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Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics - Review

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The story that unfolds in this remarkable book, Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics by Anthony Roche, is the artistic life of a man of uncompromising standards, incredible courage and restless inquiry.

One of Roche’s great achievements lies in demonstrating that the seeming fragmentation of Friel’s body of work, as measured by the varied forms he has explored, actually contains a remarkable coherence when examined from the standpoint of how form is integrally related to idea in each of the individual plays. And what a bracing conspectus of ideas these are as a reflection on modern Ireland by a playwright who is also a subtle and persuasive thinker.

Rare among contemporary academics, Roche’s writing is as readable as it is incisive. What he has done for the first time is to examine the intention of each of Friel’s plays within the biographical and historical context that originally inspired them. But he has also succeeded in something even rarer, and that is to demonstrate how the plays deserve to be staged so as to realize in minute detail their extraordinary dramatic potential. As I read Roche’s book, I found myself saying: “That’s what’s really going on here. How exciting. How moving. How inspiring and meaningful to anyone who cares about the art of theater and its potential to impact upon our lives both privately and as responsible citizens of the world.”

From a dramaturgical standpoint, Friel’s breakthrough with Philadelphia, Here I Come (1964) was to subvert the kitchen-sink naturalism of the Abbey Theatre style that had dominated Irish drama ever since the death of Yeats in 1939. He did this by combining wonderfully compelling characters with avant-garde theatrical techniques borrowed from European theater – a method that, as Roche demonstrates, he was to follow throughout his career.

In Philadelphia, Friel captured the desolation and distress of that archetypal experience of familial and national loss. The inability of Gar O’Donnell to penetrate the implacable silence of his widowed father, even as they both long for a mutual understanding and love, was almost unbearable to witness. And yet, even through the muffled sobs that filled the theater, the audience was never allowed to wallow in a self-indulgent bathos. Instead, Friel evoked a far more complex response by having the figure of Gar portrayed by two actors representing his inner and outer self. This opened up the character and the play itself into a wide range of deeply layered perspectives on the real subjects that concerned the playwright: the complex and contradictory nature of human identity; memory as a flawed prism in trying to explain how and why we act the way we do; and the difficulty of achieving either personal autonomy or self-realization within an Irish landscape described by Friel as “inbred and claustrophobic.”

Friel was fortunate in having his first major professional production directed by Hilton Edwards, the legendary founder of the Dublin Gate Theatre, who was in the twilight of his career, but whose mastery of stagecraft was still unsurpassed by anyone else working in Irish theater. Edwards’ production was a tour de force in which acting, choreography, sound and lighting all combined to create a world of continually shifting shades of meaning. I particularly recall the ease with which the comic vaudeville routines of Private and Public Gar moved in and out of more natural exchanges between them, almost as if they were different modulations in an exquisite piece of chamber music.

Also the ways in which the different planes of the set – Gar’s bedroom as a realm of fantasy; the stifling kitchen where his father sat stiff, taciturn, and absolute; and the forestage with its directly performative connection with the audience – were each employed so as to establish what Roche calls “a fluid psychological space” that not only challenged the conventions of all-too-familiar naturalistic settings but expanded the intellectual and imaginative horizons of the spectators.

Such a creatively adventurous use of the theatrical arts requires interpretive artists with an equivalent sensibility. In Edwards, Friel was blessed with such a creative partner. Unfortunately, as Roche makes clear, that was not always the case, and there have been some ill-conceived productions that have damaged Friel’s reputation beyond Ireland. Such a career inevitably carries its ups and downs.

Broadway successes like Dancing at Lughnasa were followed by a production of the philosophically dense and provocative Wonderful Tennessee (1993) that closed after only nine performances. Always, however, Friel has refused to be content with replicating what he has already achieved. Over and over again, he has challenged himself and his audiences, not to mention the critics and theater artists charged with interpreting his work, by resolving, as he once put it, “to start again and then to start again.” Indeed, he remarked, quoting Graham Greene, at the ceremony in which Dancing at Lughnasa was named the best play of the 1993 London theater season, “Success is merely the postponement of failure.”

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