“Look for posts like two pencils and then a cowgate,” Brian Friel’s wife, Anne, said when we called to let them know we were lost. It was Sunday June 21st and my husband and I had set off from north-west Donegal in Ireland, where we were staying, to have lunch with the Friels at their house near Greencastle on the east coast. “With your directions they’ll be in Strabane soon,” Brian had quipped when Anne put the phone down, but it wasn’t long before we were pulling into their drive leading to the edge of milky grey Lough Foyle.
Anne, who is 80 years old, came out to greet us, petite and just as pretty as I remembered, with a nimbus of white hair and laughing, periwinkle-blue eyes. Brian was standing in the doorway holding onto a walking frame, much frailer and paler than when we last saw him, but otherwise completely himself. He was in no pain, he said, but tired easily and had no appetite, although he still enjoyed the occasional cigar and a glass or two of brandy.
We’d known for some time that Brian was seriously ill, and there was an unspoken understanding that we’d come to say goodbye. It was strange to feel as close to him as we did, having seen him only half a dozen times over the last 30 years. We’d been to the Greencastle house in 1991 when I wrote a profile of him for Vanity Fair, just before his play “Dancing at Lughnasa” opened on Broadway. A decade or so later, when I worked for the New Yorker, I set up a photo shoot with Richard Avedon, who was passionate about Friel’s plays (I photographed them together during the shoot in London, pictured). A great theatre buff, Avedon did most of the talking, while Brian, nattily dressed for the occasion with loafers and white socks, seemed discomfited by all the attention. He was a deeply private man, and I hadn’t realised when I interviewed him quite what a privilege it was. He resolutely refused to talk about himself or his work, and was scornful of academic deconstruction, which he felt destroyed the nuance and suggestive power of his writing.
He was happier hearing other people’s stories. We started corresponding when my younger son, Alfie, was born after a difficult pregnancy in 1992, and I superstitiously began to think of Brian as a kind of omniscient guardian. He seemed to like the idea of being an unofficial godfather, always asking about The Godson. He also took a keen interest in my dance writing, particularly my biography of Nureyev. He wasn’t a ballet-goer, but no one, with the exception of Stravinsky and Nijinsky with their “Rite of Spring”, has ever captured the primal element of dance as powerfully as Friel does in “Dancing at Lughnasa”.
The play is set during the week of Lughnasa, the Irish harvest festival, devoted to the pagan god Lugh. An extraordinary Dionysian scene is triggered when one of the five sisters switches on their radio. This is how I described it in my profile:
Maggie, standing with her hands in a bowl of flour, is first to respond to the heavy beat of the ceili band. Absorbing the rhythm, she drags her fingers down her cheek and breasts, streaking her face like a savage. With a wild cry she starts to dance, arms, legs and bootlaces flying. One by one the sisters follow suit, each one a maenad deranged by the atavistic spirit of the music…The circumspect Kate is the last to join in, and her tight-lipped, autistic reel is the most strongly driven of all. When the music ends midphrase, the sisters stop as if snapped out of hypnosis, half embarrassed and half defiant.
Dance releases the five women from their constrained, humdrum life, and Friel—a master of language—achieves one of his greatest theatrical feats without any words. “Words fail us at moments of great emotion,” he told me. “Language has become depleted for me in some way; words have lost their accuracy and precision. So I use dance in the play as a surrogate for language.”
In June, as we sat at the kitchen table overlooking the bay, he and Anne wanted to hear about the book project that had brought me to Donegal. I told them that my subject was uncannily like the young O’Donnell in Brian’s play “Philadelphia, Here I Come!”—even emigrating to Philadelphia for a better life himself—and that he had lived on the same stretch of wild Atlantic coast where the Friels spent every summer with their children. It’s the heart of the Gaeltacht area, where Irish is the first language. My subject was illiterate, as Brian’s own family was. He told us that his maternal grandfather made his grandmother learn to write her name before he’d marry her, and that his paternal grandfather had put a cross in place of his signature on his marriage certificate. I wished we could have gone on talking for hours, but Brian was fading, and so we took our leave, driving back past Mount Errigal and the hauntingly bleak peatlands of Friel’s Donegal. It’s a mighty, immemorial landscape, and for me his genius will always be an integral part of it.