"Brian was Ireland's Chekhov. All his plays touched on the parochial and the universal. Their themes described the complexities of the Irish character with enormous wit, grace and love.”—Liam Neeson on playwright Brian Friel, quoted in “Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson Among Those Who Pay Tribute to Brian Friel,” BBC News, Oct. 3, 2015
Irish playwright Brian Friel, who passed away earlier this week, didn’t reveal much of himself to journalists, but his work spoke plenty to the actors and directors who either worked with or simply drew inspiration from him.
Neeson was right: in focusing on character rather than politics, Friel followed in the footsteps of Anton Chekhov. Yet Friel looked to another theatrical antecedent who, though hailing from a particular region, spoke to the universal instincts of people everywhere: Tennessee Williams. The latter’s The Glass Menagerie influence can be regarded as a Southern forebear of Friel’s most famous play, Dancing at Lughnasa—making Friel, in the words of Irving Wardle blogging on “More Intelligent Life,” the “Father of the Modern Memory Play.”
It was nice to see The New York Times give so much space to Friel today, in the form of an obit and an appreciation from critic Ben Brantley. The Newspaper of Record was not always so generous.
As I noted in a prior post, its very influential theater critic of the ‘70s, Clive Barnes, refused to accept the fundamental premise of Friel’s The Freedom of the City: that British security forces could badly—and fatally—overreact to perceived terrorist threats in Northern Ireland, killing innocent people. It wasn’t until decades later that the British government would apologize for the “Bloody Sunday” shootings that Friel himself witnessed.