I am sorry to hear that Brian Friel died Friday in Donegal at age 86. The obits in both Los Angeles Times and The New York Times called him "The Irish Chekhov," but neither obit mentions his short stories.
The author of thirty-one stories in two collections, The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966), eighteen of which were selected and republished in The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland (1969), Friel once made a distinction between the relationship between the storyteller he began as and the playwright that he became. Whereas the playwright must always be concerned with using stealth to evoke a fresh response from the complacent theater audience, the storyteller mimics a personal conversation implicitly prefaced with, "Come here till I whisper in your ear."
However, there is perhaps more similarity between Friel's stories and his plays than there are differences. First of all, his stories are conventionally organized, built on the substructure of a relatively straightforward thematic idea that can be illustrated by moving relatively simple characters about on a limited stage. Although Friel has been compared to Chekhov and Turgenev, whereas there is a surface similarity, he lacks the character complexity of Chekhov and Turgenev's lyricism. Here are some thumbnail remarks on some of his best-known stories:
"Among the Ruins"
A typical Friel story, "Among The Ruins" is structured conventionally around the main character's discovery about the irretrievable nature of the past. Margo, Joe's wife, arranges, for the children's sake, for a family day-trip to Donegal where Joe was born and raised. Although at first he resists the idea, saying he is not sentimental and that he does not see the point in the trip, on the way he becomes excited, not because he wants to show his children where he played as a boy, but because he wants to recapture some lost magic.
However, when he tries to explain to his wife the significance of the imaginative games he once played in a secret bower with his sister, he realizes that the past is an illusion, a mirage that allows an escape from the present. When he finds his son playing his own imaginative game in the woods, he understands that ironically the past belongs not to him, but to his son, in a long line of generations, all finding some meaning in their magic of unrecapturable childhood. Thematically, the story suggests that the past has meaning not as something that once happened, but as something that continues to happen, repeating itself over and over again.
The Irish stereotypes of the alcoholic husband and the shamed and embarrassed wife form the basis of "The Diviner." The twist that Friel plays on the story is that Nelly Devenny, the shamed wife, is freed from her alcoholic husband in the first paragraph of the story and, after a suitable period of mourning, decides to marry again, this time to a respectable retired man from the West of Ireland. The story actually begins when, three months after Nelly marries the man, he is drowned in a lake. After frogmen fail to find the body, a diviner is brought in, who, like a priest, can smell out the truth. And the truth, which Friel saves until the end of the story is revealed when the body is brought to the surface and two whisky bottles are found in his pocket. Nelly's wailing that ends the story is not so much for the dead husband as it is for the respectability she had almost gained but which now is lost once again.
"Foundry House" is Friel's best-known and most widely respected story, primarily because it features a cast of well-balanced characters in a dramatic scene that presages Friel's later triumphs in stage drama. The story is also appealing to many readers because the dramatic oppositions in the story derive from Irish history and reflect a clearly defined class distinction that once was known as the "Big House" system, in which English Protestants lived in the large manor homes with Irish Catholic peasants dependant on them. However, because Friel is not really interested in these political or religious distinctions, he makes both Joe Brennan, the working class descendant of the peasant class, and the Hogan family, who still live in the big house, Irish Catholic.
Friel symbolizes the difference between the dying old way and the competent new industrial world by making the Hogans aging and sterile and Joe a radio-television repairman. When Joe is called to the house to show the family how to play a tape recording from one of the daughters, a nun in Africa, he is asked to stay and listen, but the father, now infirm, snaps at him, calling him "boy," as in the old days. However, when Joe returns home and is queried by his curious wife about the big house, he can only say, as he dresses his baby for bed, that they are a great, grand family.
"The Saucer of Larks"
The magic of the natural world and its momentary superiority over the public world of rules and protocol dominates "The Saucer of Larks." The protagonist is a police Sergeant in Donegal who escorts two German officials to disinter the body of a young German soldier who has crashed in the area during World War II. The landscape has a significant effect on the Sergeant, making him feel that he would not mind being buried out here, for with so much life around you, you don't have a chance to be really dead. When they reach the grave site, they hear hundreds of larks singing, which inspires the Sergeant further in his lyrical response to nature. Arguing that when you are buried in one of the big cemeteries in Dublin, you're finished and complaining about how man destroys such beautiful areas as the place known as the saucer of larks, he tries to convince the Germans to leave the young pilot where he is; but the Germans, in stereotyped fashion, can think only of orders and duty. At the end of the story, when the Sergeant is back at the station, he wonders what came over him out there, puzzling that he had never done anything like that ever before, blaming it on the heat and his age.
"My Father and the Sergeant"
The title of this Friel story sufficiently signifies its meaning, for the Father and the Sergeant are one and the same; the story is told by a young man whose father, a teacher at the school in Donegal where he attends, is secretly nicknamed the Sergeant by his students; thus he is both a kind, silent man troubled by ambition and a stern, hard-driving, humorless task-master. The story is not so much dependent on theme or complexity of character as it is on a reminiscent tone of gentle sad memory. When passed over for a better post, the father decides he will show his superiors what a good teacher he is by preparing four of his students for the regional scholarship exams. However, when he is stricken by pleurisy and a substitute must be called in, the young man becomes so popular with his charges that the father's position is made even more fragile. The story comes to a climax when the new teacher is accused of kissing one of the young girls, the protagonist's girlfriend, and is sent packing by the priest. When the father returns and some of the boys tease the young girl, saying that she will be wrestling on the couch with the Sergeant next, the protagonist knocks him down, crying "He's my father." However, rather than tell his father what the boys have said, the protagonist says only that he hit the boy because he called him the Sergeant.
Friel has been criticized by some critics for writing stories that, although they often are situated on the politically charged boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Friel acts pretty much as if the boundary and the bloody history that stains it did not exist. The conflicts that beset his characters are not political but personal; and the past that Friel evokes is romantic rather than rebellious. Although such slighting of political rhetoric by Friel in favor of universal longings and romantic illusion may irritate social critics who want fiction to carry political freight, Friel's short fiction is firmly within the Irish tradition of universal folk.