Friel, Brian (1929–2015), playwright and writer, was born near Omagh, Co. Tyrone, on either 9 or 10 January 1929 (he possessed separate birth certificates for both dates), the third child of Patrick ‘Paddy’ Friel and Mary Christina McLoone. He had two older sisters, Nanette and Mary, both of whom became teachers; a younger brother died in infancy. Patrick Friel was a school master who ran a three-teacher national school at Culmore, while his mother had been postmistress in Glenties, Co. Donegal, prior to her marriage. Glenties and Omagh were in the same northwest area of the island which formed a natural hinterland, bound together by family ties and local allegiances; that hinterland was sundered following the partition of Ireland in 1920.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Brian attended his father’s school at Culmore for four years (1935–9). When he was ten, the family moved to the city of Derry. Paddy Friel was a catholic nationalist, active in local politics, and became principal of the Long Tower Boys’ School in the city. His son went to secondary school at St Columb’s College, Derry, where distinguished alumni included the Nobel laureates John Hume (d. 2020) and Seamus Heaney (qv); the younger poet became a valued friend of Friel’s in later life.
Friel’s mother, Christina, was one of five sisters who lived in a house called ‘The Laurels’ in Glenties. Every summer during his childhood, the young Friel was brought by his mother to stay for a month with her four unmarried sisters. It was a move away from the formal, rather distant household of the schoolmaster father to an affective centre, where the young boy was doted on by his aunts. The world got to know a good deal about Friel’s mother and her sisters from his most autobiographical play, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ (1990).
After his five years in St Columb’s College, in 1946 Friel pursued a BA degree in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He did so as a seminarian, as was the case with all students there at the time. But by the time Friel completed his degree, he was no longer a candidate for the priesthood. Friel consistently refused to discuss his loss of vocation. It was ‘an awful experience, it nearly drove me cracked. It is one thing I want to forget’ (Coult, 20). The evidence shows that he continued the practice of Sunday mass-going well into the 1960s. But in a 1972 essay titled ‘Self-portrait’, Friel could write of his ‘hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment’ (Murray (ed.), 37). There is no firm evidence that he did.
Having left Maynooth, Friel then went to St Joseph’s College in Belfast for a year (1949–50) to train as a teacher. He taught maths in Derry schools from 1950 to 1960: the Brow of the Hill Christian Brothers School for six years, and St Patrick’s Primary School, Pennyburn, for four years. He enjoyed being a teacher and the subject of maths appealed to a love of precision. Teachers feature both in his short stories and plays, based not only on his father but on himself.
FROM TEACHER TO WRITER
Secure in his teaching position, Friel got the opportunity during the 1950s to pursue his vocation as a writer of short stories and plays. In 1952 he published his first story, ‘The child’, in The Bell. For the rest of the decade more stories appeared in Irish and American publications. Then, in 1959, Friel hit the jackpot when one of his short stories. ‘The skelper’, was published in the prestigious The New Yorker magazine. The following year he was awarded the rare distinction of a ‘first read’ contract with The New Yorker, leading to the publication in the magazine of at least one of Friel’s short stories every year during the 1960s. Thus emboldened and endowed, Friel decided to quit his teaching job in 1960 and dedicate himself to writing full time. Two collections of short stories were later published: The saucer of larks in 1962 and The gold in the sea in 1966.
