Once described by former US president Bill Clinton “as an Irish treasure for the entire world”, Brian Friel was celebrated as the ‘Irish Chekhov’ for plays such as Translations, Faith Healer and Philadelphia Here I Come!
He was considered not just the most notable Irish playwright since Samuel Beckett, but a world figure who was most famous for his three-time Tony Award-winning play, Dancing at Lughnasa.
He was a prolific dramatist and wrote more than 30 plays in a career spanning six decades.
Brian Friel's wondrous plays outlive him. I shall always be glad I could thank him for them, in Derry two years back. pic.twitter.com/MktQKM6Cs2— Ian McKellen (@IanMcKellen) October 2, 2015
Friel was born in Killyclogher near Omagh, Co Tyrone in 1929, and moved with his family to Derry at the age of 10.
He trained as a teacher and began as a writer of short stories. In 1960 he left teaching to concentrate full-time on his writing.
R.I.P Brian Friel, thanks for writing great parts for women without being told that you should.— Aisling Bea (@WeeMissBea) October 2, 2015
His plays also include Lovers, The Freedom of The City, as well as adaptations of classics by Chekov, Ibsen and Turgenev, among others.
He won numerous awards for his work, including the Evening Standard Award, Tony Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, and Olivier Award, and he was elected a saoi of Aosdána in 2006.
In a statement, the Toscaireacht of Aosdána, of which he was a member, described him as a giant of Irish literature, noting that his colleagues in Aosdána recognised his stature by electing him to be a saoi, an honour limited to only seven artists in the country.
“Now that he has died we can begin to see his work as one huge but intimate symphony,” said the Toscaireacht, the governing committee of Aosdána. “As an artist, he is irreplaceable.”
That view was echoed by Sheila Pratschke, chair of the Arts Council, who described him as a giant of world theatre whose canon of work achieved classical status in his lifetime.
"Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement..."
RIP Brian Friel, 1929-2015 pic.twitter.com/sOKkue1KOO— UCC English Literature Society (@uccenglishsoc) October 2, 2015
“Brian was an inspiration to Irish playwrights, actors, directors, and theatre makers,” she said.
“It is the mark of the man and his achievement as a writer that his work is conjured by use of his surname only.”
Ms Pratschke added that he was also a humble and quiet man who enjoyed the private company of family, friends, and colleagues but who shunned the spotlight.
Friel guarded his privacy zealously as his grandniece, film-maker Laura Gaynor, noted yesterday. In a tweet, she recalled a letter the playwright sent her four years ago, shortly after her 17th birthday.
“Say anything at all – I love the sound of your speech.” - Translations by Brian Friel. pic.twitter.com/rLxxl3H6Ii— Discover Ireland (@DiscoverIreland) October 2, 2015
He wrote to wish her a happy birthday and to congratulate her on her film success but declined an interview she had sought with him. “I do NO interviews of any kind,” he said in the letter. Nor do I do TV, radio, book reviews, jacket blurbs, etc — in short, I’m a total churl. All this can be difficult when I have a play opening because managements need publicity and they don’t understand when I don’t co-operate.”
Brian Friel will forever form part of the canon of greatness in dramatic writing. A consummate storyteller, his work spoke to each of us.— Enda Kenny (@EndaKennyTD) October 2, 2015
One of his early works, Lovers, was staged at the Everyman Theatre in Cork in July and its director Julie Kelleher spoke yesterday of the complexity of his writing and the humanity at the heart of his work. “I was not undaunted at the beginning but he was such a master you knew you were in safe hands.
“He was one of the best playwrights in the world and it was amazing to see his brilliance emerge in the rehearsal room,” she said.
“His writing is always beautifully crafted, so subtle and, of course, he wrote great characters. Lovers was one of those plays that constantly reveals itself and the actors loved the experience of working on it.”
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