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Obituary: Brian Friel

Brian Friel. Photo: Tristram Kenton Brian Friel. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Brian Friel was a towering figure in Irish theatre, one whose canon of 39 plays redefined the craft and ambition of playwriting in Ireland, over a career that spanned six decades and brought him respect and fame at home and abroad.

The inheritor of Samuel Beckett’s mantle as “Ireland’s greatest living playwright”, it became something of a cliche in later years to describe Friel as “Ireland’s Chekhov”. But it was a more than apposite comparison, his plays rooted in a vivid sense of place and populated by instantly recognisable characters to whose inner lives he brought a revealing X-ray-like clarity underpinned by wit and compassion.

Born in 1929 in the village of Killyclogher, County Tyrone, to a schoolmaster father and postmistress mother, he moved with the family to Londonderry when he was 10 and, on leaving school, spent two years studying for the priesthood before following his father into teaching.

During his decade-long spell in the classroom, he began to write short stories, several of which were published in The New Yorker magazine. He wrote his first plays for radio broadcast, on what was then known as the BBC Northern Ireland Home Service, in the late 1950s.

His first venture into theatre came with 1960’s A Doubtful Paradise for the now long gone Ulster Group Theatre in Belfast, following it with The Enemy Within for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1962.

Friel broke through into the mainstream in 1964 with Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which explored a familiar trope in modern Irish art: emigration to America. First seen at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin – when The Stage’s reviewer hailed it as “a play that has restored my faith in Irish writing and theatre” – it transferred to Broadway and subsequently to London’s Lyric Theatre in 1967.

Controversy surrounded Friel’s most explicitly political play, 1973’s The Freedom of the City, which touched on the events of the previous year’s Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, when British soldiers shot dead 14 innocent civilians during a Civil Rights demonstration.

Aside from his 1975 play Volunteers – in which IRA prisoners are press-ganged into helping with an archaeological dig – Friel would never again be so unambiguous or so bold in treating contemporary events, but his plays constantly returned to themes of identity, private conflict and political pressure, fed by a telling sense of theatre’s role in engaging with the inscrutable affairs of the heart and those of an incomprehensible world.

Increasingly, the dynamics of family life shared centre stage in Friel’s plays, alongside examinations of Ireland’s colonial past. Faith Healer, in 1979, pointedly explored recent folk memories through four monologues that together formed a more complex picture than they asserted individually. (Revived on Broadway in 2006, it saw Ian McDiarmid pick up a Tony award.)

Premiered by Field Day, the hugely influential Derry-based theatre company Friel created with actor Stephen Rea, 1980’s Translations focused on another central concern: language, its cultural significance and its appropriation for divisive political ends.

Such a conceit informed many of Friel’s plays set in the fictional village of Ballybeg (an Anglicisation of the Irish for “small town” and based on his mother’s birthplace of Glenties in County Donegal), its various inhabitants assuming a revealing universality in their struggles with the travails and triumphs of domestic and civic life.

He wrote little in the 1980s, preoccupied by the development and expansion of Field Day – whose remit broadened into pamphleteering, poetry and much else – but returned to the stage in 1990 with what many regard as his masterpiece, the Ballybeg-set Dancing at Lughnasa.

Originally staged by the Abbey Theatre, its London appearance at the National Theatre won the 1991 Olivier award for best play while its Broadway transfer lifted three Tony awards and was later made into an overly sentimentalised film version starring Meryl Streep.

Field Day’s The Communication Cord was an unexpected and unsuccessful foray into farce in 1983, Friel returning to surer, more familiar ground in 1998’s Making History. Seen at the National Theatre, it was a probing examination of the fateful Earl of Tyrone’s near-decade-long resistance to Elizabeth I’s brutal colonising of Ireland.

Nothing that followed matched the critical or commercial success enjoyed by Dancing at Lughnasa, although Wonderful Tennessee and Molly Sweeney (both 1993) showed Friel still had much to say. His later plays included admired versions of Chekhov, whose Three Sisters he adapted in 1981 and was seen at the Royal Court, Turgenev (Fathers and Sons memorably staged at the National Theatre in 1987), and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 2008.

Despite suffering a stroke in 2005 – the year in which The Home Place, starring Tom Courtenay, was staged by Adrian Noble at Dublin’s Gate Theatre before transferring to London’s Comedy Theatre – Friel continued to attend rehearsals of premieres and revivals of his plays with assiduous discipline.

In 1982 he was elected to membership of Aosdana, Ireland’s artistic elite, and in 2006 elevated to the position of Saoi (“learned elder”). He was a non-attending member of the Irish Senate from 1987 to 1989, and in 2009 Belfast’s Queen’s University gave his name to its theatre research centre.

In August this year, Friel’s life and work was the focus of the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival in Donegal and Belfast, where the city’s Lyric Theatre also mounted a 25th-anniversary production of Dancing at Lughnasa.

Brian Friel was born Bernard Patrick Friel on January 9, 1929. He died, aged 86, on October 2. He is survived by his wife and four children.

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