During this time Friel also developed as a playwright, first as a radio dramatist, then with three stage plays. He has described two of these plays as ‘in sad truth, tedious and tendentious and incredibly boring’ (Delaney (ed.), 39). He conceded that ‘The enemy within’ was ‘solid’, and allowed it to be published by Peter Fallon’s Gallery Press in 1979. The run of ‘The enemy within’ at the Abbey Theatre in October 1962 during the Dublin Theatre Festival was attended by Sir Tyrone Guthrie (qv), one of the most acclaimed theatre directors in the English-speaking world. Guthrie was an Englishman with a Scottish father and an Irish mother who increasingly came to regard himself as Irish. First alerted to Friel by the short stories in The New Yorker, Guthrie wrote to him about the play, stressing their shared Northern Irish background. In late 1962, he invited Friel to come to a new theatre named the Guthrie, in Minneapolis in the US, and attend rehearsals of the two plays he was directing, a modern-dress ‘Hamlet’ and Chekhov’s ‘Three sisters’. Friel accepted the invitation and spent three months there as an ‘observer’. This period provided what he later described as ‘my first parole from inbred, claustrophobic Ireland’. The sense of ‘liberation’ he experienced ‘conferred on me a valuable self-confidence so that the first play I wrote immediately after I came home, ‘Philadelphia, here I come!’, was a lot more assured than anything I had attempted before’ (Murray (ed.), 42).
Friel returned with his wife and two daughters to Ireland from Minneapolis in June 1963, where he would remain for the next fifty years, building a worldwide career in theatre from the Northern fastnesseses of Derry and Donegal. He did so as an inner émigré, a writer for whom the notion of home was elusive and the stance towards both Irelands critical. After the transformative time at the Guthrie, he wrote no more short stories and dedicated himself to a life in the theatre.
Friel lived in Derry until 1967 before moving to Muff, Co. Donegal, just across the border. His attitude to the border, as reiterated in his earliest interviews from the 1960s, was unequivocal: ‘The Border has never been relevant to me. It has been an irritation, but I’ve never intellectually or emotionally accepted it’ (Delaney (ed.), 83). From 'Philadelphia, here I come!' first staged in 1964, almost all of Friel’s plays are set in Ballybeg, Co. Donegal. There is no such town on any map; it is Friel’s creation, the archetypal baile beag, from the Irish meaning ‘small town’.
'Philadelphia, here I come!' was more experimental and theatrically innovative than anything he had so far written. In ways it resembles a traditional Irish play both in its choice of subject and cast of characters. But what transforms the play is Friel’s original decision to split the central character into two contrasting roles, the public and the private, and have them played by different actors. Gar Public is the Gar everybody sees, talks to, talks about. Gar Private is ‘the unseen man, the man within, the conscience, the alter ego, the secret thoughts, the id’ (Collected plays, i, 89). In this way, Friel is able to portray the strongly divided feelings of his young protagonist on leaving home in a more theatrically expressive and insightful way than a realistic treatment would allow.
STAGE SUCCESSES, AND FAILURES
When the play was accepted in early 1964 for production at the Dublin Theatre Festival, it was directed by Hilton Edwards (qv), Dublin Gate Theatre’s veteran stage director, unparalleled for his theatrical sophistication and technical lighting expertise. Edwards was to direct the next three plays by Brian Friel. He rapidly assembled an expert cast, with Patrick Bedford (d. 1999) as Gar Public and Donal Donnelly (qv) as Gar Private, and the senior actor Éamon Kelly (qv) as Gar’s taciturn father, S. B. O’Donnell.
'Philadelphia, here I come!' opened for Gate productions in the larger Gaiety Theatre on 28 September 1964. It was the hit of that year’s Dublin Theatre Festival and was brought back in 1965 for another run. This production was seen and invited to New York for the following year. Edwards successfully lobbied American Actors’ Equity to retain most of his Dublin cast for New York on the grounds of authenticity. The play opened on 16 February 1966. In Friel’s words, ‘When the curtain fell … [the audience] clapped and cheered and called “Bravo” … I didn’t give a damn what the critics would say. Happily they were rapturous the next day [and said] that we were a hit’ (Delaney (ed.), 45). ‘Philadelphia, here I come!’ had an unprecedented run of nine months at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
Friel’s experience with his next play, 1966’s ‘The loves of Cass McGuire’, about a seventy-year-old woman returning from New York to a materialistic Ireland, was to prove less happy. It culminated in a traumatic experience for the author, which fundamentally altered his relationship with the directors of his work. The script of ‘Cass McGuire’, after an arduous five months of notes and four months of writing, was sent to Hilton Edwards on 7 April 1965 and accepted by him two weeks later.
