Jan. 9, 2010
— for Camille
Wait; the great horned owls
Calling from the wood's edge; listen.
There: the dark male, low
And booming, tremoring the whole valley.
There: the female, resolving, answering
High and clear, restoring silence.
The chilly woods draw in
Their breath, slow, waiting, and now both
Sound out together, close to harmony.
These are the year's worst nights.
Ice glazed on the top boughs,
Old snow deep on the ground,
Snow in the red-tailed hawks'
Nests they take for their own.
Nothing crosses the crusted ground.
No squirrels, no rabbits, the mice gone,
No crow has young yet they can steal.
These nights the iron air clangs
Like the gates of a cell block, blank
And black as the inside of your chest.
Now, the great owls take
The air, the male's calls take
Depth on and resonance, they take
A rough nest, take their mate
And, opening out long wings, take
Flight, unguided and apart, to caliper
The blind synapse their voices cross
Over the dead white fields,
The dead black woods, where they take
Soundings on nothing fast, take
Soundings on each other, each alone.
Today, Ireland's greatest living playwright turns 81 years old. Brian Friel, (books by this author) born in Omagh, County Tyrone (1929), went to seminary to become a Catholic priest, decided it conflicted with his pagan ideas, dropped out, and instead followed his father's steps into schoolteaching. In his spare time, he wrote short stories, and the year he turned 30 one of his stories appeared overseas, in The New Yorker magazine. He was so encouraged that he quit his teaching job to write full time.
He wrote some short plays for radio, and he began to write plays for the stage as well. Tyrone Guthrie, a famous theater director in Ireland, had read one of Friel's stories in The New Yorker and was so impressed that he wrote him a fan letter. The two met up, became friends, and when the Guthrie Theater had its grand opening in Minneapolis in 1963, Guthrie invited Brian Friel to come along to America, to Minneapolis, and hang out at the theater observing the rehearsal and production process of Hamlet.
Within a year, Friel had written his first stage play for production, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which brought him international renown. He'd broken from the stale mold of Irish peasant plays and instead written a play about exile. Philadelphia, Here I Come! is about a young man named Gareth O'Donnell who is leaving his small village in County Donegal and heading for America, and the whole play takes place the night before and morning of his departure. The play had its premiere in Dublin in 1964, then moved to London and to Broadway, where it was very popular.
He wrote several more plays in the '70s, adapted a Chekhov story for stage, and then, in the mid 1980s, he had a terrible spell of writer's block. He went to see the London opening of his Chekhov adaptation, and afterward, late at night, he went for a walk along the banks of the River Thames with a friend of his. They saw several different homeless people huddled up in the cold sleeping along the river banks, and they started to wonder about the lives of these men and women and what had led them to be homeless in London. Friel mentioned to his friend that two of his spinster aunts had left the Glenties of Ireland to go to London and had ended up alone and homeless. His friend encouraged him to write about his aunts.
Friel did write about his aunts from the Glenties, and he wrote quickly and brilliantly. Dancing at Lughnasa — about five sisters from the Glenties of Donegal, all of them spinsters — was the most commercially successful play of his life. It had its premiere at the Abbey Theatre 20 years ago, in 1990; and after it came to Broadway, it won a 1992 Tony Award for Best Play. In 1998, it was made into a film starring Meryl Streep.
Brian Friel almost never gives interviews and he carefully guards his biographical information, but he once said: "I am married, have five children, live in the country, smoke too much, fish a bit, read a lot, worry a lot, get involved in sporadic causes and invariably regret the involvement, and hope that between now and my death I will have acquired a religion, a philosophy, a sense of life that will make the end less frightening than it appears to me at this moment."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®