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Brian Friel obituary

Brian Friel – Playwright

Born January 9 1929, Killyclogher, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland; died October 2 2015, Greencastle, County Donegal, Ireland.


Brian Friel, who has died aged eighty-six following a long illness, was a quiet giant of modern Irish theatre, whose greatest plays tapped into the beating heart of the human condition through notions of human frailty and community in the face of adversity. If the former was evident in Faith Healer (1979), a quartet of interlinking monologues charting the inconsistent muse of the Fantastic Frank Hardy, the latter pulsed throughout some of Friel's great ensemble works, including Translations (1980), which dealt with cultural colonialism during a volatile period of Ireland's history, and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), in which memory and history becomes an even more personal for of artistic endeavour.

Bernard Patrick Friel was born in Killcogher, near Omagh, to a school teacher father and post mistress mother, who moved their family to Derry when Friel was aged ten. Friel was educated in St Columb's College in Derry, also the alma mater of poet Seamus Heaney, and, after studying for the priesthood in St Patrick's College, Maynooth, followed his father into teaching.

By 1950, however, Friel was writing short stories, and in 1958 his early radio plays were produced by BBC Belfast. A year later he had become a regular contributor to The New Yorker, while the same year, his first stage play, A Doubtful Paradise, was produced at the Ulster Group Theatre in Belfast. This was followed in 1962 by a collection of short stories, The Saucer of Larks, and another stage play, The Enemy Within, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin before transferring to the Queen's.

It was only after observing the great stage director Tyrone Guthrie for six months while on a sojourn to Minneapolis in 1963, however, that Friel fully found his theatrical voice. This was clear from Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which opened in Dublin in 1964 before transferring to New York and, eventually, London. By the time the two plays that made up Lovers appeared in 1967, Friel had moved to Donegal, where he continued to write plays such as Crystal and Fox, The Mundy Scheme and The Gentle Island.

By 1973, he was writing explicitly political plays such as The Freedom of the City, which was in part a response to events surrounding what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers shot dead twenty-six unarmed civilians during a civil rights march in Derry in 1972. by 1979, however, Friel had moved into both more personal and more epic waters with Faith Healer. Through monologues charting the rise and fall of a once great showman, Friel explored the fragile pursuit of art, with heroic failure the risk of every small success. Earlier this year John Dove directed a thrilling production of Faith Healer at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh.

In 1980, Friel began an artistic collaboration with actor Stephen Rea on what would become Field Day Theatre Company to produce Friel's latest play, Translations. By the time it opened at the Guildhall in Derry in September that year against a backdrop of the Irish Troubles, both play and company were already on the map, with Friel's fellow writers Heaney, Tom Paulin and Seamus Deane forming part of a core group with Friel and Rea. While Friel maintained that Translations was 'about language and only about language', a play set in a rural Irish community co-opted by an English establishment who anglicise the local place names, effectively erasing an entire cultural history, was always going to cause a stir. In a production that featured Rea, Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally in the cast, this was even more the case.

Thirty-three years later, and with Translations now regarded as a modern classic, a new production opened in a very different Derry in the Millennium Forum, a brand new state of art theatre built to coincide with Derry/Londonderry's tenure as 2013 European Capital of Culture, which Friel's play and Field Day had arguably helped shape. Adrian Dunbar's production of Translations, which toured top Edinburgh, was quite right rightly one of the year's flagship events of Derry's year, though it was equally telling observing Friel at the first night party afterwards.

There Friel sat on a sofa, a gnomic figure beside Dunbar, who, despite being a well-known face from film and TV, was all but ignored as a huddle of young actresses from the show posed for selfies on their camera phones with the then eighty-four year old writer as if he was a pop star.

Friel quietly left Field Day in the early 1990s,by which time Dancing at Lughnasa, arguably Friel's greatest success, had already lit up Dublin, London and Broadway. Set, like many of Friel's plays, in the fictional rural town of Ballybeg, the play charted the lives of five sisters over one summer in 1936. The play won Olivier and Tony awards for Best New Play, and went on to be made into a film starring Meryl Streep.

While Friel was far from idle in the years that followed, writing Molly Sweeney in 1994 and Give Me Your Answer Do! in 1997,the last decade of his life saw him slow down, with Performances in 2003 forming a meditation on the artist's fear of ageing. In 2005, The Home Place was the last of his works set in Ballybeg, while in 2008 he adapted Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.

If ageing had been a understandable concern in Performances, it was something at the back of mind a lot earlier. In 1971 he wrote Self Portrait, a 'fragment of autobiography' recorded for BBC Radio Ulster when in his early forties. In it, Friel wrote that 'I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement, and hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment.'

Friel is survived by his wife, Anne Morrison, three daughters, Mary, Judy and Sally, and son David. He was predeceased by his daughter Patricia in 2012.

ends

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