexpectedly challenged when an operation restores the wife’s sight. Molly Sweeney also established Friel as a spinner of entrancing monolgues — also a component of Faith Healer — that sacrificed action and even dialogue almost entirely. Dancing At Lughnasa, arguably his crowning masterpiece, concerns five impoverished sisters whose bleak lives, broken dreams and misplaced loves find rapture in a moonlit explosion of pagan ecstasy as they dance to celebrate the advent of fall.
“I came to New York City for a weekend in 1980 but was cast in back-to-back plays at the Hudson Guild,” recalls Daniel Gerroll, who starred in the original Manhattan Theatre Club production of Translations. “So I stayed for four months. I was anxious to get back to London where my career had just started to take off before I left. But I was sent the script of Translations. I really did not want to do another play in America, but two thirds of the way through it I came upon the scene. I didn’t bother to read to the end of the play. I called the Manhattan Theatre Club and told them I simply had to do it. I will never forget the audience’s stillness night after night as the scene built effortlessly to the final words…. ‘Always…always.’ A dark room full of strangers all holding their breath until the lights dimmed.”
Given the depth of his Irish identity, then, it’s something of an irony that Friel’s vocation as playwright has its roots in an American experience: As a writer with a growing reputation especially for his short stories, Friel was invited by Sir Tyrone Guthrie to visit his newly founded namesake theater in Minneapolis. It was Guthrie who staged a modern-dress Hamlet with Hume Cronin, Jessica Tandy and Zoe Caldwell. That visit was soon followed by the Dublin premiere of Philadelphia, Here I Come!, about a young writer struggling over his flight to America and the land (and father) who exert a primal hold on him.
The Broadway opening of Philadelphia became front-page news when the producer, David Merrick, canceled a sold-out preview because the New York Times critic, Stanley Kauffmann, planned to attend. In a letter that enclosed his canceled tickets, Merrick wrote one sentence: “At your peril. Sincerely, David Merrick.” (“A play that took 10 years to write,” Kauffmann said, referring to the deadline pressure of opening night, “deserves more than a 50-minute review.” Responded Merrick: “I don’t think it will help them. I don’t think they know what they’re doing anyway.” The practice of critics attending the final previews instead of opening night is now standard. Kauffmann called the play likable “but a little flat.”)
A later Times critic, Frank Rich, gave a different account of Friel’s impact. Although poetry in the play was hardly scanted, he wrote, reviewing Dancing At Lughnasa in 1991, “its overwhelming power has almost nothing at all to do with beautiful words. Just as living is not a literary experience, neither is theater at its fullest — theater that is at one with the buried yearnings and grave disappointments that are the inescapable drama of everyday life.”