In the end Friel and Edwards agreed to producer David Merrick’s wish to premiere the play in the US. This meant that the cast was almost entirely American and the play had no time in Dublin to get ‘run in’. The production went out on the road for the customary US tryout at various locations – in this case two weeks in Boston and two weeks in Philadelphia – before the official opening in New York in October 1966. But during this time alterations were made to the script: speeches were cut up and rearranged by a concerned management. When word reached Friel he was furious and set off for Philadelphia with a lawyer in tow. As Patrick Burke describes it, Friel ‘threatened legal action in 1966 during the premiere run of “The loves of Cass McGuire” when, in his view, the powerful Merrick organization was playing fast and loose with his text’ (Burke, 118). Friel’s original script was restored, and this was the version that opened the following week in New York. The restoration of the original script notwithstanding, ‘The loves of Cass McGuire’ played for less than twenty-one performances on Broadway. The experience led to a permanent hardening of Friel’s views regarding his scripts and the production of his plays. As he expressed it in a 1968 interview: ‘My belief is absolutely and totally in the printed word, and that this must be interpreted precisely and exactly as the author intended’ (Delaney (ed.), 55). Henceforth, when the playwright sent a finished script to the director, not a word was to be altered, added or deleted: the director should ‘interpret to the best of his ability what the author intends, and only this.’
In 1967 Friel had another great success in Dublin and New York. ‘Lovers’, unusually for Friel, was made up of two separate theatrical pieces individually titled ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’. The first had two teenage lovers, on the eve of their final exams; the second two middle-aged lovers trying to keep one’s bed-ridden mother at bay. ‘Winners’ was the more delicate of the two and was originally intended as a stand-alone piece. Friel took his agent’s suggestion to dramatise one of his short stories ‘preferably one of the more boisterous ones’ (Clare et al. (eds), 214), and so make a single evening’s theatre under the one title.
Hilton Edwards once more agreed to direct. Eamon Morrissey and Fionnuala Flanagan were the young lovers; Niall Toibin (d. 2019) and Anna Manahan (qv) the two middle-aged. The play opened at the Gate on 18 July 1967 and ran there until 30 September. When the US production opened almost a year later, it was billed as ‘the most successful production in the history of the Gate Theatre.’ Edwards managed to retain the two younger actors and Anna Manahan for the American production. But the US producers insisted on an American actor with name recognition (Art Carney from TV’s The Honeymooners) for the part of Andy. Both Carney and the second play were the exclusive focus of the extremely positive reviews. The production soon transferred to Broadway and after a three-month run there set out on a successful US tour. In the twenty-third Tony awards the following spring, ‘Lovers’ received three nominations: Best Dramatic Play, Best Actor (Art Carney) and Best Supporting Actress (Anna Manahan as Hanna).
Friel must have reflected deeply on the success of this, his most straightforward and conventional play. He was never to write so comforting a work again. His next play, ‘Crystal and Fox’, tells of a travelling fit-up theatre headed up by ‘the Fox’ Melarkey and his wife Crystal. Fox makes several mordant comments throughout about his audience’s abundant taste for sentimentality, farce and happy endings. ‘Crystal and Fox’ opened at the Gaiety Theatre on 12 November 1968, directed by Hilton Edwards. It played to reasonable houses but the run was curtailed because of movie commitments by Cyril Cusack, who played the Fox.
