One of the great losses to Irish letters is Brian Friel's reluctance to comment publicly on his work (or on anything else). It wasn't always so. Till the mid 1980s, at least, he regularly did interviews and occasionally wrote essays. They illuminate both his work and the times.
With a new production of his 1979 play Aristocrats just opened at the Abbey (running till August 2; see www.abbeytheatre.ie), I've turned for insights into his creative process to the fragmentary diary Friel wrote at the time, as published in Christopher Murray's edited volume of Friel's essays, diaries and interviews.
Friel was 47 when he started work on Aristocrats, in 1976. He had had one great success 10 years before with Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and mixed success in the decade since.
The writer that emerges from the diary is almost unbearably hesitant, inching forward, mired in doubt. Politics haunts him: he seems to feel a constant pressure to make his play political, but spurns it: "If there are politics, they are underground." (Three years earlier, he had confronted politics overground in The Freedom of the City, based in part on Bloody Sunday.)
Instead, that summer, he has an idea for a play that will be almost undramatic, one of "articulate people wondering about themselves and ferreting into concepts of Irishness." (These will become the O'Donnell family, gathering at their ancestral home, Ballybeg Hall.)
On September 1, he notes in his diary that the play should have "an odour of musk – incipient decay, an era wilted, people confused and nervous."
By early November, he has "a scent of the new play," though he has "scarcely any idea of character, plot, movement, scene." A month later, he is still "only laying siege to it." He has the "persistent sense that the play is about three ageing sisters," but is irritated by the intrusion of "irrelevant politics, social issues, class."
There is no entry from the end of January to May. "Mark time. Mark time," he writes on May 2. By late May, "the play has become elaborate" but, he worries, "has it a centre?"
By the end of the month, he is nagged by "a persistent feeling that I should leave the play aside until it finds its own body and substance." He tells himself to "crouch down" and "listen."
His attitude to his play "alternates between modest hope and total despair." He struggles to find its "essence."
By September, a year into work on the play, he senses that all the characters are "ready in the wings." And then he has a burst of productivity: the play takes off, "not with a dramatic lift, but resolutely, efficiently." But just as suddenly: "a standstill." Now, "the entire play seems specious, forced, concocted."
A day later, he is "moving, inching forward again." But still there are "whole areas – central characters, integral solutions – about which I know nothing." Another week, and "the play has stopped; has thwarted me."
He reminds himself again to ignore the demands of the outside world: "The imagination is the only conscience."
In November, he seems to have another block. He consoles himself: "when I come upstairs at a fixed time and sit at this desk for a certain number of hours, without a hope of writing a line, without a creative thought in my head, I tell myself that what I am doing is making myself obediently available – patient, deferential, humble."
Then, on the last day of January, 1978, he manages to "browbeat" the material into a first act. But is it any use? "I don't know. Occasionally I get excited by little portions."
And there the diary excerpts end – presumably because the work takes off. On May 19 – almost two years after he started thinking of the play – he writes, simply: "The play completed and christened Aristocrats."
"I don't know what a born writer is," he has said, elsewhere. "The craft of writing is something you learn painfully and slowly." It is good to be reminded of that by a master.