An Irish author, teacher, and playwright from Northern Ireland, Bernard Patrick Friel (born 1929) was noted for the powerfully realistic renditions of Irish life and culture found in his plays.
Bernard (Brian) Patrick Friel was born in Omagh, County Tyrone, to Patrick and Christina (Macloone) Friel. He moved to the city of Londonderry when he was ten, attended St. Columb's College there (1941-1946), and subsequently received his B.A. degree from St. Patrick's (theological) College in Maynooth. Instead of opting for a career in the Catholic priesthood, Friel entered the teaching profession. He graduated St. Joseph's Teacher Training School in Belfast in 1950.
His teaching career of ten years ended when he turned to full-time writing in 1960. That year the New Yorker had found a valuable resource in Friel. He could satisfy the appetite for "Irishness" that that publication's readers craved.
Friel, aside from his short stories, wrote two radio plays (A Sort of Freedom and To This Hard House, both in 1958) and three stage plays (A Doubtful Paradise, The Enemy Within, and The Blind Mice, each produced in 1959). These works gave Friel his start in the great tradition of Irish theater. He assigned no special theatrical import to those early efforts, but it was the successful depiction of an early churchman attracted to secular life in Enemy Within that encouraged Friel.
Characters Have Their Demons
Underneath such plays as Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Faith Healer, Translations, and later Dancing at Lughnasa lies an angry frustration. These frustrations result because of goals unrealized, things said, and more often than not things unsaid. The emotion that bubbled within him had no viable outlet other than the vivid Irish imagination and the Irish appetite for the marvelous. Brian Friel's characters constantly vie with alienation and emotive depravation.
W. B. Yeats' plays are compared to Friel's because they also stir the bottled-up emotion that seems to characterize the Irish people. Yeats' famous play Catheleen Ni Houlihan contributed to the flaming passions of the Easter uprising of 1916. In like manner, Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1965) ignited the same pent up passions within the play's lead character, Gareth (Gar) O'Donnel.
At age 27 O'Donnel is going to emigrate to America, Philadelphia to be exact. He muses over his past life in the (mythical) town of Ballybeg. With the aid of his alter ego, Private Gareth, Gar examines the failed life he has led thus far working in the general store of his father, S.B. (Screw-balls) O'Donnel. He recalls the failed marriage proposal to his girl, Kate Doogan, and the failed provincial setting of County Donnegal, which offers no hopeful prospects other than becoming a drunken hedge schoolmaster. Gar leaves for the States with a bleak sense of loss.
Faith Healer (1979) is made up of four monologues, the first and the last by Frank Hardy (the faith healer), and the second by his wife, Grace, an Englishwoman who quit the middle class to follow Frank. Teddy, a cockney showman who now serves as Frank's agent, narrates the third monologue. Disappointment, hope, and hopelessness, along with unvented emotion and unstated feelings, brim underneath the monologues of Faith Healer.
The four travel about England, Scotland, and Wales offering the chronically ill a miracle cure at the hands of Frank, but Frank has no control over his gift. When the gift works it can cure a whole congregation, but Frank can't predict when it will work. All he can do is hope. Upon his return to Ireland, Frank's gift fails him and he is brutally beaten to death in a bar for being unable to heal a person confined to a wheelchair.
Tales of Dreams Unrealized
Translations (1980) touches base on a theme that evokes much emotion in the context of Irish life, the death of the Irish language. Set in the 1830s, the play takes place during the period when the British Army Engineer Corps, in order to fully assimilate Ireland into the United Kingdom, commenced with its famous mapping and renaming of Ireland. Translations captures the loss to Irish culture that came with the upheaval in language.
Dancing at Lughnasa (1992), Friel's later success, portrays five Donnegal sisters during the 1930s, spinsters that share their hopes and unfulfilled dreams of marriage and dancing. Friel's yearning for a return to pre-Christian values in Ireland is evident throughout. Four of the girls want to attend the pagan dance festival named after the fertility deity "Lugh" (pronounced "loogh"). We discover that the girls' brother (an ex-Catholic priest) was converted to African paganism while on missionary duty there, supposedly to convert the natives to Christianity. The denouement comes as the sisters are listening to their Marconi radio set and simultaneously break out in a flurry of wild, pagan style dancing. These are people trying to gain touch with their past selves.
In contrast to the acclaim Lughnasa garnered, Wonderful Tennessee (1993) was a bleak work, even though it showcased the same theme of intertwining pagan and Christian traditions. The virtues and dangers of connecting with one's animal self, loneliness within family, and the paralyzing loss of certainty in the modern world act as elements that demand a return to simpler ways of life. The play did not draw a mass public because its statement (which was private and encoded) did not connect with an audience that wanted entertainment, not introspection. Tennessee is all mood, nuance, and sudden turns of rapture and despair as four people take turns storytelling on a Donnegal dock. Some critics maintained the play was not as dynamic as Dancing a Lughnasa.
Friel's play Molly Sweeney had its American premier in January 1996 in New York City after it received positive reviews from British and Irish critics in Dublin in 1994. The play, said to be reminiscent in structure to Friel's earlier Faith Healer, is about a woman whose husband takes her to a failed surgeon in hopes of curing her blindness. At the crux of the drama is the idea that she may not want to be cured. Joe Dowling, who directed Philadelphia, Here I Come in New York City, described Friel as brilliant but essentially an emotional writer. "His writing comes out of a deep passion and instinct for human beings and how people interact with each other." Overall, Friel's writing is of the same high quality as Yeats, Synge, and O'Casey. An appraisal of his major works assures that the future of Irish literature holds a place of honor for Friel.
Further Reading on Bernard Patrick Friel
More information on Brian Friel may be found in the various biographical/critical sources. The Dictionary of Literary Biography (Vol. 13), Contemporary Authors ("New Revision Series," Vol. 33), and Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 5) can furnish the reader with basic background on Friel. Two book-length biographies of the author are available: Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist by Ulf Dantanus (1987) and Brian Friel by D. E. S. Maxwell (1973). Background on Irish drama/theater in general can be found in the following sources: The Modern Irish Drama: A Documentary History by Robert Hogan et al., eds., which comes in six volumes and gives an overview of Irish dramatic history from 1899 to 1920; and D. E. S. Maxwell's A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama, 1891 to 1980, called "The fullest critical history of the Irish Drama," which is sure to give the reader further insight into the themes with which Irish drama deals.
Additional Biography Sources
Pine, Richard, Brian Friel and Ireland's Drama, Routledge, 1990.
Andrews, Elmer, The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Reality Nor Dreams, St. Martins Press, 1995.
Kerwin, William, Brian Friel: A Casebook, Garland, 1997.
O'Brien, George, Brian Friel: A Reference Guide, 1962-1992, Prentice Hall International, 1995.
Peacock, Alan J., The Achievement of Brian Friel, C. Smythe, 1993.