The Playwrights gives his view of the State of Irish Theatre
& Outlines the Case for a New Departure
FRIEL, Brian, dramatist [1929-2015]. An important typescript signed letter, 5 pp, with a manuscript postscript, December 1974, from his home near Lifford, Co. Donegal, to the Abbey actor Pat Laffan (a member of the Actors Equity council) and the theatre designer Bronwyn Cassin, giving a frank view of the state of Irish theatre, and outlining the case for a new departure. The letter arises from discussions in an Equity subcommittee of which Friel and Laffan were members.
‘My first concern, probably my only concern’, Friel says, ‘is the state of theatre in Ireland today. I think we are on the verge of a new direction .. Do we think automatically in terms of how best the Abbey can be reformed and made the vehicle for these new concepts, or do we attempt the new excursion without the inhibition of an existing place ..? The decision I have come to is that the Abbey, even a reformed Abbey, cannot [be] the incubator. It has evolved into an institution of such magnitude that necessarily most of its energy is consumed with keeping alive and keeping open. Before it even begins to think of what kind of plays it ought to do .. it is concerned .. with its capital, its publicity, its expenditure, its intake, its public, its cleaners, its caterers .. These are not the problems that are exercising me. Nor were they the problems of Yeats-Gregory-Fay ..
‘Our concern .. is to forge a new Irish drama .. The new voice I think I detect and the new direction I know to be necessary are the things that engage me now, and these could not find accommodation in Abbey Street. Even if the Abbey could be restructured .. the whole Abbey enterprise would be too lavish and too expensive to nurture a new and delicate and uncertain idea …
‘When I come to a writing-down of what form the new Irish drama will take, of course I falter. I have no precise answers ..
He says it will not be a Gaelic-speaking or a poetic drama, because both of these are elitist in practice and theatre is by definition vulgar, of the vulgus. It has nothing at all to do with politics because they are trivial, of no importance whatever.
‘What I envisage is a small group of actors, writers, designers who are drawn together out of mutual concern and interest; a vague but very real awareness that what is taking place on Irish stages bears very little relationship to either the imaginative or the day-to-day life we inhabit; a recognition that what it is to be Irish must be shaped and presented; a knowledge that the old seam of realism-naturalism is exhausted; a conviction that we cannot grab a theory from England or Germany or the U.S. or wherever .. a belief that these new definitions .. will evoke a response at first from tiny audiences but later from greater numbers .. and that we must find new eyes and ears and tongues to see and hear and express the Ireland that hasn’t been expressed dramatically for 30 years.’
Although Friel remained with the Abbey for some years more, notably with his great play Faith Healer , it is clear that the line of thinking outlined here was what led him in 1980 to become co-founder of the Field Day Theatre — precisely the kind of loose creative collaboration he suggests in this remarkable letter. Throughout the 1980s his work was produced by Field Day, beginning with Translations , but in 1990 he finally returned to the Abbey with Dancing at Lughnasa.
With an earlier manuscript signed letter to Laffan, May 1974, 2 pp, outlining similar ideas, and a note dated 27 Oct. (no year) about casting for a film.
An important collection of letters from one of the great masters of Irish Theatre, outlining ideas and dilemmas which are still relevant today. Friel rarely gave interviews, and this is a very valuable exposition of his ideas as he approached a turning point in his career. A Saoi of Aos Dána, with a string of Broadway successes to his name, Friel was undoubtedly the leading Irish playwright of the latter half of the 20th century. (3)