A Reflection In Memoriam: Brian Friel

C. Austin Hill

In his beautiful play Translations, Brien Friel wrote the following words: “it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.”  When I read those words as an undergraduate student searching for direction for my looming graduate studies, I knew I had found the first marker for the path of my scholarly life.

To be up front, I never knew Brien Friel—not in real life.  I never met him, nor shook his hand.  He was unaware of my existence.  To him, I’d have been just one of legions of fans of his work—those so taken with his words and ideas that we poured over them like gospel truths…because that is what they are.  And that is what they will always be.

I first became aware of Friel at about the same time most American theatregoers did…and for the same reasons.  I remember vividly watching the presenters at the 1992 Tony Awards struggle to pronounce the title of Friel’s masterful Dancing at Lughnasa as it won award after award (incidentally, it’s LOO-nuh-suh…not loo-NAW-suh).  I remember when my high school theatre department took a field trip to see the Denver Center Theatre Company’s production—and that I didn’t go.  I didn’t know at that time the direction my life would later take.

I met Friel’s work again years later, in 2004 or 2005, as a non-traditional undergraduate student.  In a Theatre History class, we were assigned the afore-mentioned Translations.  I devoured the play, having suddenly taken an interest in Irish theatre after reading Conor McPherson’s Shining City in my Dramatic Literature class.  Also in 2005, the University of Utah’s Theatre Department produced Dancing at Lughnasa, and I finally had the chance to see it.  Amazing.  That combination of plays, in a very short span of time, got me asking questions about why a small island with only 4-million residents produces so much brilliant theatre.  As I sit here, 10-years later, with a PhD specializing in Irish drama, I’m no closer to a satisfactory answer to that question than I was at that time…and that’s how I know I picked the right specialization.

In the decade that followed the beginning of my passionate exploration of Irish drama, Friel’s work has always played an important role.  I have written about many of his plays for conference papers, class papers, and in my thesis and dissertation.  I have now directed my own production of Dancing at Lughnasa. I remain fascinated by the philosophy—Friel’s work consistently questions the role of memory in shaping our lives; the place for story in the telling of history; our relationships with each other, and with ourselves; and the very ability of language to shape our understandings of the world.  His characters are beautiful and complicated and human.  They want real things, and fight real battles—often within themselves.  Friel’s plays are distinctly Irish, and positively universal.  His work has had a demonstrable influence on 2 generations (already) of Irish playwrights, teaching them the efficacy of monologue, and the slipperiness of time, memory, and nostalgia.  His work has inspired brilliant scholarship and analysis.  Brian Friel’s plays will live on as a testament to his genius.

No, I never had the chance to meet Brian Friel.  He didn’t know I exist.  But his passing has stricken me like the loss of a close friend.  He let me in to his world, into his past, into his philosophy.  He allowed me to meet his family, showed me around his town, and let me feel his pain—and his joy. 

In his Making History, Friel’s character Lombard tells Hugh O’Neill, “Ireland is reduced as it has never been reduced before—we are talking about a colonized people on the brink of extinction.  This isn’t a time for a critical assessment of your ‘ploys’ and your ‘disgraces’ and your ‘betrayal’—that’s the stuff of another history for another time.  Now is the time for a hero.  Now is the time for a heroic literature.”  Brian Friel was just such a hero.  He was one of my heroes.  And I mourn his passing.

Thank you, Brian Friel, for writing your plays, for embodying your own past into language and stories.  Thank you for that amazing gift.  Requiescat in pace.