Great Irish Writers: Anita Robinson on Brian Friel

A Libraries NI initiative saw four Irish writers make the case for four Irish writers. Read the third speech and give your opinion

On February 10, 2011, Derry Central Library played host to one of the most fiercely contested debates the city has ever seen. The topic? No, not politics for once - but Ireland’s Greatest Writer.

Organised by Kevin Quinn and Libraries NI, and chaired by historian Sean McMahon, the event attracted a huge crowd and garnered extensive media attention in the city.

Four Northern Irish authors – Garbhan Downey, Carlo Gebler, Brian McGilloway and Anita Robinson – put forth their cases for Van Morrison, Francis Stuart, Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel respectively, with Irish News columnist Robinson eventually winning the house vote for her masterful tribute to the Derry playwright. Read Carlo Gebler's nomination for Francis Stuart and Brian McGilloway's nomination for Seamus Heaney.

Culture Northern Ireland will be publishing the speakers’ four speeches over the next few weeks – and inviting readers to comment for or against the arguments made. Here Anita Robinson nominates Brian Friel.

Ladies and Gentlemen – let me set the scene.

Four young men sit round a card table in a suburban living room. Nearby stands a child’s pram containing a plump, bald baby sucking contentedly on a bottle. On closer inspection one notices the bottle is suspended within perpetual reach of the child by a cat’s cradle of elastic bands, a cunning construction devised by the card players so they don’t have to interrupt their game to fulfil their babysitting duties.

The young men are students. Their names are Ted Armstrong, Gerard Morrison, Bobby Toland and Brian Friel. And, ladies and gentlemen, I am that baby. I’m telling you this because if you’ve even a scraped acquaintance with the hereinafter famous, it does no harm to mention it at the beginning.

[That was my scene setting Mr. Chairman. My ten minutes starts now]

Of all art forms, drama is the most immediate – literally the writer’s word made flesh in living, breathing characters upon a stage. It’s a shared experience so you have the added frisson of audience reaction. The discerning viewer mines the layers of metaphor to reach the play’s core. To me, Friel’s like a clockmaker. Strip away the seemingly simple casing of the piece. The wonder lies in the intricate craftsmanship of the movement.

As a chronicler of the human condition he has no modern equal. As early as 1959 a prescient but uncredited Irish Times critic praised 'his handling of the subtlest nuances of human emotions and relationships which can neither be described nor directly expressed.' Remember that phrase. It’s the key to understanding Friel’s writing and it is the hallmark of his five greatest plays. It’s a view shared by Professor Seamus Deane, his Field Day Theatre Company partner who says, 'Friel has developed a language of theatre to communicate difficult ideas.'

My views aren’t those of an expert, but an ordinary punter, a bum on a theatre seat. I’ve seen most of Friel’s plays, but not all – some several times. Let me remind you of what makes Friel great.

Philadelphia, Here I Come – premiered in 1965 and is about exile. Gar O’Donnell exists in a paralysis of longing for 'a vast restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past,' where, as his old schoolmaster says, 'impermanence and anonymity offer great attractions.' But he’s cooped up in Ballybeg, a parochial backwater where a drizzle of disappointment permeates the atmosphere. Gar works for his father whom he holds in private contempt while being publicly subservient. Emotional constipation and moral cowardice overlain by satirical eloquence blight any exchange between them but banalities.

Only once does intimacy threaten, when Gar broaches the treasured memory of his one day of happiness with his father: fishing from a blue boat. The father denies any recollection of it and our hearts are wrenched. Will Gar opt for stagnation or life? If he stays, he’ll never grow or develop or become….. We sense the inevitability of it from the start.

In 1968 audiences loved Lovers, a play in two parts: Winners and Losers. Two impersonal reporters introduce us to Mag and Joe, 17 year old grammar school kids up a hill on a summer day, ostensibly studying for exams. Joe, a serious, studious working-class boy. Mag, of professional parents, impulsive, volatile – and pregnant. They’re to be married in 3 weeks. As they squabble, make-up and envisage their future together, the twin harbingers of doom appear at intervals, speaking of the couple in the past tense, narrating a sequence of tragic events. The young lovers run down the hill to begin their future with a celebratory row round the lake. The audience realise they’ll never be disappointed or disillusioned with life, or love or each other. In death, they’ve escaped the fate of most of us.

Hanna and Andy, not in the first flush of youth, conduct a protracted courtship on the front room sofa with a pious bat-eared mother in the bedroom above. Hanna’s character we recognise – the single daughter tied to an ailing parent, constrained by duty, in thrall to the tyranny of mother love. In scenes of bitter humour, Andy is drawn inexorably in – to marriage, living with mother-in-law and watching his wife turn into her mother. Soon his only solace is sitting in the backyard looking at a brick wall through a pair of binoculars. A wonderful metaphor for a trapped man for whom there’s no escape.

