Brian Friel’s work was once described as “the extraordinary within the ordinary.” That also feels like an accurate description of the man himself. While Friel lived a very ordinary life in a quiet Donegal village far from the center of theatrical glamour and excitement, he fundamentally reimagined Irish theatre with his masterpieces Faith Healer and Dancing at Lughnasa. He became the unique voice for Irish drama throughout the world, and his death on Oct. 2 evoked a national outpouring of grief and deep sadness from colleagues and audiences alike.
Friel’s career as a playwright really began in 1963 when Sir Tyrone Guthrie invited him to attend rehearsals for the inaugural season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Moving there with his wife and small children, Friel spent three months as an “observer” as Guthrie worked with that remarkable company of actors, led by Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Zoe Caldwell, and George Grizzard. It had a profound effect on the young writer. He described his time in the Midwest as “a sense of liberation, a parole from inbred, claustrophobic Ireland.”
It was directly after that experience that he wrote Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which became his first international success. Indeed, when I programmed the play during my first season at the Guthrie, he wrote to me: “The play would never have been written had I not been an apprentice there under the great Tyrone Guthrie. Indeed, it was the first thing I wrote in a state of near giddiness when I came back to Ireland, still on a Guthrie high.”
I had the honor of working closely with Brian Friel on many projects, in Dublin and in the United States. The American premiere of Translations at Manhattan Theatre Club stands out as one of the happiest of our collaborations. Friel had a real empathy with actors and a deep respect for the contribution they could make to the overall experience in the theatre. In that 1981 production of Translations, we had the incomparable Barnard Hughes playing Hugh Mor O’Donnell, the hedge-school master. Barney was a meticulous and detail-oriented actor whose rigor with text was remarkable. However, he had real difficulty with the final speech of the play. Try as I might, I couldn’t help him decipher the exact meaning of the speech, which makes a parallel between the destruction of Thebes and the elimination of native Irish culture. Brian arrived at rehearsal a few weeks later and, almost before he had taken off his coat, Barney approached with a series of questions about that speech. “What does it mean?” he asked plaintively. Brian’s response was typical of him—“I don’t know, Barney. What do you think?” Barney looked at me in despair: “The goddamn playwright doesn’t even know what it means.” What Friel was doing, of course, was inviting the actor to find the solution from within his own imagination and experience. The ultimate performance Barney gave was majestic and deeply felt.
Brian Friel’s admiration for and empathy with actors was matched with his disdain for the craft of the director. “A bogus profession,” he often called it. In a piece written to celebrate his 70th birthday in 1999, he likened directors to bus conductors who were once deemed necessary, “Until one day we realized that the conductor was altogether superfluous.” Also in that article he declared, “After all these years I’m still not at all sure what this person contributes.” And yet, practically everything I know about directing plays comes from my work with Brian Friel. He instinctively knew when to offer a suggestion and when to leave the actors to discover the nuances of the character for themselves. His approach to textual analysis, to what he called “the music of the text,” was always exact and thorough. He brought clarity and integrity to the work and was always conscious of the effect of his words on the audience.
Friel’s attitude toward directors was not always so damning. His early enthusiasm for the work of Tyrone Guthrie told a different and more sympathetic story. Having observed rehearsals at the Guthrie Theater in 1963, he wrote:
“Director and cast worked in such intimate communication, so intensely, so vibrantly, so fluidly, that the distinction between director and directed seemed to disappear…So that the scene suddenly matured in meaning and significance and beauty, and there was captured a realization of something much deeper and more satisfying than the conscious mind of the author had ever known.”
This is the best description of the alchemy that can occur when author, actor, and director are at one with the work in the rehearsal studio.
While the world will remember Brian Friel as one of the greatest Irish playwrights of his time, those of us privileged to know and love him will remember his remarkable sense of humor, his trenchant comments on theatre people and events, his endless capacity for gossip, chat, and good fun. Above all, we will forever cherish the warmth and generous friendship that enriched all our lives.
Joe Dowling is the former artistic director of the Guthrie Theater.
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