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Friel's deep furrow cuts to our heart

WHEN Garry Hynes was appointed the artistic director of the Abbey in the early Eighties, she told me that it had only been when she worked for the first time outside this country that she had become aware that Ireland and Irish thinking were not universal and central to the way the world saw drama.

When I asked her if that realisation had made her re-assess her own thinking, she said that of course it hadn't, and wouldn't.

It's an attitude I believe she shares with Brian Friel, as he celebrates his 80th birthday in the knowledge that the world of English-speaking drama hails him as the universally accented voice of Ireland without his ever taking his eyes off a fictional small town and its hinterland in the wilds of Donegal.

Ireland possesses the universal voice as far as Friel is concerned. He does not look beyond, and forges the steel of human experience in a place called Ballybeg. If there is an alter-ego in his work, it is the hedge schoolmaster Hugh in Translations, who tells the English interloper that the Irish effectively despise the English as Barbarians, and that we take our cultural cue from the classics of Greece and Rome.

This approach, permeating all his plays, sometimes meandering gently, at other times slashing savagely through the undergrowth, makes him the most nationalistic of writers in both the most narrow and the widest sense of the term.

Friel writes in an emotional idiom where not to be Irish is something to be pitied, a condition where the wise outsider sees his loss and yearns for inclusion, while the buffoon and the lesser being are too stupid even to recognise their exclusion.

Thus, Teddy, the universal tragic minder of Faith Healer, is never able fully to comprehend the very different souls he has to deal with as he steers the quack miracle worker Frank Hardy and his common law wife Grace through the dreary villages and towns which will ultimately encompass their tragedy, Frank's to be beaten to death by a drunken mob in his homeplace of Ballybeg, Grace's to lock herself into a cavern of memory, finally committing suicide. All three are "radically incomplete" human beings, as academic critic Anthony Roche wrote, but Teddy, the physical survivor, is the truly pitiable one, English and with what Friel sees as the innate vulgarity of his nationhood.

Just as Dr Richard Gore, the interloper in one of Ballybeg's 'big houses' in the 1870s in The Home Place, precipitates an already simmering tragedy with his blundering efforts to understand the "Irish condition" by specious attempts at delineating character by means of cranial measurements of the local peasantry, while dimly believing that in Ireland things are allowed to be different, as when he urges his cousin to marry beneath him: acceptable for a gentleman "cut off" from civilised society.

There is, of course, a further dimension of Irishness for Friel, and it is Catholicism. Not necessarily the practice of religion, or even a conviction of its truth: merely a cultural identification, which is what, ultimately, has reduced the O'Donnell family in Aristocrats to the sorry state in which they find themselves as the play opens, a kind of mass emasculation of identity. Upper middle class by inheritance and generations of family legal practice, it is a status in the fastnesses of Ballybeg that is regarded as upper class, or "aristocratic".

But the family is also Catholic, and therefore caught, in Friel's eyes, in a no-man's land, the lofty sense of superiority they share with schoolmaster Hugh of Translations though they live in a society which links Catholicism with historical dispossession. Hence, the O'Donnells become dispossessed, emotionally and actually.

Friel has ploughed this furrow of Irishness with repeated intensity over the years, his unique talent driving it into a wider world, until Irish drama is now held to be a fly of uncertain identity caught in the amber of wider cultural interpretations. Having watched Friel, the world believes that to be Irish is to be uncertain, to keep our eyes on our navels, sure only of our right to sympathy for our travails, our crudities and inadequacies to be excused.

Friel has seen this vision reflected in Chekov, and has made the great Russian his own with his adaptations. And he is right: Chekov was obsessed with emotional dispossession, but where Friel contemptuously disallows the realities of class, interpreting them as products of colonialism, Chekov saw their universal reality in forming and informing emotional attitudes.

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But the extraordinary thing is that Brian Friel, even at 80, seems not to have closed the book on what he wants to say as seemed possible he might, after the subtly defiant apologia he offered five years ago with Performances, the play which in part examined the nature of making art.

It featured the composer Janacek in his later years explaining to a young academic that his 40-year unrequited obsession with Kamila Stasslova, a happily married housewife, had nothing to do with the glory of his music, and was not, as is usually believed, an exposition of her soul as much as his. Janacek says that Kamila, to whom he wrote 700 letters over an 11-year period, was irrelevant to his art. It was, as I wrote when reviewing it, "a defence of art as inalienable, detached, unique, and almost untouched by the experiences of life".

And yet he goes on, for which we can only be grateful. Happy birthday, Brian.