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Posted: 01 November 2006

First Cambridge Companion to living Irish playwright published

Widely recognised as Ireland's greatest living playwright, Brian Friel has been writing plays for the past four decades. He has achieved critical acclaim and worldwide success for his works which include Philadelphia, Here I Come (1964), Aristocrats (1979), Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) which received a Tony Award for Best Play.

Friel has lived through a time of profound transformation in Ireland, from the economic deprivation of the 1950s to the economic boom of the 1990s. And the material circumstances of the characters in his plays have improved over time to reflect this. Now in his late seventies, Friel has written twenty-four plays mainly based in the fictional town of Ballybeg in remote County Donegal. His plays, although set in the same fictional town, never cover the same ground twice as he continually searches out new themes and approaches as a playwright.

In the newly published Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel, the first ever Companion to a living Irish playwright, a collection of specially commissioned essays explores the full range of Friel’s writing career including his lesser-known works alongside his more celebrated plays.

Pictured at the launch of the Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, on 24 Oct 2006: Prof Tony Roche (Editor), UCD School of English and Drama and Brian Friel (foreground)
Pictured at the launch of the Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, on 24 Oct 2006: Prof Tony Roche (Editor), UCD School of English and Drama and Brian Friel (foreground)

‘Friel is the most important Irish playwright in terms both of dramatic achievement and cultural importance to have emerged since the Abbey Theatre’s heyday’ says Professor Tony Roche, editor of the Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel.

Professor Roche who lectures at the UCD School of English and Drama explains how Friel’s plays focus on an attachment to the local; to the small community; to the marginalized regions. ‘The plays provide a set of dramatic, philosophical and political contexts while remaining true to the local.’

In Aristocrats (1974), by chronicling the lives of three sisters and their ‘peculiar’ brother, Friel reveals the troubles of one family as a microcosm for the troubles of society at large.

Local Gaelic place names are under threat by the Royal Ordnance Survey in his play Translations (1980). This threat has powerful personal and cultural consequences for a local hedge-school teacher, his two sons, and the small group of local people who attend the school.

Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) is set in harvest time, County Donegal, in 1936. The play shows two days in the lives of the five Mundy sisters, who live just outside Ballybeg, hardly making ends meet. A missionary priest, repatriated from Africa by his superiors after twenty-five years and the seven-year-old child of the youngest sister are the male members of the household.

‘Friel’s communities always have a sense of some lost dimension; a dimension that might give meaning to the isolated and frequently despairing lives of his characters’ says Professor Roche. ‘But his plays are also full of laughter and fun - a surface gaiety which covers a great deprivation.’

The Companion investigates the entire range of Friel’s plays, giving an evolutionary sense of Friel’s developing talent over four decades. Contributors include playwrights, literary critics and theatre scholars.

Copies of The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel, Edited by Professor Tony Roche are available from the UCD Campus Bookshop.

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