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About this book

This essential guide provides a deeply informed survey of the criticism of all the plays and major stories authored by Brian Friel. Scott Boltwood introduces readers to the key themes that have been used to characterise Friel's entire career, moving chronologically from his early work as a successful short story writer to the present day.

This is an essential text for dedicated modules or courses on Modern or Contemporary British and Irish drama offered as part of English Literature degrees, or for the literature and culture modules of undergraduate and postgraduate Irish Studies degrees. In addition, this book is an ideal companion for A Level students reading Friel's plays, or anyone with an interest in this complex writer’s career.

Table of Contents

Chapter One. Early Journalism and Stories

Although Friel became a theatre sensation in 1964 with Philadelphia, Here I Come!, he spent the latter half of the 1950s and early 1960s becoming increasingly well known as a writer of newspaper articles and short fiction. His very first story, ‘The Child,’ appeared in the Irish literary journal The Bell in 1952, but he was not published again until he began writing for two Dublin-based newspapers: The Irish Times, for which he wrote seventy-six pieces between September 1957 and May 1962, and the Irish Press, for which he wrote fifty-nine between April 1962 and August 1963. This body of 135 articles, amounting to approximately 150,000 words, represents an immense corpus from the writer’s early career; however, since newspaper pieces were never republished in book form, listed in bibliographies, or included in the Friel Papers (the archive housed in the National Library of Ireland), this material escaped scholarly attention until 1999.
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Two. Early and ‘Withdrawn’ Plays

By virtue of his success as a story writer, Friel could have been considered a promising young writer of fiction. However, Friel himself frequently stated that he ‘always felt the stories were overshadowed by [Frank] O’Connor’ and he ‘was never satisfied’ with them. Thus, beginning in the late 1950s, he started to explore whether he could apply his skills elsewhere, and he looked to the theatre. However, the young Friel had no experience in theatre; the Derry of his youth had no theatre company, and in his writings or interviews Friel has never referred to any experience in amateur dramatics. Indeed, in one of his few autobiographical sketches, ‘Self-Portrait’ of 1972, he says,
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Three. Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964)1

Philadelphia, Here I Come! was Friel’s first theatrical success, and it is also the first of his thirteen Ballybeg plays. Whereas only Philadelphia actually takes place in the imagined locality’s town centre, Crystal and Fox (1968), Living Quarters (1977), Translations (1980), and Molly Sweeney (1994) all depict events that take place more or less in its immediate environs. Aristocrats (1979), Give me Your Answer, Do! (1997), and The Home Place (2005) are set in different manor houses located in or overlooking Ballybeg, while the tragic murder of Frank Hardy in Faith Healer (1980) occurs on the night the characters arrive at the town after many years of wandering. Finally, several other plays are set close enough to Ballybeg for it to be identified as the nearest town. The characters in Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) are easily able to walk there; The Communication Cord (1982) and Wonderful Tennessee (1992) are set in the ‘townland of Ballybeg’; and though the events depicted in The Gentle Island (1971) take place on Inishkeen island, at the play’s end, the character Shane is rushed to Ballybeg Hospital on the mainland.
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Four. Plays of the Later 1960s

In the introduction to my 2007 study of Friel’s plays, I discuss ‘the symbiotic etiquette’ that developed between the playwright and a core of critics who defer to his explanations of his plays (6–7). Unlike many late twentieth-century writers who frequently delivered public lectures or published essays, Friel stopped writing literary essays very early in his career in 1967 and gave few interviews. Indeed, during the last fifteen years of his life Friel famously earned the reputation of being a recluse: not only did such Irish critics as Richard Pine and Fintan O’Toole sometimes substitute for him in interviews that were traditionally done with an author, but he conspicuously refrained from even speaking when featured in Brian Friel (2001), the documentary about him directed by Sinead O’Brien.
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Five. Plays of the Early 1970s

Helen Lojek’s ‘Brian Friel’s Gentle Island of Lamentation’ (1999) provides one of the most acute examples of how the broad historical context enhances our understanding of a play. Lojek introduces her reading of Gentle Island with a summary of the internment-related violence in Dublin as well as the growing tensions in Northern Ireland that would soon erupt on Bloody Sunday (48). Writing at the same time as Lojek, F.C. McGrath additionally situates the play in a period characterized by Friel’s ‘anger toward Irish society’, claiming that his recent move across the border into the Irish Republic in no way represented an embrace of the Irish culture or politics of the late 1960s (77).
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Six. Living Quarters (1977) and Aristocrats (1979)

