Newspaper article International New York Times

Brian Friel, Often Called Irish Chekhov, Dies at 86

Newspaper article International New York Times

Brian Friel, Often Called Irish Chekhov, Dies at 86

Article excerpt

Mr. Friel, who over four decades wrote plays whose distinctive blend of melancholy and humor won international acclaim, died on Friday. He was 86.

Brian Friel, who was sometimes described as the Irish Chekhov and for over four decades wrote plays whose distinctive blend of melancholy and humor won international acclaim, died on Friday. He was 86 and lived in County Donegal, Ireland.

His death was announced by the Arts Council of Ireland. No cause was given.

Vincent Canby, then The New York Times's Sunday theater critic, spoke for many when he wrote in 1996 that Mr. Friel had long been recognized as Ireland's greatest living dramatist, having "dazzled us with plays that speak in a language of unequaled poetic beauty and intensity."

These ranged from "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" which concerned an emotionally divided young Irishman on the point of emigrating to America and was nominated for best play at the 1966 Tony Awards, to "Dancing at Lughnasa," about a family living in genteel poverty in the 1930s, which won the same award in 1992.

Along with much of Mr. Friel's work, both plays were set in Ballybeg, an imaginary Donegal village much like Muff, where the dramatist and his family first lived after moving in 1969 to the Irish Republic from Londonderry, also called Derry, in British- governed Ulster.

It was a location that let him bring onstage characters past and present to explore themes that reflected his era's concerns and confusions: cultural identity and social change, loss and disillusion, the search for belief and the yearning for transcendence, the power of the imagination and the lure of escapism, the importance of language and the significance of history.

Mr. Friel was often compared to Chekhov, and tacitly acknowledged this by translating "The Three Sisters" and "Uncle Vanya" and introducing characters from both plays into his own "Afterplay" in 2002.

He said he felt a kinship with 19th-century Russian writers, explaining that this might be because "the characters in the plays behave as if their old certainties were as sustaining as ever, even though they know that their society is in meltdown," and "they seem to expect their problems will disappear if they talk about them -- endlessly."

Many of Mr. Friel's characters shared those qualities, though they never seemed "endless. …

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