Saturday 3 December 2016

Obituary: Brian Friel

Titan of theatre who preferred to stay out of the spotlight and let his plays do the talking instead, writes Liam Collins

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

QUIET GENIUS: Playwright Brian Friel was a master storyteller who weaved out a phenomenally successful writing career that spanned more than 65 years
QUIET GENIUS: Playwright Brian Friel was a master storyteller who weaved out a phenomenally successful writing career that spanned more than 65 years

The writer and dramatist Brian Friel, who died on Friday at the age of 86, was best known for his plays Philadelphia Here I Come (1964), Translations (1980), and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), which was made into a film starring Hollywood actress Meryl Streep.

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As well as being one of the best-known international playwrights of his generation, he also attracted some of the best actors to his productions, including Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, Mick Lally and Ray McAnally, Donal Donnell, Donal McCann and Siobhan McKenna among many others.

However, he largely stayed out of the limelight himself despite having a writing career that spanned more than 65 years.

"I am married; I have five children; I live in the country; I smoke too much; I fish a bit, I read a lot; and get involved in sporadic causes and invariably I regret that involvement. And I hope that between now and my death, I will have acquired a religion, or a philosophy, or a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment," he said in a rare Self Portrait for the University of Michigan Press in 1990.

Bernard Patrick Friel was born in Killclogher near Omagh, Co Tyrone, in 1929. His father was a school teacher and his mother a Donegal-born postmistress. The family moved to Derry in 1939 when his father was employed in the Long Tower School in the city.

He was educated at St Columb's College in Derry, before going to Maynooth College to train for the priesthood. He left after two years and attended St Joseph's Teacher Training College in Belfast, where he qualified as a teacher.

While working in Derry in 1958 he married Anne Morrison, with whom he had five children - four daughters and one son, Mary, Judy, Sally, David and Patricia, who died in 2012. In 1960, he quit his job to become a full-time writer, moving to Donegal, where he had spent his summer holidays, first to Muff and later moving to Greencastle where he spent the rest of his life.

He had been writing short stories since the early 1950s and had some success, mainly in The New Yorker magazine and other US publications. His first collection, The Saucer of Larks, was published in 1962, and was followed by The Gold in the Sea in 1966.

Friel had also been writing radio plays for the BBC in Belfast, the first to be broadcast being A Sort of Freedom. However, his major writing breakthrough came with a production of The Enemy Within at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

After studying with Irish-born director Tyrone Guthrie at his theatre in Minneapolis in the United States during 1963, Friel returned to Ireland and his first major success in 1964, Philadelphia Here I Come, was produced at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. The story is based in a Donegal home the night before Gar O'Donnell is due to emigrate to the United States.

Friel used the device of having two actors play the main part - Patrick Bedford and Donal Donnelly. The 'Public Gar' is open and confident but the 'Private Gar' is in turmoil at the lack of connection to his father after the death of his mother. Eamon Morrissey and Emmet Bergin also acted in the first production.

The play was a major success in both Dublin and New York and has been in production in Ireland and elsewhere almost continually since.

With the advent of the Northern Troubles, Friel's theatrical emphasis changed, and Freedom of the City, based on the events surrounding Bloody Sunday, renewed his energy. However, he did say that the Border made no difference to him or his writing.

Through the 1970s, Friel's plays were premiered in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin but the failure of The Faith Healer in New York, which closed after just 20 performances on Broadway, was a major disappointment. But it was a success when subsequently staged at the Abbey Theatre.

In 1980, he teamed up with actor Stephen Rea, founding The Field Day Theatre Company to produce Translations, which premiered in Derry and then toured provincial Irish theatres and halls around Ireland. The board of the company included Seamus Heaney, film-maker David Hammond, commentator and poet Tom Paulin and writer Seamus Deane.

Despite its international success, mostly as a vehicle for the work of Brian Friel, it "came under attack both from revisionists (such as Conor Cruise O'Brien) and from feminists (such as Eavan Boland) as being nationalist and patriarchal in outlook", according to the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature.

In 1987, Friel, along with horse-racing magnate John Magnier, was appointed by Taoiseach Charles Haughey's to Seanad Eireann. He accepted the position but there is no record of him making any contribution to debates as he was consumed with his work for the stage. It was also somewhat ironic as one of Friel's early plays, The Mundy Scheme (1969), was a savage satire on the political establishment in the Republic.

But perhaps in thanks for his support, Charlie Haughey launched the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing in the presence of both Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney.

In 1990, he returned to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin for the first time in 11 years with the play Dancing at Lughnasa, the story of five Donegal sisters in the Thirties. He also formed a collaboration with impresario Noel Pearson, who was then on the board of the Abbey Theatre, which resulted in the play going to Broadway and later being made into a successful film.

Later in the 1990s, Friel collaborated with Michael Colgan in The Gate Theatre in Dublin, beginning with a memorable adaptation of Turgenev's A Month in The Country.

In recent years, Friel and his family handed over a large portion of his private papers to the National Library of Ireland under the Taxes Consolidation Act. Some of them, including diaries and matters relating to his financial affairs, have been embargoed until January 2034.

In his personal life, Friel was a quiet, soft-spoken man who shied away from the limelight and let his writing speak for him. He lived quietly in Donegal, apart from supervising his work in various parts of the world. When Dancing at Lughnasa picked up three Tony Awards in New York, Friel did not attend the ceremony as he did not like the attention.

He was a member of Aosdana in 1986, and of the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the British Royal Society of Literature. He was also conferred with two honorary doctorates by the National University of Ireland, among many other honours.

Sunday Independent

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