A Tribute to Brian Friel (1929-2015)

David Brauner writes:

Did you know that one of the greatest writers of the last fifty years has just died? No, I don’t mean Henning Mankell. I’m referring to the Irish playwright Brian Friel. Friel is best known in this country for Translations (1980), which has become a perennial favourite on ‘A’-level courses, and for Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), his most frequently performed play, which was made into a film starring Meryl Streep. These plays fully deserve their reputation but Friel’s oeuvre includes a number of other masterpieces, including Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), The Freedom of the City (1973), Faith Healer (1979), Aristocrats (1979), Making History (1988) and Molly Sweeney (1994).

Brian Friel

            I first encountered Friel as a sixth-former not in the classroom but on the stage when I saw an amateur production of Faith Healer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It made a powerful impression on me and three years later, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I directed a production of it in which one of our current Part 1 students, Katy Watkins, memorably played the tragic figure of Grace Hardy. Like a number of his other plays, Faith Healer consists of a series of monologues, an audacious form for a dramatist but one which showcases the mesmerising lyricism that Friel shares with precursors such as J.M. Synge. However, Friel was equally adept at ensemble pieces such as Dancing at Lughnasa, which not only survives the comparisons it invites with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters but flourishes in their intertextual company. Chekhov’s influence is felt elsewhere in Friel’s career: he translated and produced adaptations of a number of his plays and in Afterplay (2002) he imagines a meeting between two of the Russian dramatist’s characters (Sonya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey from Three Sisters). In addition to the meditative, melancholy, tragicomic Chekhovian strain and the Syngian exuberant rhetorical extravagance, Friel’s work was also often passionately, though never polemically, political. Aristocrats, Translations and Making History constitute the most compelling engagement with Irish colonial history in post-war Irish literature, while The Freedom of the City is a much more powerful exploration of ‘the Troubles’ than many better-known works and one that reinvigorates the old adage that the personal is the political. So if you’ve never come across Friel before, I urge you to get hold of his Selected Plays (Faber & Faber), which you can currently pick up on Amazon for 1p plus postage. They are almost as rewarding on the page as in performance.


David’s latest publication is The Edinburgh Companion to Modern Jewish Fiction (2015), a collection of 28 essays that redefines the field of Anglophone Jewish fiction. David co-edited the volume and also contributed an essay on the American Jewish short story, which focuses on the distinctive contribution by four women who have devoted themselves to the short-story form: Grace Paley, Deborah Eisenberg, Edith Pearlman and Myra Goldberg.

Contact David: d.brauner@reading.ac.uk

See his webpages: http://www.reading.ac.uk/english-literature/aboutus/Staff/d-brauner.aspx


About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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