The Freedom of the City is one of the most specific uses by Brian Friel of history as a basis for drama that concerns itself with social issues. Translations (pr. 1980, pb. 1981) is based on the nineteenth century British effort to destroy the Irish language by renaming places and restructuring schools. In Volunteers (pr. 1975, pb. 1979), Dublin construction workers unearth archaeological evidence of Ireland’s past. Several Friel plays deal more generally with Irish issues: The Mundy Scheme (pr. 1969, pb. 1970) with contemporary Irish commercialism, The Gentle Island (pr. 1971, pb. 1973) with the traditional conflict between Dublin and western, Gaelic Ireland, and The Communication Cord (pr., pb. 1983) with the modern middle-class fascination with restoring the artifacts of the Irish past.
These plays are very Irish and quite direct in their efforts to open debate about contemporary Irish issues. They are also, however, very human, for they reach well below the local-color surface to touch a deep vein of common humanity. In doing so, they mix social commentary with tragedy and comedy, often stretching the audience between emotional extremes. Friel’s language can be rich and varied. His world is one of bawdy good humor and of aching human sorrow; it defies easy categorization or formulation. Friel often deals with the efforts of individuals to shape their experiences into stories for better understanding, always recognizing, with Manus in The Gentle Island, that “every story has seven faces.”
As he has sought new understanding of old pains, Friel has experimented with dramatic devices that break actors and audiences out of their familiar, unthinking roles. Though the technical experimentation of The Freedom of the City is less radical than that which he uses elsewhere, it nevertheless provides clear evidence of his concern to break out of conventional patterns and through to new comprehension.