Ireland Bids Farewell to Its Best Modern Playwright

Brian Friel was a literary giant who continued Ireland's stunning history of greatness in the world of letters.

Niall Carson/PA Photos/Landov

It’s not easy being a writer in Ireland. You’ve all those giants looming over your shoulder. So if you’re a novelist, you’ve got Joyce to contend with, while poets have Yeats, and playwrights have J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey and Samuel Beckett. That’s some tough competition. Then again, maybe having all that greatness to contend with forms you up and forces you to find your own voice, your own way of doing things—or else.

Leaving their motivation aside, there is no denying that for the last half-century, Irish authors have bowed to no one on their way to creating literature as distinctive and durable as anything produced by their peers around the world, not to mention their homegrown predecessors. And no one did that any better than the playwright Brian Friel, who died Thursday at 86.

With his first big hit, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, in 1964, Friel made audiences forget all about the “peasant plays” of his illustrious predecessors—quite consciously, in fact, since one of this play’s themes is the yearning to break free of small-town Ireland’s claustrophobic grip. In the tragicomic drama of a young man about to emigrate to America, set on the eve of his departure, Friel demonstrated what would prove to be a lifelong knack for finding just the right dramatic devices with which to tell his story: he split his main character, young Gareth “Gar” O’Donnell, into two characters: Gar Public and Gar Private, each played by a different actor.

Friel would thereafter write many more or less naturalistic plays (he wrote more than 30 works for the stage, as well as two volumes of short stories). His most famous play, Dancing at Lughnasa, never monkeys around much with technique. But if Friel was anything, he was versatile, and he never hesitated to rearrange or sometimes simply jettison dramatic convention when it suited his purposes. In Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney, two of his greatest works, he reduced the action to monologues in which the actors address the audience but never each other.

I remember knowing this prior to seeing Molly Sweeney in a 1996 production in New York and thinking to myself that a play composed of monologues sounded like a tedious way to spend an evening. I went, as I recall, only because Jason Robards was in the cast. But I also remember realizing after the play was over that not once during its duration did I have occasion to remember my initial objection. What I thought about during the play I couldn’t tell you. I was too caught up in the story of a blind woman yearning for a chance at sight to think about anything else, certainly anything like a playwright’s dramatic strategies. I was held so completely in Friel’s sway that the way he chose to tell the story seemed like no choice at all. It seemed inevitable.

A few years ago, coming out of a New York production of Friel’s Translations, my wife and I found ourselves arguing heatedly over what the play meant. I was all on about the history, about the fight between the Irish and their English masters (the play is set in 1833 in rural Ireland, in the fictional town of Ballybeg, to which Friel would return again and again as setting for his works). Along the way to mapping the country, the English are busy replacing Irish names with English equivalents, such that Baile Beag (small town) becomes Ballybeg. I argued the play was about power, that its point was that whoever controls the language controls history and the way it’s handed down. My wife insisted that it was about communication, or the lack of it, the tragedy that people could sit in the same room and talk at each other and never hear what their companions meant.

If I had to choose, I think now that I would go with her point. But the fact is, I don’t have to make that choice, and I don’t think Friel, a great fan of Chekhov, meant to force the decision. I think he wanted it both ways, and I think he got what he wanted. His plays don’t solve things: they articulate mysteries. The ground in Friel’s landscape is never solid underfoot. There is always, as the narrator in Dancing at Lughnasa puts it, “a sense of unease, some awareness of a widening breach between what seemed to be and what was, of things changing too quickly before my eyes, of becoming what they ought not to be.”

But I mention that argument to make a larger point: Friel’s plays at their best seem intensely personal. For the duration of the performance, it is as if you and the playwright are locked in common purpose, that he speaks to you and only you. As a result, it is all too easy to become possessive about this shared bond, and it takes some time to shake loose of this self-flattering delusion, to realize finally that Friel is bigger than that, that he speaks to you and you and you, and you are not going to take his measure with just one performance.

It is tempting to say that we shouldn’t call Friel a great Irish playwright, that we should drop the qualifier and go with great playwright and leave it at that. But Ireland and its history are too much woven into the texture of his drama for that idea to get much traction. Yes, he does work from the specific to the general, and audiences from around the world who have never set foot in Ireland can appreciate his work. But the specifics never go away, they matter as much for him as they didn’t matter to Beckett, whose plays could take place anywhere. But even Beckett might have admitted that he, and Friel after him, were formed by a country so poor that growing up all they had to play with were words. Ireland is one of those places, like the American South, where sadness and humor are joined at the hip, where talk is an art, and a well-turned phrase is always enough to earn a guest an invitation to stay a little longer.

Likewise, it is tempting to argue that with the death of the Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney in 2013 and now with the death of Friel, that Ireland has lost the two greatest living beacons of its literature. Maybe so—people said the same when Joyce died, and Yeats as well, and they weren’t wrong at the time. But the course of modern Irish literature tells another story, one in which the well of inspiration never seems to run dry, where there is always someone to come along and pick up the torch. The sheer amount of great writing to emerge from a country roughly the size of South Carolina over the course of a century is nothing that any sane person would ever have predicted, and yet there it is. And distinctive though he surely was, Friel was just as surely a part of that tradition. He added immeasurably to its luster, and now it will have to get along without him somehow. But get along it will.