The renowned Irish playwright Brian Friel, whose indelible contributions to theater and the social and political fabric of Ireland cannot be measured, left this physical plane October 2 2015. He was 86 years old.
The Irish Repertory Theatre held a memorial celebration at the Manhattan Theatre Club‘s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Monday night ahead of Broadway dimming its lights to honor Friel on Tuesday evening. The memorial was a joyous and heartbreaking occasion filled with poignant and humorous tributes from friends and collaborators who were joined by the Irish Consul General in New York, Barbara Jones.
The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre has historical significance related to Friel. This was the theater where his mind-blowing Translations premiered in 1981. The New York Irish Consul General shared that she wouldn’t have been a diplomat but for Brian Friel because she was greatly influenced by the themes and significance of that play.
Along with Jones’s powerful tribute to Friel and his work founding Field Day Theatre Company with Stephen Rea, there was music, old (A Mendelssohn concerto performed on violin by Greg Harrington) and new (a piece composed by Bill Whelan). Celebrities, some of whom had performed in Friel productions, read from his best-known and honored plays. Acting luminaries included Gabriel Byrne, Jim Dale, Geraldine Hughes, John Keating and Ciaran O’Reilly.
The Irish Repertory Theatre has always had a special relationship with Brian Friel, having staged the most Friel plays of any theater company in America. Company members keenly felt his passing. Who besides the Irish Rep and its co-founders Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly, anointed by Friel with encouragement and love, would have the lively spirit and stature to host a sterling event honoring Friel’s life and theatrical legacy?
Indeed, the story goes that when there was discussion of having the rented space and building where the Irish Rep produced its work turned into something other than a theater, Friel took a stand with and for the company. Applying his stirring, passionate wisdom, Friel affirmed that Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly had made the building space hallowed ground. He said it must remain under their wonderful guardianship and not become “secularized.” His prophetic and commanding injunction is currently being realized as renovations on the Irish Rep’s purchased building are being completed and its doors will open in 2016.
Though unable to attend, Thomas Kilroy, Irish novelist, playwright and director of the touring division of Field Day Theatre Company founded by Stephen Rea and Brian Friel, sent a tribute, which was read by Ciaran O’Reilly. Kilroy evoked the last lines of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in remembrance of his dear friend: “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.”
Friel’s amazing gift of language, authentic, memorable characters, and unassailable, human-spiritual themes were and are the “stuff” playwrights dream they can write, but find it damn hard to accomplish at Friel’s high level. Friel distinguished himself as one of the finest playwrights of the modern era and some consider him to be one of the greatest English-language playwrights. He redefined drama in the last 40 years and elevated our expectations of what great theater can be with such works as the Tony Award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa, Faith Healer and the groundbreaking Translations.
Certainly, listening to the anecdotes and stories of friends and those who intimately knew and directed the playwright’s work, and taking into consideration the scope of his writing – 30 plays, two volumes of short stories – one gets a feel for his poetic genius, his wit, his soulfulness.
Charlotte Moore reminisced about the time Friel discussed Dancing at Lughnasa when the Irish Rep was rehearsing its production. Friel told her that when the actors are dancing they should move against the rhythm of the music. And he quipped, “Let’s see lots of knickers!”
Norah Considine Moore, the Irish house manager to legend Katherine Hepburn, whose Manhattan brownstone was where Friel stayed when he was in New York, discussed Friel’s down-to-earth manner. Moore, who fed male guests a huge meal (as if they were about to perform manual labor afterward), fondly quipped, “He always ate what I put before him.”
Directors who had a long association with Friel, like Joe Dowling (former artistic director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre), and Doug Hughes (Tony Award-winning director of Doubt), were eloquent about Friel’s indelible and ineffable language, his finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, the impact of the amazing Translations, and the fact that his plays are now recognized and performed throughout the world. Both reminded us with poignancy and emotion of his unique voice which “struck a deep chord” in our souls.
Poet Paul Muldoon spoke about the time when Friel’s friend, poet Seamus Heaney, had a stroke. Heaney talked to Friel about the ways the stroke had impacted him. Friel had also had a stroke. Recognizing the irony of sharing their ills in this way, Friel with aplomb and wit replied, “Different strokes for different folks.”
Emily Mann, multi-award winning Artistic Director and Resident Playwright of the McCarter Theatre, said that as a writer she owed a great deal to Friel. Like him, she apprenticed at the Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis, MN. When she told Friel she had apprenticed there and was a playwright and director, he told her to “Stop directing,” and proclaimed, “Directing is useless. Only the play remains.” He told her that he expected her to do more writing.
One performance highlight included Gabriel Byrne discussing how he saw Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come as a teenager and was mesmerized by the audience laughter, feeling that if a production could evoke such a response, the playwright had to be a great writer. Years later, the irony hit home for Byrne when he imbued themes of that play in his immigration to London from Dublin for an acting gig. The gig was Friel’s Translations. Joining the cast performing the iconic work at the National Theatre, Byrne once again deeply appreciated Friel’s true greatness as a writer.
The ceremony’s closing remembrances included a newly composed piece by Bill Whelan, renowned Riverdance composer. Whelan composed the film soundtrack for Dancing at Lughnasa which starred Meryl Streep and won awards in the U.S. and Ireland. His piece had particular relevance to Friel’s vital impact on the theater in Ireland. It was set to Seamus Heaney’s unpublished poem “A Lighting Plot” which Heaney wrote for Friel about the theater. Ciaran O’Reilly closed the honors with a favorite reading from Dancing at Lughnasa.
As Broadway dimmed its lights for a minute on Tuesday evening in remembrance of this great soul and most unique voice of the theater, all those in the theater world understood that Friel’s shoes will not be filled easily. Nevertheless, his work is a clarion call to inspire other writers and playwrights to find their unique voices in their own hearts and minds. In doing that they will be able to transcend national boundaries and reach what is eternal in all of us, as Friel did.