Wednesday 13 December 2017

The unsettling truth revealed in Friel's fiction

The great playwright convinced us of the desirability of our own insecurities, writes the Sunday Independent drama critic Emer O'Kelly

MASTER STORYTELLER: In his works, Brian Friel’s characters invented fiction to hide a painful reality. Photo: Steve Humphreys
MASTER STORYTELLER: In his works, Brian Friel’s characters invented fiction to hide a painful reality. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Emer O'Kelly

Brian Friel held the mirror up to the Irish psyche and Irish identity, stripping away our posturing pretence at internationalism and cosmopolitanism. He wrote plays in which the characters, even the apparently "privileged" are obsessed with the uneasiness of their sense of self and nationhood. The mirror, you could say, is firmly lodged in the national navel, identifying the world through the invented Donegal village of Ballybeg . . . which Ireland and even the world outside knew was no invention but had its being in the town of Glenties in Donegal where Friel spent much of his youth. And his worldwide success as he became increasingly acclaimed as one of the English language's greatest playwrights of the twentieth century convinced us of the desirability of our own insecurities. We recognised and were comfortable with the portraits Friel showed us in the mirror . . . and the world nodded in agreement. This was what Irish genius was about. These were the plays they expected from Ireland, just as Heaney's was the poetry they expected: the uneasy suffocation of a world reduced to a subsistence of emotional longing and unfulfilment.

It was an Ireland the world wanted to believe in: people who strutted their braggadocio, only to crumble if challenged. And the memorably sad men and women, whether they never stepped beyond the borders of Ballybeg, or found themselves exiled and living on misty memories like the faraway missionary nun sister in Aristocrats or the shadowy tragedy of the two surviving Lundy sisters, ending their joyless, hopeless lives as nameless down and outs in London's unforgiving streets in Dancing at Lughnasa, are creatures of myth: their truth is shadowy and self-invented, a shifting surface, part brittle carapace, part delicate veil.

For Friel, truth was always something to be manufactured, an edifice of a moment in time which would provide protection against reality of either past or present. And always it had to do with isolation, the bewilderment of the individual buffeted by the overwhelming forces of a history which for Friel was always in flux.

That in itself was a paradox, because Brian Friel was anchored in two unyielding verities: nationalism and Catholicism. The former was his source of all justice: not to be questioned as the supreme political moral entity. Catholicism represented ground that was far less secure: his was the Catholicism of his generation and experience, a "cultural" experience to be mocked and disobeyed, yet never fully denied or abandoned.

It was born of strident anti-clericalism spawned by the years of authoritarian Church governance.

And, of course, Friel was what his generation called a "spoiled priest", having spent several years as a clerical student in Maynooth (as did John Hume, his friend and fellow pupil at St. Columb's School in Derry).

He was born in Omagh, but his parents were from Glenties, and he returned to Donegal in adulthood, and spent his later years in the beautiful town of Greencastle, from where he surveyed a world that became a dramatic oyster as his plays travelled the world: Translations holds the record as the English- language play of its generation most translated and most performed around the world.

Identity as personal truth rooted in place emerged as early as his 1962 play The Enemy Within, depicting the struggle of St. Columba between sanctity and the political pull back to Ireland when the call comes to lead his tribe in battle, far from his fellow monks and the peace of Iona.

But it becomes a clarion call in The Loves of Cass Maguire, written in 1967. In that play, Cass Maguire is an elderly, foul-mouthed old Irishwoman returned from New York to spend her final years in an old peoples' home in Ireland.

Initially, she refuses to join in the residents' tragic game-playing as they take turns in a special chair to tell stories of their past as it might have been, each ending with "This is my truth."

Cass will not compromise reality into an imagined truth until finally she is defeated, and the play ends with her reluctantly taking her place in the chair to tell a happier and more consoling version of her own truth.

It is the first example of Friel inventing fiction to hide painful reality, with that reality ultimately returning him, and us, to another, often more terrible truth.

Interestingly, Brian Friel's chilling vision had an effect where he might never have expected it. In the published correspondence of John Charles McQuaid His Grace is Displeased, (published by Merrion 2013, edited by Clara Cullen and Margaret O hOgartaigh) there is a letter from October 1967, in which a woman from Raheny wrote to the archbishop that she and her husband had attended the play at the Abbey (in which Siobhan McKenna played Cass) "with a view to being entertained."

"I can't believe," she told McQuaid "that you who have the morals of your people so sincerely at heart are aware of the flood of filth being poured into the Abbey audience night after night. The Loves of Cass Maguire is a masterpiece in obscenity, scurrility and nauseating lewdness." And she adds "The author, a Belfast man, must be an absolute gutter-rat."

Five years later, Friel's vision of that truth had crystallised further. In an article for the Times Literary Supplement in 1972, recently unearthed by Dr. Tony Roche of UCD, Friel wrote: "It is time we dropped from the calendar of Irish dramatic saints all those playwrights from Farquhar to Shaw . . . and that includes Steele, Sheridan, Goldsmith and Wilde . . . who no more belong to the Irish drama than John Field belongs to Irish music or Francis Bacon to Irish painting." There is a sense of elegance and wit being damned as anti-national.

And in the same year, in a BBC programme, Friel, already acclaimed internationally, took a swipe at both Pinter and Beckett in less than gracious terms.

He had his failures: Wonderful Tennessee closed on Broadway after only a few performances, and Give Me Your Answer Do! which he directed himself at the Abbey (to considerable negative criticism) spring to mind. But they fade in comparison with the huge achievements of plays like Dancing at Lughnasa directed by Patrick Mason for the Abbey, and which was nominated for eight Tony Awards on Broadway in 1982, winning three of them, after the long international silence following the dazzling triumph in New York of Philadelphia Here I Come! in 1964. And, of course, there is his unarguable masterpiece Faith Healer as well as the much-loved Translations.

It is only six weeks since Brian Friel was celebrated in a cross-border Festival centred on Glenties. He was too ill to be present, but we were assured he was following events. The sense of desolation was as palpable as the determination not to fail him during the various events.

The highlight for me was having the extraordinary privilege of carrying out a public interview with Brian's close friend and fellow playwright, the gently unassuming (and intellectual giant) Tom Kilroy on the long association between them. Their friendship preceded even Tom's participation in the Field Day company, which Friel founded with Stephen Rea, Seamus Deane and Tom Paulin in 1980, to interrogate Irish identity through playwriting and producing. It, too, came in for criticism (Kilroy cheerfully defined it as having been accused of being the artistic wing of the Provos, but went on to deny that, fiercely and amusingly).

We knew then that most of us would never see Brian again. We were right, and the sad news came on Friday that he died quietly at home after his long captivity by the darkness of terminal cancer.

But being Brian, he had gone down fighting, choosing to puff on a good cigar rather than undergoing more chemotherapy. And I remember the last time I saw him, weak and a little shrivelled, making his way down the dress circle steps in the Gaiety Theatre to take his seat in the front row. His stick failed him, and he tripped beside me, almost falling. I took his arm and asked if he needed a hand. "We can't have you falling, Brian," I said. "I wouldn't mind," he said, "if it meant I could fall into your lap." It is my last memory, and I shall cherish its impishness.

Sunday Independent

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