The death last week of writer Brian Friel – described in obituaries as "Ireland's Chekhov" – makes me very sad. I love Friel's work. When I was a teenager, I saw his breakthrough play "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" three times. Standing room was cheap in 1966 when it played at the now-demolished Helen Hayes Theatre for 326 performances and was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning none of them. 1966 was the year "Marat/Sade" swept everything.
In later years, I saw a magnificent production of his "Translations" on Broadway and his beautiful adaptation of "Uncle Vanya" at the Dublin Gate Theatre. (Yes, the "Irish Chekhov" did three adaptations of the work of the Russian master, with whom he shared so much subject matter: the lives of ordinary people, family dynamics, and the struggle to find meaning and joy in everyday existence.)
Actually, calling Friel the "Irish Chekhov" isn't really accurate, though it's certainly meant as a great compliment. Chekhov is almost exclusively a realist, while some of Friel's best work has "avant-garde" elements. "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" is built around the conceit of having two actors play the two sides of the main character – Gar Public ("the Gar that people see, talk to, talk about) and Gar Private ("the unseen man, the man within, the conscience.") "Faith Healer" is a play of interlocking monologues. The one-act play "Winners" is about two young lovers who are actually dead.
Of course, depicting a single person with both "Public" and "Private" selves might be said to be a kind of realism. Or genius.
In 2012, Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal wrote "If life were fair, Brian Friel, the foremost living playwright in the English-speaking world, would have won a Nobel Prize long ago ... he takes everyday speech and turns it into something not too far removed from poetry. He has a great ear—and a great heart."
There are few love scenes more beautiful than the one in "Translations" where the two lovers – the English soldier and the Irish girl – who can't understand each other's language communicate in just the place names of Irish villages.
I think the Nobel committee gets tired of giving literature prizes to Irishmen. They have produced four (Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney) – an amazing number for such a small island. I think Seamus Heaney's win in 1995 froze out Friel, and they want to spread the prizes around. It's OK: Joyce, Wilde, and Synge didn't win one either.
I'm sad that Brian Friel died ... but I'm happy to have his work, which will live forever.
(Just for the hell of it, I Googled "America's Chekhov" – and you know who I got? Raymond Carver. Another of my favorites.)
"The New York Times" obituary
a featurette on Friel's funeral from Irish TV
"Philadelphia, Here I Come!" movie clip – the "Public/Private" thing doesn't work so well on-screen: it's purely theatrical
clips of Ralph Fiennes in "Faith Healer" on Broadway
the trailer for the movie "Dancing At Lughnasa" – Friel's Tony- and Olivier-winning play
and – what the hell --
a clip from "UNCLE VANYA" – Not Friel's adaptation – but my favorite Vanya of all – the legendary 1963 film version of the Chichester Festival production with Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Joan Plowright, and Rosemary Harris – I've watched this many, many times