Roche shows us that Friel, like Yeats and Beckett, has cast off what he calls “the threadbare devices of realism” in order to address the fragility of human existence within a wide range of differing circumstances. Also like them, he has rooted his art in a loving respect for the art of acting as a supreme reflection of humanity in all its greatness and grief. According to Roche, Yeats is much on Friel’s mind as, in his eighties, he looks back on his life’s work and asks, as Yeats did in his late poem, “The Choice,” whether it will live after him and continue to find renewed meaning:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it is to take the second must
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
With unflinching honesty, Friel confesses that “I never considered the life all that important. I gave myself to the perfection of the work. Did I do wrong?”
His own answer to that question is perhaps best given in the words of Lily Matthews, a character in Freedom of the City (1973), Friel’s powerful indictment of the massacre of Bloody Sunday, who at the moment of her death recognizes that:
Life had eluded me because never once in my forty-three years had an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening been isolated, and assessed, and articulated.
As Roche demonstrates, no artist since Yeats has dealt more comprehensively than Friel with the entire historical experience of Ireland. What Roche also conveys with thoughtfulness and insight on every page of his book is how stunning Friel’s achievement is when understood as a manifestation of a deeply committed political consciousness expressed through that most demanding of art forms, the living theater.
For Friel the “political element” is always present, although he has always taken pains to avoid expressing that in the overt polemics demanded by some of his most aggressive critics, especially at the height of the Northern Irish Troubles.
I once had the opportunity to catch a personal glimpse of Friel’s attitude in that regard during a conversation we had about the nineteenth century Irish poet and songwriter Thomas Moore. The occasion was an opening night party celebrating the return to the Abbey Theatre of Dancing at Lughnasa following its triumphant reception in London. I had just released a recording of the Irish Melodies of Moore, and friends of mine in the cast told me how much Friel admired it. Suddenly I found the master at my side asking me to sing for him.
After my performance in the beautiful drawing room of Noel Pearson, the producer of Lugnasa who was about to bring it to Broadway, Friel talked to me about Moore. “What I love about him,” he said, “is the way his politics is subsumed within his artistry.” The same, of course, could be said about Friel himself.
For years to come, this remarkable study by Anthony Roche will be a must for any producer, director, dramaturg, teacher or lover of Irish theater who would truly understand and honor Friel’s genius.
James W. Flannery is the Winship Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Emory University. From 1989 to 1993, he was the Executive Director of the Yeats International Theatre Festival at the Abbey Theatre.