It was sad to wake this morning to the news that the wonderful playwright Brian Friel has died. Tributes have been quick, effusive, and plentiful, and ranging from the Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland (“One of the giants of Irish literature, and a great Irishman”) to Meryl Streep (“We’ve lost a tender dramatist, an insightful humanist, and a lovely man”). Another movie star (and Friel’s countryman) Liam Neeson put it this way: “Brian was Ireland’s Chekhov.”
I had the privilege to play in his Faith Healer, last year at Quotidian Theatre Company, and so I understand that he was truly an actor’s playwright. The characters he created for us were complex, distinct, intriguing. The themes with which he dealt challenged and touched his audiences. The plays are wildly entertaining, but they are full and even dense, in the best sense of that word.
What has always interested me is how different plays of his speak so deeply to different people. Neeson’s comparison to Chekhov (if it feels more apt to certain of his plays than to others) seems very right. And, among Friel’s work as a translator/adapter, are Chekhov’s Three Sisters and one-act The Bear.
Folks often ask actors, “How do you remember all of those lines?” When the play, as Faith Healer does, involves long, serial monologues, you get that question even more frequently than usual. But his writing is so precise, so lyrical, so natural, that I would tell people that the learning of it is easier than you might expect. As with all of the best writing for theatre, there is a rhythm and a wonderful organic quality that guides the actor to a verbatim grasp of the text.
And, as Tennessee Williams does to our South, and August Wilson does to Pittsburgh, Friel channels a specific place and a people in a manner that is at once heightened, while also having the sense of transcribing overheard conversation, it captures so perfectly the music of the Irish.
And he was a particular favorite of theaters here.
My first Friel experience was in the early 70s, seeing Philadelphia, Here I Come! at Olney. (The production featured in the lead the Irish actor Jarlath Conroy, a frequent presence on DC stages over the years.) That had been Friel’s breakthrough play. It had a long run on Broadway, and it began a relationship with American audiences, taking as its subject the few days before a young Irish man will leave his hometown to make the migration so many Irish did to this country. With its device of two actors playing the central character, one expressing his inner thoughts while the other interacts with the outer world, it demonstrates his career-long interest in alternatives to strict realism.
It also deals with a recurring theme, the unreliability, the malleability, of memory. In an email to me today, Laura Giannarelli, who directed Quotidian’s Faith Healer, wrote, “I remember them [the Friel plays she has done] sooo fondly. Always such a delicate touch in the writing. One of my favorite things about Friel is that the characters often contradict one another’s account of what happened in the past. And Friel doesn’t set the record straight by the end of the play. As an audience, we get to decide what we think really happened.”
Giannarelli, a mainstay at Washington Stage Guild, was also remembering WSG’s productions of Friel over the years: Translations, Aristocrats, Wonderful Tennessee.
Quotidian, meanwhile, in addition to Faith Healer, has also produced Dancing at Lughnasa and the one-act Afterplay. QTC co-founder Jack Sbarbori made an important point to me today during an email exchange, about “the great influence Friel had on other playwrights, especially Conor McPherson, our current favorite. Without Faith Healer, McPherson’s This Lime Tree Bower and Port Authority may never have reached the stage.”
My second Friel play was The Freedom of the City, which I saw in 1973 at the Kennedy Center during its pre-Broadway run. Starring the wonderful actors Kate Reid and Lenny Baker, it told the story of three ordinary Irish people who accidentally find themselves caught up in Northern Ireland’s “troubles.” I saw the play again, when a college friend (A. Leigh Campbell) was in a production at Vanderbilt. I remember her enthusiasm for their production. It was obviously a labor of love for her and her colleagues.
My colleague Laura Russell (who played Grace in QTC’s Faith Healer) wrote today about playing and seeing Friel: “I have fond memories of Grace and Frank [from Faith Healer], the Mundy sisters [from Dancing at Lughnasa], a production of The Freedom of the City which I saw nearly 20 years ago and resonates still.”
I also saw the pre-Broadway run in Baltimore of Faith Healer. It starred a remarkable James Mason in the role I would later play, and which Ralph Fiennes revived on Broadway recently. DC audiences saw other productions at SCENA Theatre (with Jerry Whiddon, Kerry Waters, and Nick Olcott) and at Rep Stage (with Nigel Reed, Julie-Ann Elliot, and Bruce Nelson).
I saw Lovers: Winners and Losers at Source Theatre Company in the early 80s. A pair of one-acts, that play has been revived in New York in recent years, as has so much of his oeuvre.
Friel won his Tony for Dancing at Lughnasa in the early 90s. With so many wonderful roles for women, the play went on to be frequently produced all over the country. I saw the area premiere at Arena, who also did his Molly Sweeney a few years later. (That production featured WSC founder TJ Edwards.)
I was talking last night to Nancy Robinette, who was in the New York premiere of Friel’s Give Me Your Answer, Do. That Roundabout Theatre Company cast also included Joel Gray and Helen Carey. She told me that it was the longest run of a play that she has done to date. We didn’t know, while we were talking about him, that he had died.
Two companies in town with special, and personal, connections to Friel are SCENA Theatre and The Keegan Theatre. SCENA Artistic Director Robert McNamara shared some thoughts in an email today, after a phone conversation during which he remembered seeing Friel premieres, featuring the likes of Neeson and Gabriel Byrne:
“Brian Friel was a part of my Irish life when I was living in Dublin. I remember going to his opening nights at the Abbey. There were many Friel nights. Most memorable was the Irish premiere of Faith Healer, perhaps his best play, but little produced, with the brilliant Donal McCann as Frank. An unforgettable night in the Irish theatre. Poetic. Living language. Incantatory myth. All part and parcel of Friel’s cultural memory. Include Translations in that heady mix.
“Last time I saw him was a top the administration of the Abbey when I was there to direct a workshop for Noel Pearson. My colleague said, ‘Hello Brian.’ I said, ‘Hello Mr. Friel.’ My encounter with a great writer.”
Translations, another play recently revived to rave reviews in New York, takes place in Friel’s invented town Ballybeg, where a dozen or so of his other plays also occur. It deals with the efforts of the occupying British to replace the spoken Gaelic with English. In Ireland, it’s a much-studied standard text, about which a great deal of analysis has been written and can be accessed on the web. It was Keegan’s production of it that was a real breakout moment for that company. (Since then, Keegan has revived Translations and also produced Dancing at Lughnasa.) Keegan’s Producing Artistic Director Mark A. Rhea texted me today about his devotion to Friel’s work, and to his personal interaction with the great man:
“He was indeed one of my favorite playwrights and a huge reason for my passion for the amazing Irish work that exists. His masterpiece Translations is arguably my favorite play of all times. I once received a lovely hand-written note on a card from Mr. Friel after receiving an invite from the late Michael Diskin at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway, to come see Keegan while we were touring Ireland. His note said he had heard about Keegan and was sorry to miss us as he was in London working on a new play and best wishes.”
What a lovely demonstration of Friel’s graciousness and what a lovely memory for Rhea, who concluded: “Sad day for sure but his plays will live on and on.”