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Brian Friel

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English Literature

Brian Friel was an Irish dramatist, short story writer, and translator. He held Irelands highest artistic honour, Saoi of Aosdána. His most famous play, Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), won the Olivier Award and the Tony Award.

Brian Friel: biography and background

Brian Friel was born in Knockmoyle, Northern Ireland, in 1929. His official birth name and date of birth are uncertain. He decided to live as Brian Friel and to celebrate his birthday on 9th January. Friels mother, Mary Friel, was a postmistress. His father, Patrick Friel, was a primary school teacher and politician. From 1945 to 1948, Friel studied at St. Patricks College in Maynooth and graduated with a Bachelors Degree. In 1950, he received his teachers qualification at St. Josephs Training College in Belfast.

For the next ten years, Friel worked as a Maths teacher in Derry (Londonderry). In 1954, he married Anne Morrison. In 1960, Friel started his writing career after having written some radio plays in the late 1950s that were commissioned by the BBC Northern Ireland. His early stage plays were performed in Belfast and Dublin. In the 1960s, a number of Friels short stories were published by The New Yorker.

Friels big break came in 1963 when he wrote the play Philadelphia, Here I Come! He was inspired to write the play after he spent time as an observer at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the United States. The play premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1964. It was then successfully performed in London and New York. In 1964, Philadelphia, Here I Come! received a Tony nomination for Best Play. In the following years, Friel continued to write successful plays. He became actively engaged with the politics that was affecting his everyday life, the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In 1972, Friel took part in the Bloody Sunday protests. His personal experience is behind his play The Freedom of the City (1973), which is set in Derry.

The Troubles, or the Northern Ireland Conflict (19681998), was a 30-year long conflict between the mainly Protestant Unionists and the mainly Roman Catholic Republicans. The Unionists wanted to remain with the United Kingdom and keep their British identity, whereas the Republicans identified themselves as Irish and wanted a United Ireland. There were significant casualties amongst the general population during this violent time, with bombings also occurring in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Bloody Sunday, or the Bogside Massacre, took place on 30th January 1972 when British soldiers shot 26 unarmed Catholic protesters in Derry.

In the next decade, Friel turned from politics to more domestic themes. His plays Living Quarters (1977), Aristocrats (1979), and Faith Healer (1979) explore family relations and the human condition. In 1980, Friel founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry with the actor Stephen Rea (1946 – present). The same year, he wrote Translations, which was first performed in Derry, followed by performances all over Europe, the United States, and other places around the globe. The play was a huge success and made Brian Friel famous internationally.

Despite this, the 1980s are considered to be his artistic gap as he didnt stage many more plays during this decade. Friels grand return occurred in 1990 with the play Dancing at Lughnasa. It was first performed in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin before gaining international recognition. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Friel translated, adapted, and reimagined several of Anton Chekhovs (18601904) works. Friels last full-scale play, which became one of his most famous works, is The Home Place. It premiered in 2005, ten years before his death. In 2008, he adapted the play Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen (18281906).

After a long illness, Brian Friel died at the age of 86 on 2nd October 2015 in Greencastle, Northern Ireland. He was buried in his mothers home town, Glenties. Friel was survived by his wife and children, who were by his side until the end.

During his lifetime, Friel wrote over thirty plays, a number of short stories, translations, and adaptations. His works are central to Irish drama and literature.

If youre curious to experience Brian Friels works, how about attending the Lughnasa International Friel Festival (or Lughnasa FrielFest)? Its an annual festival held in the Donegal County of Northern Ireland that celebrates Friels legacy.

Brian Friel is often referred to as Ireland's Chekhov. Do you agree? Can you find similarities between the styles of Friel and Chekhov?

Brian Friel’s major works and plays

Friels major works include Translations (1980), Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), and The Home Place (2005).

Translations (1980)

() it is not the literal past, the facts of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language (Hugh, Act 3).

Translations is a three-act play by Brian Friel. It premiered on 23rd September 1980 at the Guildhall in Derry. The play was produced by the Field Day Theatre Company, founded by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea. The original cast included Stephen Rea and Liam Neeson (1952 present). In 1985, Translations won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize.

Set in 1833 in the fictional village of Baile Beag (small town) in the Donegal County of Northern Ireland, the play explores the meeting of the Irish and English languages and cultures. British soldiers come to change the Gaelic names of local places. This triggers different intercultural situations and conflicts, including a love story between an Irish woman who speaks no English and an English man who doesnt speak Irish.

Dancing at Lughnasa (1990)

Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness (Michael, Act 2).

Dancing at Lughnasa is a two-act play by Brian Friel. It was first performed on 24th April 1990 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The play won several awards, including the Olivier Award for Best Play of the Year in 1991 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1992.

Dancing at Lughnasa is also set in the fictional Baile Beag (sometimes referred to as Ballybeg for English audiences) in 1936. The play is inspired by Friels mother and her four sisters. Told from the perspective of a narrator who remembers the summer he spent with his mother and aunts, the play follows the five Mundy sisters. Dancing at Lughnasa explores family dynamics and the meeting of Catholic traditions and pagan rituals.

