Philadelphia, Here I Come!

by Brian Friel

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What is the role and dramatic significance of Aunt Lizzy in Philadelphia, Here I Come!?

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The character of Aunt Lizzy in Brian Friel's play Philadelphia, Here I Come! helps to drive the plot by encouraging Gar to come to Philadelphia, serves as a contrast to S. B. O'Donnell, and stands as an interesting character in her own right with her dynamism and insecurity.

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The central conflict of Brian Friel's play Philadelphia, Here I Come! takes place between the young man Gar O'Donnell's public and private personas. So where does the character of Aunt Lizzy fit in? I would argue that Aunt Lizzy fulfills three main purposes: she drives the plot, she serves as a contrast to Gar's father;, and she stands as an interesting character study in her own right.

First, Aunt Lizzy helps drive the plot, for she is the primary reason Gar chooses to go to Philadelphia in the first place. We meet Lizzy in a flashback as Gar recalls her visit. Lizzy, who has no children of her own, longs to have Gar come to live with her and her husband. They have a job already lined up for him, and Lizzy is quick to tell the young man all about the nice set-up they have.

We have this ground-floor apartment, see, and a car that's air-conditioned, and colour TV, and this big collection of all the Irish records you ever heard.

She goes on and on until she bursts into tears and laments that “we have no one to share it with us.” Gar is, after all, her sister's boy and her only nephew, and she is willing to coax him in any way she can, even including bribery. How could this not turn a young man's head, especially a young man who is unhappy in love and feels stuck working for his father? Without Lizzy's influence (and her ecstatic response at Gar's agreement), Gar may never have even thought about going to Philadelphia.

Second, Aunt Lizzy stands in sharp contrast to Gar's father. Highly emotional and quick to express both grief and joy, Lizzy is the opposite of S. B. O'Donnell, who rarely shows his feelings at all but merely plods along through life, seemingly indifferent to his son. This isn't to say that S. B. doesn't feel emotions; he merely doesn't show them. But Gar doesn't understand the distinction and therefore doubts that his father cares for him at all. Lizzy, however, clearly does, and Gar responds to her animated emotions.

Third, Aunt Lizzy is simply an interesting character in her own right. She's chatty and slightly tipsy, yet she attempts to display a dignity she clearly lacks. “Would you please desist from bustin' in on me?” she tells her husband, hilariously blending “desist” and “bustin'” in the same sentence. As we said before, Lizzy is emotional, and her feelings move as quickly as her conversation as she jumps from topic to topic. Yet she is sincere in all her emotions, mourning her dead sisters one moment and the next nearly jumping for joy when Gar agrees to go to Philadelphia. Lizzy is probably more insecure in herself than anything else, and that accounts for both her somewhat erratic dynamism and her inclination toward alcohol.

Yes, Aunt Lizzy is a character to be reckoned with in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and she merits careful attention and reflection.

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Aunt Lizzy is the spark that sets Gar on his path. In many ways, she's the catalyst that allows the story to take place.

When Aunt Lizzy and her husband visit Gar, she suggests that he move to Philadelphia to live with them. She wants to be closer to the man she views as a stand-in for her own child, which she and her husband were unable to have.

Without the suggestion of the trip and the affection that Lizzy gives Gar, he might not have considered leaving. But Lizzy offers the view of something different. This change is especially appealing because his first love is being married to someone else. Gar wants a better life, but he also struggles with not knowing what to do.

Lizzy also has significance because she embodies Gar's internal struggle. He wants love and affection, but he is somewhat put off by her manner and appearance. Like with everything in his life, he can't choose what's right for him or what he needs.

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Aunt Lizzy is probably the most important person in Gar's life and a huge part of the reason he decides to move to the United States. Gar's mother has passed away and his Aunt Lizzy (his mother's sister) has always been a big part of his life. Although he hasn't seen her for a while, Gar has a whole fantasy constructed around his arrival in the United States that involves Aunt Lizzy. When Gar was a young boy, she would come to visit the family in Ireland and practically beg Gar to come home with her to Philadelphia so she could spoil him:

"She cries “My son, Gar, Gar, Gar . . .” as she throws her arms around him."

As he is reminiscing, Gar hears about about Kate Doogan's wedding the previous weekend; Kate was the love of his life and they were once engaged. Then the story goes into flashback mode and we see a time when Gar was on his way to talk to Kate's father to ask his permission to ask her hand in marriage, but Brian begins to feel like he came from a socially inferior family and he loses his nerve and Kate goes on to marry someone else. Brian mourns the loss of that relationship and regrets his timidity.

Brian wants to forget about Kate and move forward to a new life as represented by Aunt Lizzy.

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To a large extent, Aunt Lizzy acts as the catalyst for Gar's decision to emigrate to the United States. In that sense, her role has great dramatic significance. Gar doesn't have a mother, and Aunt Lizzy, his late mother's sister, acts as a kind of mother substitute—though if she is a mother, there's something cloying and overpowering about the mother love she so liberally lavishes upon Gar, making him feel deeply uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he still responds to Lizzy's invitation to leave Ireland for the United States.

Although Aunt Lizzy is over-affectionate toward her nephew, too much affection's better than none, and there's precious little affection around in his hometown. Ultimately, Lizzy comes to represent for Gar the prospect of a new life in the United States, with all the many good things and bad things that that will entail, which Gar will experience for himself when he finally sets foot on American soil. Gar needs a new mother away from his mother country, and Aunt Lizzy is a personification of that need.

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