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Brian Friel in his life time

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

9 October 2015
The death of Brian Friel is that of the last of a trio of playwrights born within two years of each other whose plays dominated the Irish stage for most of the last half of the twentieth century. These were Friel, John B.Keane and Hugh Leonard. There were others, too, such as Tom Murphy and Thomas Kilroy. Indeed, Friel’s first major success, ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’, appeared in 1964, the same year as Murphy’s first (and, still, best),  ‘Whistle in the Dark’, and Kilroy’s ‘The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Roche’. Nonetheless, he is amongst the first three as one of the most consistently successful.
Friel, Leonard and Keane belonged within a political milieu that is all too common. Each supported a different political party. Originally a teacher, Friel had been a member of the old six county Nationalist Party, switching to supporting the more dynamic S.D.L.P. (He went on record as declaring John Hume to be ‘wise’ and ‘good’). The former civil servant, Leonard, was a right wing member of the Greens. Keane combined writing with running his pub and membership of the liberal wing of Fine Gael.  All were agreed, however, in a vague perspective of ‘modernisation’: an extension of the freedoms of personal relationships against clerical authority, albeit following on the civilizing of rural life (the basic precondition expressed in Keane’s ‘The Field’). Within this, there were inevitable differences. Friel was naturally far more sympathetic to national aspirations (to be achieved non-violently) than the other two. Leonard tended to take a two nation approach. Keane was outspokenly against the Irish language revival. None of them were willing to examine Irish society more deeply. The only memorable rounded working class character any of them produced was Hugh Leonard’s ‘Da’. They were more concerned with petit bourgeois angst. 
As the most cerebral of them, Friel developed the logic of this position to a fuller extent than the others. Keane concentrated on dramatising the experiences of his neighbourhood. Leonard started more adventurously, adapting Ibsen and Joyce, before retreating, too, to produce his great autobiographical plays. On the other hand, Friel, despite his own rootedness in Glenties (Ballybeg), went more deeply into both techniques and subject matter. His technical experiments included Gar’s double persona in ‘Philadelphia”, a development of Eugene O’Neal’s stream of consciousness interpellations in ‘Strange Interlude’, and the quadruple monologue form of ‘The Faithhealer’. The first works well enough; two of the second (those not by ‘Hardy’) will become more apparently diversions from the main theme as time progresses.  This theme, like that in ‘Philadelphia’, is one of the dual natures of the human being. Gar is torn by the need to leave and the desire to stay in Ballybeg. Hardy is unsure whether he is a charlatan or is genuinely gifted. Gar O’Donnell would stay in Ballybeg if given any encouragement (an interesting view of the causes of emigration). Hardy is driven to his death by the need to prove his genuineness. These are extreme examples of the overall scepticism in the author’s approach. His characters are isolated from each other, able to examine themselves but not to explain their findings to others. This appears at the end of ‘Lughnasa’ when Agnes takes Rose to England without consulting the remaining sisters (A contrast to the soul-searching of ‘Philadelphia’). It is shown in ‘Translations’ where the necessary work of map-making is used to destroy the native understanding and where a lovers’ tryst can be resolved only physically.

The result of all this is expressed by the central character, the hedge schoolmaster, Hugh, in Friel’s most famous line, ‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition.’ This attitude must give cause to question Friel’s understanding of the Russian masters that he loved. Turgenev and Chekhov were rooted in the society of their times and knew that change was on the way, however disagreable it might be to their characters (admittedly, they did not realise how extreme and, perhaps disagreeable it might be.). Friel tends to emphasise inability to change. His sequel to Chekhov’s ‘Vanya’ and ‘Three Sisters’ is set in 1922, but makes no mention of the revolutionary events that had occurred. No doubt, there were people who were not affected by them, but it might be expected that they would comment on the fact. Chekhov’s and Turgenev’s characters are social beings in a way that Friel’s are not.
That Friel himself did not live by his precepts is well known. He marched for civil rights, escaping the murderous soldiery on Bloody Sunday, and he founded Field Day to advance the cause in propaganda. He knew that it is not necessary to understand completely but to understand sufficiently and that this can be developed to provide a means of escape from the confusion. Yet his dramatic recognition of this is expressed only negatively in Hugh’s ‘To remember everything is a form of madness.’
Because of this, it is not surprising that his most successful period as a playwright was the 1980s, a decade when the great executors of neo-liberalism, Thatcher and Reagan were hypnotising the masses with the Jack O’Lanterns of individual freedom and, of course, the idea that there was no social bonds between the family and the truncated state. Too many wanted to believe this. The rich minority wanted them to believe this, and ignore the fact that, in an unequal society individual freedom guarantees power to those with the money. Only in ‘Lughnasa’ does Friel face the problem of this economic imbalance and the solution is that of a divided family. Perhaps Bloody Sunday had made him wary of collective effort. It is likely that that doubt was always there. What is certain is that his plays tend to discourage such efforts.
Was he a ‘world class playwright’? Only time will tell. What is certain is that he got produced more good plays than anyone else of his generation in Ireland, and that some, perhaps ‘The Faithhealer’, probably ‘Translations’ and ‘Lughnasa’ contain seeds of something more. As Shakespeare shows, socio-political weakness does not negate dramatic effect, and, contrariwise, Marx’ and Engels’ playwriting attempts were pretty dire. Friel can be enjoyed. His overall popularity will depend on overall social conditions. Those who would laud him as a prophet should remember that, while confusion itself is not ignoble, it is ignoble to surrender to that condition.    

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