Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

In a 1906 essay titled “Ibsen and National Drama,” Padraic Colum described his efforts to create Irish dramas that could be compared favorably to the works of the influential Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Perceptive critics such as Zack Bowen and Sanford Sternlicht noted similarities both in the art of dialogue and in the representation of moral conflicts between The Fiddler’s House and Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880). In both plays, important characters must choose between the security of a comfortable home and their desire to experience a new type of freedom. To varying degrees, the five characters in The Fiddler’s House all deal with the complex relationship between freedom and social responsibility.

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Colum wrote this play shortly after Irish peasants had obtained the legal right to own real estate. Thus, Irish farmers no longer had to work for absentee landlords. The importance Anne and James attach to preserving this newly acquired right must have seemed eminently sensible to Dublin theatergoers in 1907. Anne and James are not materialistic characters; rather, they understand clearly the real danger of their falling into poverty if they do not own their farm. James loves Anne, but he knows that enough food and a warm house are indispensable for a good marriage. The two are sympathetic realists who prefer security over adventure. Brian represents perhaps the opposite extreme. Although he does own his farm and thus is expected to act somewhat responsibly, he demonstrates neither common sense nor respect for his neighbors. He is basically egotistical. Although he claims to love Maire, he is unwilling or unable to make any sacrifices in order to make her happy. Brian is merely a handsome man who does not understand that freedom and a personal search for happiness should coexist with a concern for others’ welfare.

Conn and Maire reveal complex reactions to both the meaning of freedom and their responsibilities toward others. In act 1, Maire tries to convince Conn that drinking in pubs provides only an illusory freedom, whereas working to improve the quality of life on a farm frees one from want. Conn does not disagree, yet they both come to realize that his desire to interpret traditional Irish music can enrich them emotionally and aesthetically and also enable them to appreciate more deeply the cultural heritage of Ireland. When Maire and Conn begin to travel around Ireland so that he can play at music festivals, they are acting responsibly. In their own ways, they have made James and Anne happy and cognizant of the cultural values of their homeland. It is no accident that the selfish and thus unsympathetic Brian is the only character who remains alone at the end of this drama. Brian never realizes that true freedom requires sometimes that one sacrifice one’s own wishes so that others may lead richer and more satisfying lives.

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