Throughout late 1968 Friel’s US agent, Audrey Wood, sent exuberant telegrams detailing the weekly box office taking for the ‘Lovers’ tour. The US premiere in Los Angeles of ‘Crystal and Fox’, directed by Hilton Edwards and featuring an all-American cast, elicited a telegram in a very different key: ‘Gross receipts for the week only $14,498. [Morton] Gottlieb therefore most regretfully putting up closing notice for this Saturday night. Terribly regretful but obviously he cannot continue present weekly losses.’ Wood was referring to the premature closing of ‘Crystal and Fox’. At the end of the play, ‘the Fox’ Melarkey is left on his own contemplating a literal and metaphoric crossroads. Friel was also at a crossroads at the end of the 1960s. ‘Crystal and Fox’ ended his five years of theatrical maturation with Hilton Edwards and the Gate Theatre; Edwards would direct no more plays by Brian Friel.
It might seem at this point as if a certain pattern had emerged in Friel’s theatrical career: resounding success followed by flop, another resounding success followed by another flop. At least the money from the US tour of one was still coming in even while its successor opened and closed. From 1969 to 1979 Friel was to write and have produced six plays in all, approximately one every two years. The first, ‘The Mundy scheme’ in 1969, a savage political satire, was rejected by the Abbey Theatre. ‘The gentle island’ (1971) featured a gay couple, the older man modelled on Hilton Edwards, and was greeted with incomprehension. From ‘The freedom of the city’ (1973) on, four plays were premiered at the Abbey; all four were published in handsome editions by London’s Faber and Faber. Friel clearly retained mixed feelings about the huge success of ‘Lovers’, and continued to write plays that were much more theatrically adventurous and experimental. But not one of them found an audience beyond the original production; if they opened in the US, they closed within a matter of days. This must have been a difficult and challenging time for Friel and his family to live through. In a rare radio interview during this period, when asked in what direction his new work was headed, the distraught reply is: ‘I have no idea at all. I’m very lost at the moment and very confused’ (Brian Friel: shy man, showman).
Friel’s 1973 play, ‘The freedom of the city’, is a special case. It was his most overtly political play, a visceral response to the murder of fourteen civil rights marchers (one of whom died of his wounds several weeks later) by the British Army on 30 January 1972. In Friel’s dramatised version of what became known as Bloody Sunday, three unarmed marchers blinded by CS gas unknowingly enter the Guildhall, Derry’s civic and administrative centre. On the day itself, the Guildhall was the destination of the proscribed civil rights march, in which Brian and Anne Friel both participated; but it was never reached. When Friel’s three marchers blunder into the Guildhall and then realise where they are, they make themselves at home, with cigarettes and drink, and confer the freedom of the city upon each other. When they eventually emerge with their hands held high, they are shot.
The other dramatic focus of ‘The freedom of the city’ is the tribunal (based closely on the actual Widgery Tribunal) which exonerated the soldiers from any blame and insisted the marchers must have been armed. ‘The freedom of the city’ received a double premiere, in Dublin at the Abbey Theatre (directed by Tomás Mac Anna (qv)) and in London at the Royal Court, directed by the actor Albert Finney and starring the Belfast-born actor Stephen Rea in his first Friel play as the most streetwise of the three marchers. The play ran well in Dublin; but in London it was universally condemned, all of the critics protesting that the British Army would never kill unarmed marchers and that Friel’s play was a piece of republican propaganda. The British Army entered his agent’s office and asked hostile questions, much to the playwright’s alarm. The theatre suffered bomb scares and bookings were few. ‘The freedom of the city’ closed in London. In New York, the leading theatre critic Clive Barnes, who was English, roundly condemned the play and it too closed.
