Brian Friel: The Irish Chekhov

By Leah Flowers
24 March 2024

It is said that the birth of modern drama was shaped by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and Anton Chekov (1860-1904) (Smith). They are like two sides of a coin as they both were critical of the social ills they witnessed, however they did so in diametrically opposing ways. Ibsen took the tack of shocking audiences with open discussions of difficult subject matter, for example the notion that some women value their freedom over motherhood as with Nora in A Doll’s House. With Chekhov, however, everything is unspoken, everything is subtext. His characters often cannot bring themselves to talk about important subjects head-on, as seen in The Cherry Orchard where the affair between Lopakhin and Ranevskaya is only hinted at when he mentions that he once kissed her hand. This salacious event is not seen or even acknowledged past this one interaction. The reason Chekhov gives for his approach is thus: “In life, people do not shoot themselves or hang themselves or fall in love, or deliver themselves of clever sayings every minute. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, running after women or men, talking nonsense” (Hemming). He wanted to write life in a way that felt very close to reality and he did that through realistic portrayals of the mundane.

Brian Friel is thought of as the Irish Chekhov (Moran) because he writes in the same manner. His characters actively avoid saying the things that need to be said and instead let it fester and boil until it explodes, still without words, through dance. Friel criticizes English colonialism without openly saying it as such, rather he titles his play after an ancient pagan god and asserts through involuntary dance that Irish identity is in the blood of Irishfolk and cannot be controlled by English laws or oppression. The longings for sex and romance are never overtly spoken but it is clear to see that the desire is there. Chris has had a child with and is smitten by a deadbeat, Agnes has deep unspoken feelings for Gerry also though she never says so, Kate refuses to acknowledge her crush on Austin Morgan, and Rose’s tryst with Danny Bradley is heavily implied. Maggie is the only one to directly say anything: “If I had to choose between one Wild Woodbine and a man of – say – fifty-two – widower – plump, what would I do, Kate? I’d take the fatso, wouldn’t I? God I really am getting desperate” (Friel). Also there is heavy use of symbolism, such as when Rose returns home with a red poppy in her right hand and then later is carrying her dead rooster in her right hand. Also Jack’s killing of the rooster is a metaphor for his own death as the sole male in that generation of the family and how the sisters can no longer prosper because of him “losing his head” when he loses his religion.

Chekhov and Friel are similar in one other important way – they both felt strongly that humor should be present in their plays. There is often a tragic atmosphere of things falling apart and characters not getting what they want, but never with self-pity. Friel said, “they did experience deprivation and depression. And they experienced, too, happiness and great, great joy” (Nicola). Dancing at Lughnasa never asks for sympathy. It asserts that these women are vibrant, passionate, and strong, even having very little. In conclusion, Chekhovian plays are written to be performed with humor, realism, and layers upon layers of subtext.

Source

  1. Chekhov, Anton. The Cherry Orchard. The Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 10 September 2016, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7986/7986-h/7986-h.htm.
  2. Friel, Brian. Dancing at Lughnasa. Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1991.
  3. Hemming, Sarah. “Andrew Scott and Simon Stephens on making Chekhov radical again in ‘Vanya.’” Financial Times, Nikkei Company, 23 August 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/078e5bce-465c-4515-b90d-300074217183.
  4. Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. The Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 6 October 2022, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2542/2542-h/2542-h.htm .
  5. Moran, Sarah. “Brian Friel (1929-2015).” The Friel Project, Irish Repertory Theatre, 20 July 2023, https://irishrep.org/explore/discover-brian-friel-1929-2015/.
  6. Nicola. “Dancing at Lughnasa, 2002.” An Grianán Theatre, 2002, https://angrianan.com/in-house-production/dancing-at-lughnasa-2002/.
  7. Smith, Wendy. “The Meaning Behind the Lines.” The American Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa, 5 June 2009, https://theamericanscholar.org/the-meaning-behind-the-lines/.