Mr. Friel first found success in 1964 with Philadelphia, Here I Come!, a tender, mournful memory play about Gar, a young Irishman looking back with regret, humor and questions over his past years and relationships. The lead character was split into two personas, Gar Public and Gar Private. Like many of the playwright’s works, it was set in the fictional Irish hamlet of Ballybeg.
Philadelphia was a success, establishing the dramatists’ name, and moving to New York, where it received a Tony Award nomination.
Mr. Friel was a constant presence on world stages after that, prolific in his production of plays and rarely experiencing fallow periods. In many ways, he became the leading Irish playwright of his generation. He was also regularly honored. His Dancing at Lughnasa won the Tony Award for Best Play and the NY Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play, as well as an Olivier Award. Aristocrats, another of his better known works, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play and the Evening Standard Award. When he turned 70, Dublin held a Friel Festival.
Friel’s voice was a quiet, but assured one, one that always concentrated on the frail humanity of his fallible characters. His plays also regularly concerned the flexible nature of language and memory. Faith Healer, one of his most famous and revered works, plays out in long monologues by three characters, the title faith healer, his wife and his manager, who all lived the same experiences, but whose recollections of them do not fall in line.
Translations (1980), set in Ireland in the 1830s, is about the struggle for people to understand one another, expressed through the imperialistic British’s campaign to anglicize Irish place names. The characters speak different languages, and can't comprehend one another, though all the audience hears is English. Translations is a play "about language and only about language," Friel said. Dancing at Lughnasa, a great critical and commercial success in 1990, was another memory play, again set in Ballybeg, told by a man as he remembered spending a summer with his five unmarried aunts, telling of their frustrations, joys and closeness.
His many other plays included Wonderful Tennessee, Molly Sweeney, The Freedom of the City, The Mundy Scheme, Lovers, The Loves of Cass McGuire, The Gentle Island, Volunteers, Living Quarters, Give Me Your Answer, Do!, The Home Place and several adaptations of the works of Chekhov, Ibsen and Turgenev. Some critics noted a spiritual kinship between his writing and those of Chekhov’s, another playwright who specialized in the quiet existential desperations of everyday people.
He was born Bernard Patrick Friel on January 9, 1929, in Killyclogher, County Tyrone. His father was a primary school teacher and later a councillor on Londonderry Corporation, the name of the the local city council in Derry. His mother, Mary McLoone, was a postmistress. He attended St Columb's College in Derry.
Friel received his BA from St. Pat's College, Maynooth in 1948, which qualified him as a teacher at St. Joseph's Training College in Belfast. He continue on as a teacher—no doubt cultivating his interest in language and people—until 1960, when he left to pursue his dreams of being a writer. He initially wrote short stories, some of which were published in two volumes, "The Saucer of Larks" and "The Gold in the Sea." He also wrote radio plays, as well as articles for the The Irish Press to stay afloat.
He began writing plays in 1960, but did not achieve a sizeable success until Philadelphia, Here I Come!, first performed at the Gaiety.
Friel was best known to the theatre public as a playwright, not a personality. He was not outgoing or bombastic, the sort of artist that uses his fame as a podium. In "Self Portrait," which he wrote in 1972, he said, "I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement, and hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment."
New York's Irish Repertory Theatre, which has produced six of Friel's plays, issued the following joint statement from Artistic Director Charlotte Moore and Producing Director Ciaran O'Reilly: "Brian Friel was our hero. He was as generous as he was gifted, and he gave our company life and breath, and golden words. In numerous collaborations over a quarter of a century, we have been honored to stage more of his plays than any other author. Brian was Ireland's greatest playwright and he was our friend."