Two more plays followed at the Abbey – ‘Volunteers’ in 1975 and ‘Living quarters’ in 1977 – but they found no following. In 1979 two Friel plays were underway simultaneously: ‘Aristocrats’ at the Abbey, for which hopes were high, and ‘Faith healer’ in New York. The latter was Friel’s most experimental and radical play to date, a series of four monologues by its three sole characters, Frank Hardy (the faith healer), his wife Grace and Cockney manager Teddy. The Dublin theatres which were offered ‘Faith healer’ questioned whether it was a play at all, consisting solely as it did of four monologues. But the play attracted the interest of the movie actor James Mason. With Mason in the title role, it was scheduled to open in New York in April 1979 directed by the acclaimed director José Quintero. Friel thought Mason superb in the title role, but was highly critical of Mason’s wife, Clarissa Kaye, in the role of Grace and her tendency to seek refuge in sobbing. In the end she stayed the course, in part because Mason refused to do the play without her. Friel was happy with Ed Flanders as the manager, but Flanders increasingly lost his nerve and increased his drinking. He withdrew before the New York opening and was replaced at short notice by Donal Donnelly, who had played Gar Private in ‘Philadelphia, here I come!’ fifteen years earlier. During the tryout in Boston numbers were small and people left during the two intermissions. Friel had begun the engagement by writing in his diary: ‘I can’t see it failing.’ By 24 February audience walkouts had taken their toll and he now declared: ‘I don’t want to write anymore’ (Rehearsal diary, 9, 38). When ‘Faith healer’ opened in New York, the reviews were negative and the houses poor. According to Anne Friel, it ran for three weeks but would have closed sooner had Mason not waived his salary.
Friel returned to Ireland devastated by the experience. At this point Joe Dowling intervened. Director of Friel’s two previous productions at the Abbey, Dowling was now the theatre’s artistic director. He read the script of ‘Faith healer’ and declared it a masterpiece. When he approached Friel about directing the play at the Abbey, the playwright said no, fearing a repeat of his experience in New York. Two days later, he phoned Dowling and said that if they could get Donal McCann (qv) to play Frank Hardy, he would agree to its going ahead. On 28 August 1980, ‘Faith healer’ opened at the Abbey Theatre, directed by Dowling and with Donal McCann in the title role. It proved to be an event in Irish theatre. ‘Faith healer’ created an audience for spare, demanding plays of spiritual and emotional crisis. It presented McCann, that most intellectually passionate of Irish actors, with his greatest, most demanding role.
FIELD DAY AND ‘TRANSLATIONS’
In 1980 Stephen Rea, the Belfast-born actor who had appeared in several Friel plays, approached the playwright with a proposal. He had acquired some Arts Council funding and suggested to Friel that they co-found a theatre company. The Field Day Theatre Company would open their productions not in Dublin or London but in Derry. Friel enthusiastically agreed and showed Rea the half-completed script of ‘Translations’. The play focused on the nineteenth-century translation of Irish place names into English by the Ordnance Survey. ‘Translations’ most daring innovation was to have the audience understand that the Irish characters, though they can be heard speaking English, are in fact speaking Irish. Could this be made to work? Friel wondered in his diary, and it does, superbly, aided by the fact that there are four dominant languages in the play; Irish, English, Latin and Greek, which provide a strong classical foundation for a contemporary play. Though 'Translations' is set in 1833, contemporary parallels with the North were inescapable.
Rea read it, thought it a masterpiece and that it should be Field Day’s first annual production, to be staged in Derry in September. At the time, Derry had no dedicated theatre, though it has gained several since. Friel and Rea decided that ‘Translations’ would be first premiered and produced at the Guildhall. The sight lines were poor and the acoustics muffled, but the symbolic significance of such a location was overwhelming. On the opening night of 23 September 1980, Northern Irish politicians of every stripe gathered and were frisked by the British Army as they entered the Guildhall. The hunger strikes were under way and the North was in turmoil. The standing ovation ‘Translations’ received was led by the unionist Lord Mayor, Marlene Jefferson, who according to Stephen Rea was the first on her feet. After that opening run, the team of actors took to the road and toured around the two Irelands, North and South. A new production premiered at England’s National Theatre in August. The play has been produced approximately once a decade since in both the English and the Irish national theatres, to critical acclaim and packed houses.
