Irish playwrights traditionally thrive by heading for London and beating the Brits at their own game. Not so Brian Friel, whose 80th birthday is being marked at Edinburgh with a three-play programme by the Gate, Dublin. Friel has achieved international classic status without stirring outside his native land. His biggest move came in the 1960s when he gave up teaching and Nationalist Party membership in Derry and moved over the border to Donegal, where his mother had grown up and he had spent holidays as a child, to live as an independent writer.
He put Donegal on the theatrical map with 12 plays set in the fictional Ballybeg, running from the destitute mid-1800s in “Translations” (a masterpiece on Britain’s murder of the Irish language) through to the EU affluence of the 1990s in “Give Me Your Answer Do”. There is nothing provincial about Friel, unlike some hometown writers. He links hands with Chekhov, another artist who refused to be stampeded into commitment, and whose world Friel has explored in late work like “Afterplay”, but what he found on his own patch has equal power. In “Philadelphia, Here I Come!”, and later in “Faith Healer”, Friel invented the modern memory play, setting up a matrix for Harold Pinter, Peter Nichols and Alan Bennett; in “Dancing at Lughnasa” Donegal becomes a mineshaft to the pre-Christian past. It is as if Friel could pick up a handful of earth anywhere in his garden and find a story stretching back to geological time.
Picture credit: Bobby Hanvey