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Unique Theatre Figure from Multiple Perspectives

Theatre Writer Book

Tony Coult “About Friel: the Playwright and the Work” , Faber & Faber , December 15, 2015
Theatre Writer Book by Tony Coult “About Friel: the Playwright and the Work” Tony Coult's book was first published in 2003. Nonetheless, Brian Friel had by then been active in theatre for four decades. Four or more of the plays look set to enter the canon. Two of them, “Translations” and “Aristocrats”, were both reviewed on this site in 2013.

Tony Coult's book, neither biography nor pure critical study, is divided in two parts. The first part encompasses “Friel's Roots” and “Friel's Life and Work”. The second, almost 100 pages, is called “Voices and Documents”. The result is a rich compendium of voices and perspectives. Its undercurrent is a meditative study on the relationship of author, nation and theatre.

The tone for the last two is set with a quotation from W B Yeats . The Abbey Theatre was founded “to speak the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland. We do not desire propagandist plays, nor plays written mainly to serve some obvious moral purpose.” “The Freedom of the City” was an intensely political play but Coult adds the critical proviso. “Friel's fruitful quandary as a writer is that his instinct is frequently to explore personal dilemmas, the consequences personal choices, and the degree to which men and women frequently know their own weaknesses. On the other hand, he lives in a society whose past and present history insist, often bloodily, more often poignantly, on his sense of justice. The playwright as artist and the playwright as citizen have to find common ground.”

The extracts from the personal writings of Friel include a tribute to actors. It ends with the line “They bestow eloquence on us.” Coult also draws on Friel's diaries at the time of writing. The plays soon assume an autonomy outside their maker. Facing the part-formed “Aristocrats” he writes 25th May 1977 of “a persistent feeling that I should leave the play aside until it finds its own body and substance. Stop hounding it. Crouch down. Wait. Listen. In its own time it may call out.”

Things are better four months on. 10 September 1977: “I have a sense that everyone (i.e. all the characters) is ready in the wings, waiting to move on stage; but somehow something isn't quite right on the set.” But the optimism is premature. 26 September: “The play has stopped; has thwarted me. I still work at it. But it sulks. And yet- and yet I sense its power.”

In the second half “About Friel: the Playwright and the Work” draws on a range of voices from across theatre. Actor Rosaleen Linehan: “He writes magnificently for women, he writes so tremendously for women that sometimes, as a woman, you have to stop and think “How did he know that?”...he writes with such grace and such ease about love.” Niall Buggy: “The thing is that, with this precision, there is for the actor an enormous liberation and freedom. Enormous. You never get it again. It's incredible that liberation and freedom that he gives you because of his precision.”

A quartet of directors feature. Joe Dowling: “Friel is always clear in both meaning and form. He writes to communicate with the audience rather than alienating them and holding them at bay. Few playwrights working in the contemporary theatre can match the elegance of his language, the breadth of his vision, and the remarkable understanding of the emotional power of the theatre which he brings to each character he creates.” Conall Morrison: “His understanding of the rhythm of a line, of a speech, of an act, of a play is absolutely crystalline, absolutely superb. And indeed the effect on the audience, wonderfully, ironically, is that it just seems effortless.”

Mark Lambert: “Brian is very good with characters of energy...They're not self-aware characters. There's a naivety about them as well, which is also a point of Brian's greatness as well. He can write naïve characters, which for a sophisticated intelligent man is actually not that easy. He can do both- create the articulation of an intelligence like “Faith Healer” and yet create those characters who aren't aware of themselves. Or they only show touches of awareness, which is very poignant.”

Patrick Mason: “He also has this extraordinary capacity, which is very demanding, to nuance a line quite perfectly. By which I mean not just of meaning but of emotion, nuance of character. And these nuances are extremely fine, strangely accurate inflections of emotion and character which are carried in the syntax and vocabulary of a line, in the rhythm of a line, in the placing of a line.”

As for the legacy there are two voices from different parts of theatre. The director Mark Lambert writes “So he's given Irish theatre prestige and an international name, and he's given actors huge opportunities. At one point single-handedly. Nobody else was doing that.” Frank McGuinness at the time of presenting an award said that Friel's accomplishment was “a liberation, a celebration and a censure for the country in which he lives.”

A review of a book about a writer should end with its subject's own words. The last page reproduces an item from a Friel Festival that took place in 1999. It tells a folk-tale from Russia about a town called Kitezh. When marauders approached, ran the story, the town enveloped itself within a mist. But the church bells, like the bells of Cantre Gwaelod, continued to ring.

“I suppose like all folk tales”, wrote Friel, “it can be interpreted in whatever way your needs require. But for me the true gift of theatre, the benediction of all art, is the ringing bell which reverberates quietly and persistently in the head long after the curtain has gone down and the audience has gone home. Because until the marauders withdraw and the fog lifts, that sacred song is the only momentary stay we have against confusion.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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