Brian Friel supplied the next two Field Day plays, a version of Chekhov’s ‘Three sisters’ in 1981, directed by Rea, and a linguistic farce ‘The communication cord’ in 1982, which satirises many of the key themes of ‘Translations’. By this time, the demands of helping to run Field Day were taking their toll and there were to be no new plays until ‘Making history’ in 1988. During the 1980s Field Day developed a policy of cultural intervention in political affairs. A Field Day board was formed and academic Seamus Deane (d. 2021) undertook the general editorship of an ambitious project, the three-volume ‘Field Day anthology of Irish writing’, spanning several centuries and in both Irish and English. This was later augmented with two volumes of Irish women’s writing to repair a significant omission. Friel spoke at the launch of the anthology in Dublin in 1991. In 1987 he accepted then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey’s invitation to become a member of the Irish seanad; Friel diligently attended the sessions but kept his counsel; and resigned two years later.
‘DANCING AT LUGHNASA’
1990 saw a move away from Field Day for the first production of Friel’s most autobiographical and successful play, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’. It was premiered at the Abbey Theatre on 24 April 1990, produced by Noel Pearson and directed by Patrick Mason. The play, focusing on a family of five women eclipsed by the conservative political and religious conservatism of 1930s Ireland, showed how the Irish revolution had failed half the population. Kate, Maggie, Rose and Agnes all retain their real names in the play. Friel’s mother Christina/Chris is refashioned into a character who does not marry but has a child ‘as it was then called – out of wedlock’ (Collected plays, iii, 437). Friel’s respectable, school-teaching father gives way to the wandering Welsh playboy, Gerry Evans. A glove factory is about to open in Ballybeg, which means that Agnes and the ‘simple’ sister, Rose, will no longer be able to work from home. As the narrator tells us, the two leave the following week and emigrate to England. When Michael (like Friel himself) goes looking for them twenty-five years later, he tells us that what he found was destitution. This late revelation colours the last act, when the sisters are all still gathered together. The result is the most moving scene in the whole of Friel’s oeuvre.
Premiered the same year that Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland, 'Dancing at Lughnasa' played to packed houses at the Abbey. It moved on to equal success in London and New York, where it proved a triumphant return for Friel to Broadway, winning several Tony awards. ‘Wonderful Tennessee’ followed in 1993; after a reasonably successful run at the Abbey, this more meditative, philosophical play closed on Broadway after a handful of performances. Friel personally directed his next two plays, 1994’s ‘Molly Sweeney’ and 1997’s ‘Give me your answer do’, to decidedly mixed reviews. Later direction of his productions was in the main returned to Patrick Mason and Joe Dowling, albeit joined by such newer presences as Mick Gordon and Lyndsey Turner.
LATER YEARS AND LEGACY
The last ten years of Friel’s playwriting career, from 1998 to 2008, saw him return to the Gate Theatre and were dominated by the figure of Anton Chekhov. Chekhov had been present as a force in Friel’s writings from the beginning. His short stories influenced Friel’s own, and Chekhov’s playwriting first surfaced in two of Friel’s late 1970s plays, ‘Living quarters’ and ‘Aristocrats’, both of which see the major addition of three sisters to complicate and diversify the dysfunctional father–son relationship. But Chekhov is absolutely to the fore in these final years, and not just in the adaptations. Friel wrote a version of ‘Uncle Vanya’ in 1998. Versions of three of Chekhov’s short plays and of his short story, ‘The lady with the lapdog’ soon followed. The most unusual original drama is ‘Afterplay’ (2002), where characters from two separate Chekhov plays, Andrei from ‘Three sisters’ and Sonia from ‘Uncle Vanya’, meet by chance in Moscow years later in a scenario of Friel’s own devising. Original plays from the period also include ‘Performances’ (2003) about the composer Leos Janacek, and ‘The home place’ (2005), a final return to Ballybeg in the late nineteenth century. During the rehearsals of the latter play in late 2004, he suffered a stroke and missed the production. But Friel recovered quickly and appeared to suffer no ill effects. As a final offering, he delivered a version of Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’ (2008), the foreign playwright with whom most Irish dramatists start.
