Plays were never far from home

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

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.”

NIALL CAR­SON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ir­ish play­wright Brian Friel sit­ting in a theater in Dublin in 2009.

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