In today’s Wall Street Journal I pay tribute to Brian Friel, about whose recent death I blogged. Here’s an excerpt from the piece, which was posted on the Journal’s website last Friday.
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Brian Friel, who died today at the age of 86, was universally regarded in Ireland, the land of his birth, as a master artist. Over here, by contrast, he was respected but not nearly so well known. Only two of his plays, “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” (1964) and “Dancing at Lughnasa” (1990), had more than middling success on Broadway, and though both were also filmed, his genius was for the stage, not the screen. Were it not for the steadfast devotion of the Irish Repertory Theatre, which produces his plays off Broadway at regular intervals, he would be even less familiar to New York audiences.
It’s not hard to understand why Mr. Friel’s greatness is not as widely recognized in this country as it deserves to be. In common with Horton Foote, the American playwright who was in many ways his opposite number, he set virtually all of his plays in a single place, the imaginary town of Ballybeg, a not-quite-fictional canvas on which he painted his subtly colored pictures of the joys and disappointments of village life. Rarely did anything obviously exciting happen to his characters: They lived, loved and died, often without ever having left home for more than a day or two. But like Anton Chekhov, his revered master, Mr. Friel knew the priceless secret of how to use the most parochial of cultures, that of rural Ireland, as a stage on which to enact the wrenching story of world-wide change….
Nowadays an artist who shuns both the radical simplifications of political theater and spectacular pseudo-eventfulness of contemporary film is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Such has been Mr. Friel’s fate in recent years. Yet I cannot imagine that his American semi-obscurity will last, for his vision of human nature was too penetrating and profound to be long overlooked….
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Read the whole thing here.