Faith Healer in 1979 introduces an introspective and darker Friel. Frank Hardy, faith healer, asks himself, 'Am I endowed with a unique gift or am I a con-man? Is it a gift or a delusion? Can I control it without destroying it?'

These are the questions a writer asks himself. One story – three unreliable narrators whose accounts differ. Frank the healer, Grace his wife and Teddy his agent/manager tell of the threadbare living to be made travelling the country in a van holding healing sessions. The whole play is an extended metaphor for a writer’s life, lived somewhere between truth and fiction, waiting for the magic moment when instinct and intellect are in perfect balance and the miracle happens.

It all ends in tragedy of course – the healer walking knowingly to his death in a pub yard where waits an incurable cripple and a cohort of armed sceptics. The philistines murdering the artist perhaps? Friel is king of metaphor. So long as you know that everything in a Friel play means something else you’ll get along just fine.

Get your metaphor detectors out now, and we'll look at the big two – the parables that are Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa. 

We can start with the latter. It is 1936 in rural Donegal, with five sisters, one brother, a missionary priest ‘gone native’ and a seven-year-old boy.  Small lives lived within narrow confines – bitterness, resignation and unfulfilled dreams. But underneath the repressed respectability of Christianity the banked fires of pagan Lughnasa ignite something primal within that releases them, however briefly, into wild joy, savage energy and untrammelled freedom.  'Fluent in the language of dance.' As the last lines of the play put it – 'dancing as if language no longer existed, because words were no longer necessary'.

Of that extraordinary climactic scene more later, but the only parallel experience I’ve ever had was ‘hands-on’ in a stone circle in Sligo, feeling the prehistoric cold rising through my body like an electric charge coming up from the earth. What CS Lewis would have called, 'deep magic from the dawn of time'.

Let us now to the naming of parts in the 1980 Translations. Out by the Crescent Link, there’s a townland called Ard-na-Brockey, the hill of the badger. It is all built over now. The City Council thought it appropriate to call the new development ‘Knightsbridge’.

Translations is a magnificent juggernaut of a play which addresses the death of the Irish language. To subjugate a people, take away their language.

It happened in Wales, in Scotland, Cornwall and, of course, in overseas colonies. Language, politics and culture – themes dear to Friel – and here he plays out in microcosm a cataclysmic event whose consequences haunt us still. 

And again, Friel uses a multitude of metaphors – mute Sarah being taught to speak; the scholarly tramp fluent in Latin and Greek (but not English); one brother, Manus, resistant to change; the other, Owen, eager and involved, tempering his translations of the ordnance team’s words to avoid hurt to his own people; the burgeoning friendship between Owen and English Lieutenant Yolland; the doomed and speechless love affair between Yolland and Maire. What resonances for us in 1980! What resonances for us still. People came out of it stunned – overwhelmed. It is unarguably Friel’s masterpiece.

Garlanded with honours, his masterpieces misinterpreted and murdered by amateurs in parish halls up and down the country, Friel maintains a Beckett-like aloofness and enigmatic silence, letting the work speak for itself. A sow’s ear of a performance cannot destroy the silk purse of a masterly script. It is all in the writing.

The test of a great writer is 'Will the work last?' I bring two press cuttings – one the 5th, the other the 7th of this month (February), both from the London Times. Friel’s 1979 Faith Healer, currently packing them in at the Bristol Old Vic is awarded four stars by critic Dominic Maxwell, who describes it as 'an extended metaphor for a life lived in the blur between faith and fiction, the imagined and the true' – a position the playwright himself occupies.

The other is 'an outstanding moment in theatre' reminiscence from senior drama critic Benedict Nightingale who, in forty years’ reviewing, has seen more plays than you, collectively, have had hot dinners. He chooses the famous hair-rising-on-the-back-of-your-neck kitchen dance from Dancing at Lughnasa, which electrifies no matter how often you see it. Nightingale says – and this is important – 'Friel shares Chekov’s ability to see people from the outside while feeling them from the inside,' – which is the phrase I’ve been looking for the last ten minutes.

Friel is a chronicler of our history – political, social, cultural and emotional. He has invested in his players the best and worst characteristics of our race – in our dealings with each other and the outsider (who may in fact be one of our own).

In Friel’s parochial lies the universal. In his smallest detail is a vital part of the larger picture.

Of all art forms, drama is the most immediate – the writer’s word made flesh – in living breathing characters upon a stage. When voting ladies and gentlemen, remember: ‘The play's the thing.’