In Brian Friel, Ireland, and the North, I note that Friel makes a major dramaturgical shift starting with Living Quarters: Friel’s plays from 1969 to 1975 rely upon overwhelmingly male casts, with forty-three male and seven female characters (115); however, with its focus on Anna, Helen, Miriam, and Tina, Living Quarters abruptly shifts to sororal narratives—plays about groups of sisters—that will be followed by such works as Aristocrats (1979), Three Sisters (1981), and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990). Moreover, Friel’s sororal plays almost always include a single son and an emotionally fragile brother; this is even seen in nascent form in Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) when Gar’s Aunt Lizzy laments, ‘He’s my sister’s boy—the only child of five girls of us’.
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Seven. Faith Healer (1979)

Despite the enduring popularity of stage productions of Dancing at Lughnasa, such eminent Irish commentators as Roy Foster recognize Faith Healer as ‘arguably Friel’s greatest play, while Declan Kiberd even claims that it ‘may well be the finest play to come out of Ireland since J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World in 1907. Likewise, the Irish director and theatre critic Patrick Burke places it first in his list of the author’s seven ‘Masterworks (121). Indeed, the list of professional productions summarized in the descriptive catalogue for the Brian Friel Papers housed in the National Library of Ireland similarly suggests the play’s importance: in spite of its notoriously failed premiere at New York’s Longacre Theatre in 1979, in its first twenty years the play has enjoyed forty professional productions in ten countries and seven languages, including important productions in 1992 at The Royal Court and in 2006 with the Gate Theatre’s touring production with Ralph Fiennes as Frank Hardy.
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Eight. Translations (1980)

There are several clues to the importance of Translations to twentieth-century Irish literature as a whole, and not just in Friel’s career. In Modern Irish Theatre, Mary Trotter’s guide to the field from 1891 to 2007, her section on contemporary theatre begins with Translations, treating it as a turning point for the island as a whole (157–58). Lionel Pilkington’s brief discussion of the play’s opening night in his Theatre and the State makes the even grander claim that the event ‘marked an important shift in Northern Ireland’s … political order’ (210). Similarly, in his ambitious History of Irish Theatre, 1601–2000 (2002), Christopher Morash treats the premiere of Translations on 23 September 1980 as one of the island’s seven iconic events in his four-hundred-year survey (233–41). Finally, in Inventing Ireland, his survey of Irish literature from the Irish Renaissance to the end of the twentieth century, Declan Kiberd devotes a chapter to the play (614–23), thus placing it on a par with such works as W.B. Yeats’s The Winding Stair (1933).
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Nine. Plays of the 1980s

Six months before the premiere of Translations, in March 1980, the Actors Theatre of Louisville presented ‘The American Welcome’ as part of a series of short plays in a festival entitled The American Project. The monologue was commissioned to run between five and ten minutes and consumes barely two pages in its printed form (appearing in One on One: The Best Men’s Monologues for the Nineties); not surprisingly, in such a long and complex playwriting career, this short piece has received scant attention.
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Ten. Dancing at Lughnasa (1990)

As 1990 dawned, Friel seemed a playwright in decline: the three masterpieces that marked 1979 and 1980 were long behind him, and, aside from Translations, the 1980s had been a decade of a very few indifferently received plays, several translations and adaptations, and distracting managerial work for the Field Day Theatre Company. However, when Dancing at Lughnasa premiered at the Abbey Theatre on 24 April 1990, it re-established him as one of the greatest playwrights of his generation.
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Eleven. Plays of the 1990s

During its premiere engagement at the Abbey Theatre starting on 30 June 1993, Wonderful Tennessee seemed to promise Friel another success. Indeed, its initial run of eighty-one performances was considerably longer than the fifty-seven enjoyed by Dancing at Lughnasa; however, the play did not succeed abroad. The Plymouth Theatre, which staged Lughnasa during its award-winning American premiere, closed Tennessee after only nine performances in October 1993. This failure exerted a distinctly chilling effect on the play, and it was not again attempted abroad until 2000, when it was staged by the Nottingham Playhouse in England. Finally, it should be noted that the play’s staging history has also elicited both defences of it as ‘more than slightly under-praised’ and criticisms of it as a clear failure.
Scott Boltwood

Chapter Twelve. Last Plays

‘Afterplay’ is the imagined meeting in a Moscow cafe between two characters from plays by Anton Chekhov: Sonya Serabryakov from Uncle Vanya, translated by Friel for the Gate Theatre in 1998, and Andrey Prozorov from Three Sisters, translated by Friel for the Field Day Theatre Company in 1981. This one-act play was premiered at the Gate Theatre on 5 March 2002 along with Friel’s translation of Chekhov’s short farce ‘The Bear’ and was later collected with ‘The Yalta Game’, his one-act adaption of Chekhov’s story ‘The Lady with the Dog’ (1899), into a single volume, Three Plays After.
Scott Boltwood
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