Collected Plays by Brian Friel review: 29 survivors of their maker’s culls
A fine edition gives some of the great playwright’s murdered darlings a second chance
In November 2010, just before Ireland handed its sovereignty to a troika of international institutions, an enterprising young theatre company from Newbridge managed to get permission to stage a play in the echoing empty spaces of a closed Celtic Tiger shopping mall in central Dublin. The play was actually first staged in 1969, but it seemed uncannily prescient. It is a darkly absurdist satire in which a corrupt Haughey-esque taoiseach presides over a government that is falling apart because the Irish State has run out of money. The minister for finance comes up with a scheme to turn the whole country into a romantic cemetery for rich Americans. The play is no masterpiece, but it was well worth reviving in that place and at that time.
The play is question is called The Mundy Scheme and it was written by Brian Friel. But you wouldn’t know this from the fine edition of Friel’s Collected Plays, published in five handsome volumes by the Gallery Press a year after his death. (The paperbacks are being published by Faber, but the elegant Gallery hardbacks are well worth the relatively small extra cost.) The Mundy Scheme has, ironically, itself been buried – it is nowhere among the 29 plays and adaptations that will now constitute for posterity the oeuvre of one of the masters of the literary play in the second half of the 20th century. Presumably Friel, who died a year ago, wanted it to be struck from the record. And the same goes for two other full-length dramas, The Blind Mice (1963) and The Doubtful Paradise (1960), neither of which makes the Collected Plays.
These absences are worth mentioning because they are the most extreme expression of an attitude that has shaped our notion of the Friel repertoire. Arthur Quiller-Couch (with later variations by William Faulkner and Stephen King) admonished writers to “murder your darlings”. But this injunction applied to the process of creation. Brian Friel was a serial killer of his own plays after they had been born or, as he would have seen it, stillborn. A play lives on the stage and it is remarkable how often, and how ruthlessly, Friel decided to deprive plays of the oxygen of production after what he regarded as failed first outings. The great importance of this Collected Plays is that it invites a reassessment of these supposed failures.
The core of the Friel repertoire has long been the Selected Plays, published by Faber as long ago as 1984, with the obvious subsequent additions of Dancing at Lughnasa, Making History, Molly Sweeney and The Home Place. If you’ve seen a Friel play in the past 30 years, the chances are it was either one of those latter four dramas or Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Aristocrats, Faith Healer or Translations. That’s a hard core of eight plays, and in truth there are very few dramatists in the English language with more than half a dozen works that seem likely to hold the stage beyond their own era.
Moreover, these plays form a coherent whole. Though they show Friel’s restless exploration of different forms, they also show the consistency of his basic concerns. In each of them a world is imploding: Friel is the great master of the quiet apocalypse. In each of them, memory is treacherous, language is inadequate and misunderstanding is apparently inescapable. They are the enduring substance of a great dramatic achievement.
But what of the murdered darlings? Friel was a merciless critic of his own creations. He dismissed his (in fact superb) short stories as derivative of Frank O’Connor. And he discouraged productions of plays even when good directors and companies were anxious to stage them. Even if we go back to that core Selected Plays of 1984, we find that two of the six apparently canonical works – Freedom of the City and Living Quarters – have been very seldom produced since. The same is true of plays that were excluded from that volume but that most theatregoers would have recognised: Lovers, The Loves of Cass Maguire, Volunteers. Some of the later plays, such as Wonderful Tennessee, Give Me Your Answer Do! and Performances, have an uncertain status. And then we have a much longer list of plays that are even more obscure: Crystal and Fox, The Gentle Island, The Enemy Within, The Communication Cord, and so on.
Perhaps, of course, Friel was simply right and these plays are failures. But it doesn’t feel like that. I found Crystal and Fox intriguing when I saw it at the Lyric in the 1970s, and reading it in the Collected Plays reinforces the belief that it is well worth reviving. Frank McGuinness was allowed a rare staging of The Gentle Island at the Peacock, and it was gripping. The Communication Cord seemed, on its one outing for Field Day, a remarkable mix of farce and linguistic philosophy, and a rereading renews the memory of its surreal energy. Garry Hynes did a terrific (again extremely rare) production of The Loves of Cass Maguire with a wonderful performance from Marie Mullen.
Again and again, there is the feeling that there may have been miscarriages of justice, plays judged too harshly by their creator.
Why was he so ruthless? I suspect there are two reasons. One is that Friel hated directors – and the more problematic the play, the more room there is for directorial intervention. The other is that he was a brilliant scavenger of his discarded work. Take, for example, the return of the priest from the missions in Lughnasa. This is really a fusion of two previous situations: the returning priest in The Blind Mice and the soldier coming back from UN duty in Living Quarters. Likewise, the ghost of the murdered Crystal and Fox hovers over Friel’s later masterpiece, Faith Healer. There is a paradox in Friel’s career: he seemed to draw at least as much creative energy from his failures as from his triumphs.
But Friel himself, the artist driven onwards by a deep dissatisfaction with his own work, is at rest now. He sought perfection – a consummation so rarely achieved in any form – and suppressed the imperfect. But theatre is pretty tolerant of imperfections – if actors and directors can find an energy and an urgency in a piece, it will live.
This superb piece of publishing will delight readers, but its ultimate triumph will come if it ensnares those who make theatre happen. Even at his least convincing, Friel is always impressive on the page. Here in this monumental collection is a set of challenges to test anew which figments of his great imagination can come back to life on the stage.
— Fintan O’Toole The Irish Times.