Brian Friel

by John Boland

Brian Friel’s distinguished playwriting career over five decades has been notable for its range and diversity. His concerns have encompassed the history and politics of Ireland, as well as its social and religious divides, and these have been memorably addressed in such plays as The Freedom of the City, Aristocrats, Translations and Making History.

Yet for many admirers his greatest dramatic achievements have been two plays written almost three decades apart and whose concerns, on the surface at least, are more intimate and less political than much of his other work  – Philadelphia, Here I Come, first produced in 1964, and Dancing at Lughnasa, which received its initial staging at the Abbey Theatre in 1990.

Each of these plays, set in a more gentle though no less forgiving island than that portrayed in his overtly political works, met with considerable international acclaim (Dancing at Lughnasa won the coveted Tony award in New York as best play of its year), but they have other things in common, too.

Both are memory plays, each with a figure who is, so to speak, in the wings, commenting on what is taking place or has occurred or will occur. Both concern families and the unspoken bonds and tensions that exist among these domestic units. Both are about yearning, loneliness and loss. Both use music as an integral part of the action. And both are set in the fictional Donegal village of Ballybeg – from the Irish “baile beag,” or small town. In fact, twelve of Friel’s plays are set in or around Ballybeg, though never so poignantly as in these two masterpieces.


The set-up for Friel’s play couldn’t be more simple. On the eve of his emigration to the United States, Gar O’Donnell is bidding goodbye to his friends and to the young woman he had loved and is attempting to make some final verbal and emotional contact with his widowed father SB, a man not given to easy communication. He leaves the next morning without having done so, though the audience has been made aware that the father, while averse to shows of intimacy, is not the unfeeling man his son thinks him to be.

It is difficult now to fully appreciate the technical daring of this play, Friel’s masterstroke being the division of Gar into two stage characters – “Gar Public,” who interracts with the other characters, and “Gar Private,” who is unseen by everyone else in the play and whose thoughts are available only to  the audience. This device, expertly employed by the dramatist in only his second staged play, lends the proceedings a substance and depth that would have been difficult to achieve otherwise.

In the early part of the action, it’s used mostly for comic effect, as Gar Private mocks the rituals and speech of his father and the antics of his various friends as they share a final evening together. In the mid-section of the play, it also enables the dramatist to introduce a key scene from the past, as Gar conjures up memories of a visit from the American relations with whom he’ll be staying when he emigrates – a scene that suggests the probable bleakness of his future and that causes the audience to feel he should remain at home if he can.

And as the play reaches its dramatic and emotional climax (though it’s a deliberately dying fall rather than a climax), with Gar Public attempting to get his father to remember a day out they shared when Gar was a boy, the private voice becomes a bitter taunt as the father fails to recall the scene invoked by his son. The poignancy of this becomes acute when, in a private chat with the housekeeper Madge, the father vividly recalls another time he’d spent with his son – an emotional memory on which we eavesdrop but that’s unheard by his son.

Madge is the other key character in this drama of blocked feelings and failed connections. In a house  that’s missing a mother, she shares a familiarity with father and son that they can’t achieve with each other, and we’re made painfully aware that both Gar, consumed by his own hurts and frustrations, and his gruffly ungiving father are so absorbed in their own shortcomings that they fail to recognise the essential loneliness of this kindly woman. Indeed, in her good-humoured, wry stoicism, she could well be the central figure in a rethinking of the play – yet another of the lost lives that Friel chronicles with such tact and sympathy.


Perhaps Madge is a missing sister from Dancing at Lughnasa, though in Friel’s celebrated 1990 drama there are enough sisters to be going on with. There’s Kate, the eldest, a schoolteacher and the only wage-earner in this house of women. There’s Maggie, who fulfils the role of the family homemaker and is a bit of a joker, at least on the surface. There’s Rose, who’s developmentally challenged and therefore especially vulnerable. There’s Agnes, who’s quiet and contemplative. And there’s Christina, at 26 the youngest of the five sisters and the mother of the illegitimate Michael, who’s acts as the play’s observer down through the years.

As in Philadelphia, the audience is presented with an incomplete family, though here it’s one of women without men rather than its opposite. Men do appear, but they’re marginal figures. There’s Gerry, the feckless father of Michael. He’s charming and affectionate in his way, but his life is nomadic (he’s a travelling salesman) and is off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. There’s Father Jack, brother to the five sisters and once a respected missionary but when we meet him he’s been damaged by malaria and memory loss.

The women in this play are just as constrained and constricted as the male characters in Philadelphia – by economic necessity, by social circumstance, by religious edicts and by a fear of the unknown. That their lives could perhaps have been otherwise is conveyed in the extraordinary dance that spontaneously occurs at the end of the play’s first act – a dance that’s as pagan and carnal in its expression as the festival of Lughnasa itself and that for a few minutes frees the five sisters from all the social and sexual restrictions of the normal world in which they eke out their existence.

As in Philadelphia’s division of the hero into two personas, this orgasmic dance is an act of inspired daring by Friel – a wordless piece of theatre that’s both exhilarating and deeply affecting, the major key equivalent of the use of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, in which the minor key lent depth to Gar’s imminent departure.

And Friel then introduces something just as daring – rather than withhold information about the eventual fates of the five sisters until the end, the grown Michael reveals to us their bleak destinies midway through the play, so that the last hour of the drama is a long dying fall in which the audience has time to consider the force of what has been told to it.

The effect, to some, may be a letdown, but anticlimax, Friel is suggesting, is all that’s available to these constantly yearning women, whose optimism is bound to be undone by time, circumstance and their own essential goodness.

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