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Remembering Brian Friel

October 3, 2015


Actually, I think I was only in the same room as Brian Friel on just one occasion.  It was a big Field Day shindig.  A Field Day Field Day and all the great and the good in the world of Irish letters seemed to be gathered in one place, presumably so that they could be more conveniently assassinated by some crazed right wing fanatic.

I was (perhaps still am) a friend of a friend of some of the great and the good and so snuck under the radar so to speak. Slithered under the door.  And there in the room, a luminary among luminaries, was Brian Friel, looking lean and spry and inquisitive.  Because I’m actually a very shy and insecure person, I did not take the opportunity to bounce over to him and say “Yo Brian Friel, loved that bit in…. ” etc. etc. etc.”  Probably just as well.

Brian Friel is one of a tiny tiny handful of dramatists.  You can become a “well known” dramatist (historically speaking) on the strength of just one or two plays being revived regularly.  Friel lived long enough to see five of six of his plays being revived decade after decade.  In a hundred years time, if humanity has failed to nuke itself and can still remember how to read, then we will be reviving Friel still.

I remember years ago being struck by two remarkable productions a few days apart in Dublin.  A remember a remarkable production of Freedom of the City at the Abbey.  This is a play that is and is not about Bloody Sunday.  It’s a play about how ordinary people get traduced, robbed, appropriated and exterminated.  It’s neither an irresponsibly polemical play nor a timid quietist cop out.  It is a play about thoughtful anger, a play that gets you involved in state sanctioned murder but forces you to feel before you can interpret.   David Hare once said that the real responsibility of the political dramatist is the quality of the argument in the bar afterwards.  That was Hare being very Brechtian, and Freedom of the City is as Brechtian as you can get.

Freedom of the City employs a sociology lecturer as a chorus/commentator.  A hop and a skip and a jump away at the Gate theatre, Aristocrats employed a Chicago anthropologist as an embedded character.  Trying to study the “significance” of Donegal catholic big-house society, he discovers that his subject does not offer materials for a whole book.  The play presents a Checkhovian world of inaction and cyclic decay, a world in which the head of the house has muddled up ancestral memories with his own.  Over the border in the North there are a bunch of things “happening”, but here in Donegal, a very conspicuous version of “nothing” is happening”.  If, as Auden is tediously overquoted as saying “poetry makes nothing happen”, then Aristocrats is a world where “Nothing” happens.

Friel could make “Nothing” happen.  When he wanted to.  The “Nothing” is a presence and a threat.  Philip Larkin once wrote ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”, but somehow, for Friel, Nothing managed to happen more effectively in Co. Donegal than anywhere else.

I’ve seen a great many other Friel plays, but I think of those two because I saw them so close together  (so close together in space and time) and because of the contrast they presented between political action and political inaction, between hideous atrocity and hideous inertia.

And I think rather further back, to when I played “Teddy” in a student production of Faith Healer.  What I mainly remember was how easy it was to learn the part.  This long monologue (the longest of the four that the play consists of) seemed to flow so naturally, each sentence to the next, each paragraph to the next, that delivering it appeared the most natural thing in the world.  Friel’s ability to tell a story was masterly, as was his ability to tell the story of someone telling a story.  And, in the case of Faith Healer, have a story told over and over again, each time more painfully.

He was a maker, and a poet, a lover of words and names and of people.  His plays are full of people telling lies and the cruel necessities that generate lies, the lies that communicate truths.

It’s an astonishing legacy.  Thankfully, a living legacy.


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One Comment
  1. I wish I could have seen “Faith Healer” with Donal McCann!

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