restricted access Brian Friel’s Transformation from Short Fiction Writer to Dramatist
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Brian Friel’s Transformation from Short Fiction Writer to Dramatist

In 1965, Irish playwright Brian Friel emphatically told Graham Morrison, “I don’t concentrate on the theatre at all. I live on short stories. This is where my living comes from. As for play-writing, it began as a sort of self-indulgence and then eventually I got caught up more and more in it. But the short story is the basis of all the work I do.”1 By 1968, however, Friel had virtually stopped writing stories. To date, no critic has sufficiently explained why Friel moved from writing short fiction and drama solely to writing drama by the end of the 1960s, although one critic, citing Friel’s statement about playwriting as “self-indulgence,” has recently wrongly argued that Faber and Faber’s inability to secure publishing rights to Friel’s short fiction and its publication instead by smaller firms in the 1960s and 1970s “may have altered not only the Irish ‘canon’ but even the actual generic choices of a writer.”2 The more accepted narrative to emerge in criticism of Friel’s work, however, suggests that not only did Friel find the formulaic requirements for short fiction in the New Yorker, which published many of his stories, stifling, but also that he realized that his short fiction was too imitative of the two Irish masters at the time, Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor.3 But there are several equally important reasons for Friel’s commitment to drama and rejection of short fiction. They include Friel’s experimentation with other genres such as radio drama and journalism, which may have helped him realize that he was better suited for a more fluid, experimental genre than short fiction, and his realization—expressed in his major essays on theater—that only drama, with its ability to enchant audiences, would allow him to depict his consistent theme of flux while also appealing to a potential community within the theater. Finally, Friel’s interest in politics almost [End Page 451] ineluctably kept him in the dramatic arena as the conflict in Northern Ireland lengthened and deepened through the 1970s and 1980s. This essay thus concludes with an assessment of the role of the Field Day Theatre Company, which enabled Friel to offer an exciting, fluid alternative on the stage to the hidebound, binary politics of Northern Ireland that provided both a model of communal interrogation and tentative articulation of deep-seated political, religious, and cultural problems that might augur a less divided society in the future.

For a time, Friel seems to have wondered if radio drama would be the subgenre most suited to his desire to create community through exploring the intellectual, social, spiritual, geographic, and political milieu of his region of Northern Ireland. As I have argued elsewhere, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, also raised in Northern Ireland, used the platform of BBC Northern Ireland to “create sonically an imagined regional community of the sort described by Benedict Anderson [in Imagined Communities], a new province, where the contributions of both Catholics and Protestants would be honoured.”4 While more reticent about his aim in this regard than Heaney has been, Friel has nonetheless long been interested in drawing together disparate members of the community in Northern Ireland. He realized early in his career that radio exercised a special hold on the minds of the Irish and had the sort of mesmerizing effect upon which he would later base his ritualized theory of theater, a theory metadramatically explored in his masterpiece, Faith Healer (1979). Heaney has recalled the intensity with which he and family members listened to the radio in the 1940s and 1950s: “If an angel had passed or a mighty wind had arisen or tongues of flames descended, the occasion could not have been more prepared for or more expectant.”5 Even when television became more popular in the 1960s, Rex Cathcart has shown that Northern Irish audiences “remained loyal to the older medium” in part because “television long lacked any significant local component whereas radio continued to supply a regional service.”6

Friel may have been drawn to radio drama additionally by...