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Body of work the legacy of a true genius

Dr Mark Phelan of Queen's University pays tribute to the dramatist often regarded as Ireland's Chekhov

Published 03/10/2015

Brian Friel at the Opera House in Belfast
Brian Friel at the Opera House in Belfast
Friel with his UCD Ulysses Medal in 2009

Far too often in Ireland is our appreciation of artists both belated and begrudging. Thankfully, this ignoble tradition was never inflicted on or endured by Brian Friel.

Indeed, for many decades he has been celebrated for his remarkable work, which has enriched our lives and amplified our consciousness.

There is no hubris in hailing this Omagh man of humble origins as one of the greatest playwrights in the English language. A truly colossal figure in world literature, Friel's loss leaves us all impoverished, but he has bequeathed us a body of work that's imperishable: a living legacy we should treasure; especially here and now, in a culture and climate where our political leaders have so egregiously failed the arts.

Perhaps the greatest hallmark of Friel's genius is that this consummate craftsman elevated ordinary people and places into extraordinary works of art. Indeed, it's profoundly paradoxical that for all his global prestige and profile, all of Friel's work is set in Ballybeg: Baile Beag, literally, the "small town": a dull, dreary Donegal parish excoriated by Gar in Philadelphia Here I Come as a "bloody quagmire, a dead end, a backwater".

But in Ballybeg, the global forces of conflict and capitalism are localised; their terrible political and personal consequences played out before us in Gar's emigration in Philadelphia, the Glenties and Gentle Island's evacuation; the evictions, both literal and linguistic, of Translations.

And so, the imaginative geography of Ballybeg transcends tribal and territorial borders - for Friel's plays are frequently performed throughout the world before audiences easily able to identify their own Ballybegs, or however - and wherever - you translate "small town".

When we move from Ballybeg to consider Friel's full body of work, it is characterised by his innovative experimentation with theatrical form and his elegant explorations of the fraught relations between fact and fiction, truth and memory, history and myth.

Often described as "Ireland's Chekhov", his works bears close relation to that of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, while his mellifluent mastery of language leaves both audiences and actors enraptured.

Indeed, the monologues comprising Molly Sweeney and Faith Healer, Michael's closing coda to Dancing At Lughnasa, not to mention Translations' eloquent exchanges, provide some of the most musical and memorable passages in modern drama.

The lyrical, literary qualities of Friel's drama should not distract us from appreciating his equal mastery of stage language in its physical and visual form, as is playfully manifest in Gar Public and Private's double act in Philadelphia Here I Come, in which two actors play different personas of the same character: a stunningly innovative device that the director Conall Morrison likened to "splitting the atom" in its release of a wave of innovation and energy into the Irish theatre scene.

A deeply private man, Friel had no time for plaudits or fame, preferring to shelter himself in his beloved Inishowen in what his late, great friend Seamus Heaney evocatively described as his "psychic citadel".

It gives me great pleasure to know that Brian took such pleasure and pride that he was alive long enough to see the launch of the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival, along with the Brian Friel Summer School in Donegal this summer, with a Lyric Theatre production of Dancing At Lughnasa on the occasion of its 25th anniversary.

The fact that Lughnasa opened in Donegal before travelling to Belfast and then to Dublin Theatre Festival has a potent symbolism not lost on Brian.

The fact, too, that Queen's Friel Summer School opened in Derry with an extraordinary lecture from his friend and fellow Field Day stalwart Seamus Deane that was delivered in the Guildhall, a building "eloquent with history" of the city and its hinterland; civil rights, the Troubles and the Bloody Sunday tribunal; and the setting of Friel's Freedom Of The City as well as the site of Translations' premiere in the home of Field Day, also possessed a certain poetry.

Seamus Heaney said two words he always associated with Friel were "privacy" and "probity", but he was also gracious and generous, his shyness often shielding a wicked sense of humour, for there was blood and turf under the fingernails too.

Friel also possessed a lifelong conviction in the power of theatre to inspire, educate and entertain, and though we may never see his like again, he will never be gone, for when the theatre goes dark and the curtain unfurls, his wit and his warmth, his humour and humanity, will be made manifest in the miraculous words and images he left for actors and audiences everywhere to enjoy.

Dr Mark Phelan is a lecturer in the school of creative arts at Queen's University, Belfast

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