Brian Friel was the recipient of numerous honours and awards during his lifetime. Honorary Doctorates of Literature (D.Litt.) were awarded from the National University of Ireland in 1983 and from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), in 1992. A member of Aosdána, he was elected a saoi in 2006, an honour bestowed for singular and sustained distinction in the arts. In 2009 he was awarded the Ulysses medal by University College Dublin, while QUB opened the newly built Brian Friel Theatre and Centre for Research. In 2012 Friel was made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature. Of all the theatre nominations and awards his productions received over the years, the most notable were the three Tony awards in 1991 for ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’: Best Play, Best Director (Patrick Mason) and Best Supporting Actress (Bríd Brennan). Brennan was the one surviving member of the original cast to appear in the film version of 'Lughnasa' (1998) with Meryl Streep, scripted by Donegal playwright Frank McGuinness. Friel has been widely acknowledged as the greatest Irish playwright of the second half of the twentieth century. But he also has a worldwide reputation as one of the greatest English language playwrights, one that has only been enhanced since his death in 2015, as productions of his plays translate readily to other cultures and their contexts outside Ireland. His plays are still in active production around the world, including ‘Philadelphia, here I come!’, ‘Faith healer’, ‘Translations’ and ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’. Five volumes of his Collected plays have also been widely available since 2016.
Friel’s development of the monologue play has profoundly influenced Irish drama; this innovative form had a huge impact on a younger generation of Irish playwrights, including Conor McPherson and Mark O’Rowe. The use of classical Greek plays in a contemporary Irish context, which Friel pioneered, is also featured strongly in the plays of Marina Carr. His concern with language as a theme and a strong sense of its limits, the dramatic point at which movement or music or silence take over, is strongly felt in the work of a contemporary Irish playwright like Enda Walsh. Friel is at the forefront of contemporary Irish playwrights delivering versions of Chekhov. His presence endures as, in director Garry Hynes’s words, ‘the father of modern Irish drama’.
At the age of twenty-five, Brian Friel married Anne Morrison on 28 December 1954. Morrison was born in Derry on 29 August 1931. Her mother, Margaret McGeehan, like Friel’s, was from Glenties. The couple first met on holidays in Donegal and were married for sixty-one years. Anne spoke about the warmth, wit and affection of their relationship in the 2022 television documentary Brian Friel: shy man showman. What is clear throughout their relationship is that she was his all-important first reader. A word of criticism from her sent him back to the manuscript. They had five children: Patricia/Paddy (1956–2012) worked for the Office of Public Works as park superintendent and curator of Kilkenny Castle. Mary (b. 1957) worked in costume in television and theatre. Since 2008, she has worked in the library of the National College of Art and Design. Judy (b. 1963) was a freelance theatre director, then literary manager of the Abbey Theatre. Sally (b. 1968) is a teacher. David (b. 1969) works as coastal officer for the environment section of Donegal County Council.
Brian Friel died of cancer on 3 October 2015 at the age of eighty-five. He was buried two days later in his mother’s home place of Glenties, Co. Donegal, in the new graveyard.
The Brian Friel papers are held at the National Library of Ireland. A further resource is the Field Day Archive at QUB. In 2016 the Collected Plays appeared in five volumes from Peter Fallon and the Gallery Press in Ireland and Faber and Faber in England. An enlarged edition of Selected Stories appeared in 2017 from the Gallery Press. Portraits of Brian Friel include Basil Blackshaw’s in the Abbey Theatre, Cian McLoughlin’s in the Gate, and Mick O’Dea’s in the National Gallery of Ireland. A portrait by Anthony Palliser hangs above the entrance to the Brian Friel Theatre and Centre for Theatre Research at QUB. A comprehensive bibliography of Brian Friel’s own writings and critical appraisals of his work, is to be found in Scott Boltwood’s 2018 publication, Brian Friel, published in the Palgrave Readers’ Guides to Essential Criticism series.