Brian Friel, Tony-Winning Irish Playwright, Dies at 86
'Dancing at Lughnasa' earned Friel his greatest accolades, including a trio of Tony Awards in 1992.
DUBLIN (AP) — Brian Friel distrusted the reliability of mere facts. Ireland's greatest playwright of his generation, who died Friday at the age of 86, spent much of his life trying to convey the deeper truths of our existence — of a world filled with compelling fictions constructed by people, families and whole nations.
Friel's fictional County Donegal universe of Ballybeg — whose name, in Ireland's native tongue of Gaelic, means "little town" — provided the setting for most of his two dozen plays over five decades in which he sought to explore what he once called "the dark and private places of individual souls."
In each work, he created worlds of meaning set in distinctive eras: of the imminent 1960s emigrant hoping to leave behind dashed dreams in Philadelphia, Here I Come!; of the mutual incomprehension and growing enmity in the 1830s between Gaelic Ireland and imperialist England in Translations; and of the claustrophobic power of 1930s rural Catholic Ireland in Dancing at Lughnasa.
Lughnasa earned Friel his greatest accolades, including a trio of Tony Awards in 1992. But on those rare occasions when Friel permitted himself to be interviewed, he gently mocked the whole notion of success for a writer. He insisted that, while interviewers could ask questions, even the easiest ones had no definite answers. He often said that an invented or conflated memory could convey a greater sense of truth than a faithfully recorded snippet of reality.
In his famed 1971 speech for BBC radio titled "Self-Portrait," Friel conducted a mock interview with himself and, when asking "When did you know that you were going to become a writer?" could only reply: "I have no idea." His favorite play? "None of them."
Everyone else in Ireland seemed to have an opinion Friday on their favorite Friel play, moment or insight. The Irish national broadcaster, RTE, planned to broadcast the 1998 film adaptation of Dancing at Lughnasa starring Meryl Streep in tribute, as well as a radio recording of Philadelphia, Here I Come!
"His mythical stories from Ballybeg reached all corners of the world from Dublin to London to Broadway and onto the silver screen," said Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who praised Friel as "the consummate Irish storyteller. His work spoke to each of us with humor, emotion and authenticity."
Streep paid tribute to Friel as "a tender dramatist, an insightful humanist and a lovely man." She recalled how Friel during filming in northwest Ireland "introduced the people of Donegal to us as if we were all members of his family and community."
Liam Neeson, who earned early experience as a Northern Ireland actor performing in Friel's plays in Belfast in the 1970s, said it "was a joy to say his words and to feel secure in the hands of a master craftsman."
In New York, the Irish Repertory Theatre mourned the passing of its most frequently featured artist.
"Brian Friel was our hero. He was as generous as he was gifted, and he gave our company life and breath, and golden words," said artistic director Charlotte Moore and producing director Ciaran O'Reilly in a joint statement.
Born in 1929 in Northern Ireland, then a Protestant-dominated corner of the United Kingdom, Friel grew up in a firmly Irish nationalist and Catholic community that offered publicly expressed certainty on matters of morality and identity. He studied for the priesthood, left the seminary to become a schoolteacher for a decade, but found his faith on the stage.
He became a fulltime dramatist after spending his first lengthy time in America while observing the 1963 launch of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
He settled with his wife and five children virtually on the Irish border in the northwest Republic of Ireland county of Donegal. From that remote perch, he sought to challenge prevailing Irish attitudes on faith, politics, culture — often by employing unreliable narrators, multiple perspectives and ambiguous outcomes.
Besides his own work, Friel adapted to Irish themes and settings several classic Russian works by Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev. He said playwrights always had to worry about being misunderstood or misinterpreted.
"The reason for the worry is that the playwright is never fully his own man," he said in 1971. "The painter completes his picture, and the public looks at his work on the gallery wall. The poet or novelist produces his work and through it talks directly to his reader. But the playwright requires interpreters. Without actors and without a performance, his manuscript is a lifeless literary exercise, a kite without wind, a boat waiting for a tide. And the day he completes a script, he has won a battle and takes on a war."
Inspired by his Minnesota experience of seeing the dramatic arts thrive in a smaller setting, Friel in 1980 collaborated with actor Stephen Rea to found Ireland's Field Day Theatre Company committed to bringing productions to small towns across the island. Its inaugural work, Translations, proved its greatest stage triumph, and Field Day inspired a parallel literary project involving future Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney.
Neeson said he hoped that Friel and Heaney were in Heaven together having an Irish whiskey "and sharing a giggle."
Friel didn't travel to New York to collect his Tonys for Dancing at Lughnasa, a semiautobiographical tale told, via the memories of an adult man, of a boyhood summer in 1936 in the company of five unmarried aunts in Ballybeg. Friel preferred the solitude of Donegal with its barren hills, wind-swept beaches and chances to fish, smoke and drink with a close circle of creative soul mates.
"Brian was a giant of the theater, and a humble and quiet man, who enjoyed the private company of family, friends and colleagues, but who shunned the spotlight," said Sheila Pratschke, chairwoman of the Arts Council of Ireland. "He had a natural, easy and profound understanding of the actor's craft, and he spoke about how the actor's public utterance of the playwright's private words was what made the experience of theater so unique."
Michael Colgan, director of Dublin's Gate Theatre, said Friel displayed "impeccable manners and an intelligence which ... could frighten you."
"We have been close friends for almost 35 years, and yet he was easily the most elusive man I have ever met," Colgan said. "Friendship is based on knowledge, and whereas I knew we were great friends, I'm still not sure that I knew him."
Funeral arrangements were not announced. Friel is survived by his wife, Anne Morrison, three daughters and a son.