Irish Playwright Brian Friel Dies At 86

The New York Times reports that Brian Friel has died. Friel, who was sometimes described as the Irish Chekhov, passed on Friday at his home in County Donegal, Ireland. He was 86. His death was announced by the Arts Council of Ireland. No cause was given.

Brian Friel wrote plays for over four decades. The humor, insight, and distinctive flavor of those plays won him international fame. His plays showcased an ability to grab the audience member and transport them to worlds that were unique and transforming. One such play was Philadelphia, Here I Come! which followed an emotionally divided young Irishman on the point of emigrating to America. It was nominated for best play at the 1966 Tony Awards. Dancing at Lughnasa, a play which recalls the memories of a young boy living in poverty in the 1930s, won the same award in 1992.

Brian Friel Party
Playwright Brian Friel attends the Broadway Opening of "Faith Healer" After Party at Bryant Park Grill on May 4, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images)

Most of Brian Friel’s work was set in an imaginary town called Balleybeg (from the Irish for “small town”). The setting was much like the town in which he and his family resided. Having a familiar setting let Friel bring characters to life in situations that challenged one’s thinking. Themes like social change, cultural identity, loss, and disillusion were central to the success of his plays.

Friel wrote only about Ireland. According to the Telegraph, his writing never lost its native flavor or concern for the condition of the Irish. He wrote in such a way as to appeal to those living far beyond his homeland. Brian Friel found a more welcoming response from American audiences, especially of Irish descent, than in London. Both Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa were much admired at the National Theatre, while Faith Healer was memorably revived in London, Dublin, and New York in the first decade of the new century.

NEW YORK - MAY 4: (L-R) Actors Jonathan Kent, Ian McDiarmid, actress Cherry Jones, actor Ralph Fiennes, and playwright Brian Friel attend the Broadway Opening of "Faith Healer" After Party at Bryant Park Grill on May 4, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images)

The son of a Catholic schoolmaster and a postmistress, Bernard Patrick Friel was born on January 9, 1929. His family moved to Londonderry in 1939, when his father was appointed teacher at the Long Tower School.

CBS News quotes Prime Minister Edna Kenny. She described Brian Friel as a skilled storyteller.

“His mythical stories from Ballybeg reached all corners of the world from Dublin to London to Broadway and onto the silver screen. His work spoke to each of us with humor, emotion and authenticity.”

The Chicago Tribune reported the thoughts of Sheila Pratschke, chairwoman of the Arts Council of Ireland.

“Brian was a giant of the theater, and a humble and quiet man, who enjoyed the private company of family, friends and colleagues, but who shunned the spotlight. He had a natural, easy and profound understanding of the actor’s craft, and he spoke about how the actor’s public utterance of the playwright’s private words was what made the experience of theater so unique.”

Bill Clinton was a big fan of the Brian Friel and expressed his sentiments.

“Friel’s work is an Irish treasure for the entire world. Although many of his plays are set in his small home town of Ballybeg, the themes and issues explored in them – identity, family and conflict – have a universal appeal. It is his extraordinary understanding of people, their motivations and their dreams, and their sense of themselves and others, that keeps pulling us back to Friel again and again.”

Mr. Friel was known as a shy but kindly man who veered away from public life and took a cynical view of Dublin and its politicians. Friel rarely gave interviews, preferring the solitude of Donegal with its barren hills and beaches. His survivors include his wife, Anne Morrison, and their children, Mary, Judy, Sally, and David. A daughter, Patricia, died in 2012.

[image via The Guardian, Photos by Thos Robinson / Getty Images]