The Home Place (2005)

() just give me a little time; I’ll rise above. The planter has to be resilient, hasnt he? No home, no country, a life of isolation and resentment (Christopher, Act 2).

The Home Place is a two-act play by Brian Friel. It premiered on 1st February 2005 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. The same year it won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play.

Yet another play set in Baile Beag, The Home Place, is about the onset of the agrarian reform in Donegal in 1878. The agrarian reform would allow the Irish to get their land back. The play centres around the English aristocrat Christopher Gore, his son, David, and their housekeeper, Margaret. When Christophers cousin arrives from England, the household is caught in the conflict between the Irish and the English. The Home Place explores belonging and identity.

Brian Friel’s main themes

Key themes explored by Friel in his plays include Irish cultural identity and history, and family dynamics.

Irish cultural identity and history

All of Friels plays are set in his home country. Some of them take place in the past and depict different periods of Irish history. Friel discusses the coexistence of Irish identity and British influence. Most of the characters in his plays feel deeply connected to the Irish places they inhabit, whether they are Irish or English by blood. The works of Brian Friel explore the ways in which cultural identity can be either lost or reinvented with the changing times.

In Translations (1980), the Gaelic language is a central part of the identity of the Irish characters. The places they live in are given English names, which shakes the ground they have been standing on for generations. At the same time, the barriers of language cant stop the genuine human connections that blossom between people.

The Home Place (2005) presents the landlord Christopher Gore, who is English by origin but feels at home in Ireland. When his cousin, Dr Richard Gore, turns the locals against himself by conducting racist research, Christopher is caught in the middle. Christophers housekeeper, Margaret, is on the other side of the same conflict. Shes Irish by blood but, by working for him, has betrayed her roots.

Family dynamics

Most of Friels works revolve around the relationships between family members. Friels exploration of family dynamics is also an exploration of the human condition. The characters sense of identity and belonging, as well as their trauma, are tied to the dynamics in their families. The families in Friels plays are non-traditional and more complex than a simple parents-children situation.

In Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), the narrator, Michael Evans, is the illegitimate son of one of the Mundy sisters, Christina. Hes brought up by his mother and his four aunts, all of whom are unmarried.

In The Home Place (2005), Christopher Gore lives alone with his son, David. Father and son are both in love with their housekeeper, Margaret.

Why is Brian Friel important to English literature?

Brian Friel is considered to be one of the most influential English-language dramatists of all time. He not only wrote about what he knew but delved deep into different aspects and nuances of his experiences. Friels works have a very poetic quality to them, and audiences are drawn to the language. His plays represent Irish identity by discussing Irish culture, history, and politics. Furthermore, while set in his familiar Irish context, Friels plays explore universal themes of belonging and family that reach audiences in different countries and continents.

Brian Friels legacy is honoured by Queens University Belfast, which founded the Brian Friel Theatre and Centre for Theatre Research.

Brian Friel - Key takeaways

  • Brian Friel was an Irish dramatist, short story writer, and translator. He is one of the most influential English-language playwrights. He won the Olivier Award and several Tony Awards.
  • Brian Friel was born on 9th or 10th January 1929 in Knockmoyle, Northern Ireland. He died on 2nd October 2015 in Greencastle, Northern Ireland.
  • Friel wrote over thirty plays for the stage and radio. He translated and adapted plays by Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen.
  • Friels most famous plays are Translations (1980), Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), and The Home Place (2005).
  • The main themes in Brian Friels works are Irish cultural identity and history, and family dynamics.

Brian Friel

Brian Friel wrote Translations in 1980.

Brian Friel died after a long illness.

Brian Friel was born on either 9th or 10th of January 1929. He chose to celebrate his birthday on 9th January.

Brian Friel is buried in his mother’s home town, Glenties.

Brian Friel was influenced by the works of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). He even translated and adapted some of them. Friel is often referred to as ‘Ireland’s Chekhov’.

Final Brian Friel Quiz

Question

True or false: Brian Friel's official name and date of birth are not certain.

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Answer

True.

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What did Brian Friel work as before his career as a writer began?

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Answer

Maths teacher

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Which of Friel's works were published in the New Yorker in the 1960s?

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Answer

His short stories

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True or false: Brian Friel's first famous play was The Freedom of the City (1973).

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Answer

False.

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What is the name of Friel's theatre company?

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Answer

The Field Day Theatre Company

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Which play made Brian Friel famous internationally?

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Answer

Translations (1980)

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Brian Friel is known as Ireland's....?

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Answer

Chekhov

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True or false: all of Friel's play are set in Ireland.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What is 'Baile Beag' (or 'Ballybeg')?


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Answer

It means 'small town'; it's the setting for most of Friel's dramas

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True or false: Translations (1980) is inspired by Friel's mother and aunts.

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False.

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Which of these is NOT one of the main themes in Friel's works?

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Answer

 Kingship

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Which play won the Olivier Award and the Tony Award?

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Answer

Dancing at Lughnasa (1990)

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Brian Friel translated and adapted works by...?

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Answer

Chekhov and Ibsen

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True or false: The Home Place (2005) is Brian Friel's last full-scale play.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Which play explores the meeting of the Irish and English languages?

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Answer

Translations (1980)

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