In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Brian Friel

  • Introduction
  • Plays and Short Stories
  • Irish Drama
  • Irish Literature
  • Writings and Interviews
  • Short Stories, Newspaper Columns, and Early Plays
  • Field Day Theatre Company
  • Postcolonial Theory
  • Politics and History
  • Archives
  • Film, TV, and Radio Documentaries
  • Film Adaptations and Commentary
  • Language
  • Adaptation and Translation
  • Stage Space and Theatrical Place
  • Dramatic Styles and Staging

British and Irish Literature Brian Friel
Shaun Richards
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0146


Brian Friel (b. 1929–d. 2015) was born in Killyclogher on the outskirts of Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Only seven years before his birth, following the War of Independence, the island of Ireland had been divided—six provinces remaining part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland and the other twenty-six forming the Irish Free State, which became the Republic of Ireland in 1948. The Friels were a Catholic family in a predominantly Protestant county. His father, a teacher, was from Derry (also known as Londonderry), Northern Ireland, and his mother, a postmistress, was from just across the border in the town of Glenties, County Donegal. In 1939, the family moved to Derry where Friel’s father had a new position. Between 1946 and 1948, Friel attended Maynooth Seminary near Dublin but left before he was ordained and trained as a teacher at St Joseph’s College, Belfast. Through the 1950s, he taught at schools in Derry. Following the staging of A Doubtful Paradise by the Group Theatre in Belfast, Friel resigned his teaching post and dedicated himself to writing. Although he found success with Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), he toyed with leaving the theatre and focusing on short story writing; however, he remained a dramatist. The events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when thirteen civil rights marchers were shot dead by British paratroopers, led to The Freedom of the City (1973), a dramatization of that event as it was (mis)represented by the Widgery Report. The play marked his developing interest in history and its representation as a subject for drama. This led him to take a further step in 1980 with the founding of the Field Day Theatre Company, a collaboration with the actor Stephen Rea, the first production of which was Friel’s Translations that was premiered in Derry (the name used by Field Day) in 1980. Friel remained a director of the company until his resignation in 1994. However, his actual break with Field Day can be dated from his decision to give Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. The play was an international success, but even though Friel continued to write significant plays, such as Wonderful Tennessee (1993) and Molly Sweeney (1996), none matched the commercial and critical success of Dancing at Lughnasa. Although The Home Place (2005), his final produced play, re-engaged with a historical moment and is concerned with the exercise of colonial power, the majority of works in his final creative phase were more reflective and elegiac.


Along with Seamus Heaney, Friel is the most widely analyzed of modern Irish writers, and studies of his work were published in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, as well as Ireland. Critical engagement with Friel begins almost with the start of his creative career and intensifies across the decades following his major breakthrough with Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964) which Richard Pine identified as the start of contemporary Irish drama. To a great extent, the content of studies is determined by their date of publication and Friel’s total oeuvre in existence at that time. These consist of three broad phases in which these studies (1) examine the work textually and locate Friel in his historical and cultural moment; (2) bring to the fore postcolonial criticism, Field Day, and the political allegiances associated with that approach and company; and (3) concern the issues of staging and the cultural readings that can be taken from Friel’s use of stage space and presentation of the gendered body, in particular.

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