Critical Context

Volunteers is one of a number of Brian Friel plays which address the contemporary Irish situation. Like other Irish writers, he is caught in what Irish poet Seamus Heaney has called “the quarrel between free, creative imagination, and the constraints of religious, political, and domestic obligation.” Friel has most often dealt with social, political, and economic problems as they affect the lives of ordinary people. His first widely popular play, Philadelphia, Here I Come! (pr. 1964), examines why one young Irishman becomes part of the vast wave of emigration. The Freedom of the City (pr. 1973) uses actual events in the northern city of Derry to assess the impact of denial of civil rights on three ordinary residents. With Volunteers, Friel moves south, where he again uses historical events as the loose basis for an imaginative assessment of the impact of public events on private lives. In part, Volunteers is Friel’s insistence that the Irish “troubles” are not simply a northern phenomenon. The Viking references also link this play to similar material in the poetry of Heaney, to whom Volunteers is dedicated.

In Translations (pr. 1980), nineteenth century lovers are destroyed by the conflicting demands of their tribes. Making History (pr. 1988) continues what Declan Kiberd has called Friel’s “search for a usable past,” a search which often focuses on “the cries of...

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