Plays were never far from home
Brian Friel, who explored the history, humor and tragedy of Irish life in more than 20 plays, including the widely acclaimed “Dancing at Lughnasa,” which won three Tony Awards in 1992, died Oct. 2 at his home in County Donegal, Ireland. He was 86.
His death was announced by the Arts Council of Ireland and widely noted in the Irish and British media. The Belfast Telegraph reported that he had cancer.
Mr. Friel, who was considered the leading Irish dramatist of his generation, first won acclaim in the 1960s for “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” an unsentimental treatment of the competing impulses of fleeing Ireland and embracing its people and traditions.
Notoriously shy of publicity, Mr. Friel lived most of his life in a rural corner of northwestern Ireland, and most of his plays were set in the fictional County Donegal village of Ballybeg. In its Gaelic spelling, “baile beag” means small town.
In spite of his limited landscape, Mr. Friel explored such universal themes as faith, language, political oppression, family struggle, exile and the idea of home. He was sometimes known as the “Irish Chekhov” for his adaptations of works by the Russian writers Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev, and for his ability to blend humor, regret and sorrow in his wistful evocations of the Irish countryside.
“Brian Friel,” New York Times drama critic Frank Rich wrote in 1981, “can write some of the most beautiful language to be heard in the contemporary theater.”
Among the many renowned actors who appeared in stage productions of Mr. Friel’s plays were Liam Neeson, Jason Robards, Alfred Molina and Ralph Fiennes. Meryl Streep starred in a 1998 film version of “Dancing in Lughnasa.”
Drifting through much of Mr. Friel’s work is the sense of alienation that he felt growing up as part of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Although few of his plays were overtly political, he directly addressed the Catholic-Protestant “Troubles” in Northern Ireland in his 1973 play “The Freedom of the City,” which was inspired by Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, in which British soldiers killed unarmed Irish demonstrators.
Mr. Friel took part in the march in Londonderry — the official name of the Northern Ireland city usually called Derry by Irish nationalists — and dived to the ground to avoid gunfire.
“The artist has to acquire his own armor and armory,” Mr. Friel told the New York Times in 1991, in one of his last known interviews. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy with people who feel they are silenced by opposition.”
In other plays, Mr. Friel explored Irish identity through humor, history and a more personal view of life. In “The Loves of Cass Maguire” (1966), for instance, he depicted the awkward return of an Irish woman to her homeland after she spent years in America.
His 1979 play “Faith Healer” contained long monologues about life and death, voiced by a central character — originally played in New York by actor James Mason— who professes to have healing powers.
“Translations,” first performed in 1980, was a historical tale set in the 1830s. It was an unflinching look at British hegemony in Ireland and a touchingly human drama, with a fraught love story at its heart.
The play toured throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland, by means of a theater company Mr. Friel founded with actor Stephen Rea. On both sides of the border, “Translations” was seen as a vehicle of cultural and political reconciliation.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” (pronounced “LOO- nah- sah”), perhaps Mr. Friel’s best-known play, had its premiere in Dublin in 1990. Drawn from memories of his mother’s family in Ulster and set in 1936, the play is an intricately woven tapestry of the lives of five sisters whose ambitions are shaped and stunted by geography, customs and faith.
In one memorable scene, the sisters break into an ecstatic dance in their kitchen, “dancing as if language had surrendered to movement,” says a narrator who is a stand-in for Mr. Friel as a child, “as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things.”
“Dancing at Lughnasa” debuted on Broadway in 1991 and won Tony Awards for best play, best director (Patrick Mason) and best featured actress (Brid Brennan).
“This play does exactly what theater was born to do,” Rich wrote in the Times, striking “deep chords that words cannot begin to touch.”
Bernard Patrick Friel was born Jan. 9, 1929, in Killyclogher, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. His name was officially recorded as Bernard, according to published reports, because the British registrar refused to recognize the traditional Irish name Brian.
In 1939, the family moved to Londonderry, where Mr. Friel’s father was a teacher and administrator in Catholic schools. His mother was in charge of a post office.
Mr. Friel studied for the priesthood at a Catholic seminary in Ireland before rejecting the idea because, as he said in 1991, “it would somehow have been in conflict with my belief in paganism.”
He then attended a college in Belfast and spent 10 years teaching mathematics in Catholic schools. During the 1950s, he began to write radio plays and published short stories in the New Yorker.
In 1963, he spent six months in Minneapolis, where he worked alongside the British theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie. Soon afterward, Mr. Friel wrote his breakthrough play, “Philadelphia, Here I Come!”
Mr. Friel wrote more than a dozen plays in the next 15 years and was acclaimed as Ireland’s finest playwright since Sean O’Casey and Samuel Beckett.
He settled in Greencastle, Ireland, where he described his life in 1972: “I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement.”
Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Anne Morrison Friel; and four children. He was predeceased by a daughter.
Mr. Friel’s later works included a play about Czech composer Leos Janacek and adaptations of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.” In 2006, “Faith Healer,” which had a short Broadway run in 1979, was successfully revived with Fiennes in the lead role.
Mr. Friel’s final play set in Ballybeg was “The Home Place” (2005), about a 19th-century revolt by Irish Catholics against Protestant landowners.
He did not write an autobiography, but all of his dramatic works were, in one way or another, a reflection of his memories and experiences.
“You invent an alternative life,” Mr. Friel said in 1991, “a fiction of your life each time you write a play.”
Irish playwright Brian Friel sitting in a theater in Dublin in 2009.