Brian Friel’s play Philadelphia, Here I Come is set in the small village of Ballybeg in County Donegal, Ireland, the kind of region from which many an Irish immigrant departed for the United States in search of “the American Dream.” Ireland’s history is one of bloodshed and economic destitution, with little opportunity for professional or social advancement. That was especially in the case in Northern Ireland, where fighting between Catholics and Protestants scarred the landscape for many years. From such a vantage point is Friel’s protagonist, Gareth O’Donnell, or Gar, preparing to set off on the next, and only substantial, phase in his young life. The play takes place on Gar’s last evening in Ireland and on the following morning prior to his departure for the United States. That he is enthusiastic about this major step in his life is strongly suggested in the play’s opening scene, when he is heard singing aloud the song from which the title was taken: “Philadelphia, here I come, right back where I started from. . .” Gar, of course, didn’t start out in Philadelphia; his entire life has been spent right here in Ballybeg, dutifully working for his father, with whom he has a very strained relationship. Rejoicing about his imminent departure and the end of his final day working in his father’s dry goods store, he mimics his father, and then throws in an declaration of defiance:
“’Behold-the handmaid-of-the-Lord-Gut-and-salt-them-fish.’ So, by God, I lashed so much salt on those bloody fish that any poor bugger that eats them will die of thirst. But when the corpses are strewn all over Balleybeg, where will I be? In the little old U.S.A.! Yipeee!”
This 25-year-old man has never known any life but that in Balleybeg working for his father. Like many immigrants and potential immigrants, America was the land of opportunity, with ‘streets paved with gold.’ That the reality rarely conformed to the dream was immaterial. Life in the United States provided opportunities that were simply not available in poor regions with chronically high unemployment or jobs, when they existed, that no one wanted, like mining coal. This scene presents Gar’s situation very clearly, particularly given the literary device of having two Gars in the play – the “public” Gar, who is seen and heard by all around him, and the “private” Gar, who represents Gareth’s inner thoughts. It is the back-and-forth between the two Gars that provides the scene’s conflict, as “private” Gar plays devil’s advocate, portraying America as a Godless, pagan-worshipping cesspool of crime and moral depravity and the “public” Gar attempting to refute his own conscience’s warnings. For Gar, the prospects of a better life in America hold too much hope to be dissuaded at this late date. There is simply nothing to keep him in Balleybeg. Even the girl of his dreams, Katie Doogan, was lost to him, her parents insisting she set her sights on a boy of considerably greater prospects. That his relationship with his father is so distant, their interactions limited to those characteristic of a boss-employee relationship rather than a father-son one, the image of America is too compelling to ignore.
It is not hard to see from where Gar develops his obsession with America. His aunt, Lizzy Sweeney, and her husband Con are visiting from Philadelphia and bring visions of a wonderful and prosperous future. Describing their experience as newly-arrived immigrants in America, Lizzy enthralls Gar with memories:
“October 23rd, 19 and 37 we sailed for the United States of America. Nothing in our pockets. No job to go to.”
As Lizzy describes being helped by their traveling companion, Ben, who took them in when they settled in Philadelphia, she presents a portrait of brotherly love for which that city is historically known but the reality of which, of course, is decidedly more complicated. Hearing Lizzy’s story, Gar blurts out, “I want to go to America – if you’ll have me!” Later in the play, when Katie arrives to bid farewell, the two begin to discuss Gar’s future, with the latter noting that he’ll be working in a hotel, but “I’ll probably go to night school as well – you know, at night [“private” Gar sarcastically interjects, “Brilliant.”] do law, or medicine, or something. . .”
This scene reinforces the superficial knowledge Gar holds of the country of his destination. In his mind, America is the land of opportunity, and, having been raised on glimpses of American culture, for example, television, film, music, and hearing tales of wonder from Lizzy, Gar is inculcated with an exaggerated sense of what the future holds in store for him.