Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 2, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

Brian Friel’s satirically named The Freedom of The City constitutes a diatribe against British influence in the six counties of Northern Ireland during the period of the Troubles. The play follows a tragic form, as can be observed in the playwright’s choice to expose the corpses of the dead protesters in the very first scene. This decision diverts the audience from wondering what will happen in the play and instead invites them to consider why it has happened.

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Friel’s dramatization of this particular tragedy was perhaps influenced by the diversity of its victims. While Skinner might be an archetypal troublemaker, with his radical politics and troubled history with the police, Michael is shown to be a moderate with aspirations to respectability, while Lily is a wife and mother of good sense and intentions. The personalities of the three are emphasized during their short stay in the mayor’s office, especially by means of the laughing and joking between Lily and Skinner, a device serving to humanize those whom the audience had first seen merely as corpses. Friel’s objective is clearly to show that British tyranny is directed not exclusively towards the Skinners of this world, but toward all the Northern Irish people, regardless of their political persuasions.

The British voices in the play tend toward the unsympathetic. The judge is clearly disposed against the three murdered protesters, as is indicated by his unfounded assertions early in the second act that they had harbored dishonest motives from the start. Meanwhile, though the sociologist Dr. Dobbs makes several accurate claims about the effects of poverty on the people of Northern Ireland, he comes across as pompous and detached from those he is seeking to understand.

Friel’s choice of the mayor’s office in Derry’s town hall for the setting of his play’s climax perhaps encapsulates best of all his view of the British in Northern Ireland. The room’s opulence in contrast to the poverty of Lily and Skinner in particular—in addition to its failure to provide for the innocent protesters’ sanctuary—suggests that corruption exists not merely at the fringes, but at the very heart of the British and unionist institution in the province of Ulster.

Meanwhile, the “Irish” voices in the play—especially that of the Balladeer—present the protesters in a more positive light. The singer uses the quintessential Irish medium of folk music to elevate the three protesters, perhaps in order to suggest parallels between their deaths and those of the three Fenians executed a century earlier in Manchester for their efforts to obtain independence for Ireland.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

The Freedom of the City is based on events that occurred during Roman Catholic civil rights protests in Londonderry (“Derry”), Northern Ireland, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. As the curtain rises, the corpses of the three main characters—Lily, Skinner, and Michael—are lying on a darkened street. The clock in the Guildhall behind them chimes six as each corpse is visited first by a photographer and then by a priest, who administers the last rites. Lights illuminate an English judge taking testimony from an Irish constable as he seeks to discover whether the three dead people had been armed. As the judge questions the constable, soldiers drag each body in turn from the stage. Next, an American sociologist addresses to the audience an informal lecture on the culture of poverty.

The lights go down for a moment, and when they come back the time is obviously different, for Skinner, Lily, and Michael enter, staggering and blinded from the effects of gas. To the accompaniment of explosions and the sound of rubber bullets, they gain the relative calm of the Guildhall interior. These three, who have never met before, do not know where they are, but Skinner soon identifies the room as the Guildhall office of the Lord Mayor of Londonderry.

The rest of act 1 consists of a series of very short scenes. Scenes outside the Guildhall show various groups and individuals seeking to understand what is going on inside, and the time shifts so that some observers comment before the deaths and some after. Soldiers attempt to determine how many “yobos” are inside the Guildhall. A television newsman delivers on-the-spot commentary. A balladeer memorializes the takeover of the Guildhall by “a hundred Irish heroes.” The priest who administered the last rites suggests that the three died for their beliefs. Testimony before the judge continues as officers maintain that Lily, Skinner, and Michael were armed and dangerous protesters who came out shooting and were killed when police returned fire. The sociologist continues his lecture, describing the poor as lacking “impulse control” but as often having “a hell of a lot more fun than we have.”

Meanwhile, inside the hall, the accidental companions discover a degree of luxury they have never seen before and a series of historical mementos: a ceremonial sword, a stained-glass window, an official portrait, a “distinguished visitors book.” Skinner, age twenty-one, unemployed and homeless, has little formal education but can quote William Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling. Bitter and irreverent, he is scornful of the civil rights movement and was not marching but merely passing by when he was caught up in events. He taps into the mayor’s liquor supply, dons the mayor’s robe, and parodies that official by conferring on Lily the freedom of the city and making Michael a life peer.

Lily, a forty-three-year-old mother of eleven and a charwoman, frequently goes on marches because “it’s the only exercise I get.” Instinctively motherly, she insists that Skinner change his clothes (soaked by a water cannon) and observes that the mayor’s robes would make a lovely new cover for her settee. Gradually, however, as the liquor takes hold, she matches Skinner’s irreverence, donning a robe herself and dancing around the office with him.

Michael, who quotes Mahatma Gandhi and brags that he has been on every march, is attending technical school at night. He is awed by his surroundings, appalled by the levity of the others, and frantic in his efforts to erase the mark Skinner makes stubbing out on the desk a cigar he has borrowed from the mayor’s supply. Lily is just about to use the mayor’s telephone to call her sister in Australia when a loudspeaker announces that the Guildhall is surrounded. Amid warnings to surrender, the act ends and the clock chimes five—only one hour earlier than the time of the opening scene in which the corpses were revealed.

The second act continues the established pattern of short alternating scenes. When the lights go up, Michael, Lily, and Skinner are barely visible. The balladeer and then the judge continue their evaluations. The balladeer memorializes the patriots; the judge exonerates the soldiers. Later, the priest condemns elements in the movement that have gone too far. The sociologist laments the lack of future for the poor, and the television reporter describes the dignity of the funeral proceedings. Each official version is different from the others, and all differ from what the audience sees.

The interior scenes in this act show the three protesters getting better acquainted. Lily invites Skinner to come to her home for a meal whenever he wishes, and she insists that Michael bring his fiancé to meet her. The three are facing their situation and preparing to leave the hall. Skinner conducts a “council meeting” that mocks civic authorities who ignore the poor. He scatters papers and plunges the ceremonial sword into the official portrait. Lily and Michael attempt to restore the office to its original state. Lily dusts; Michael puts away the papers. Skinner, however, stops the attempt to remove the sword from the portrait, stuffs his pockets with cigarettes, and persuades Lily to sign the distinguished visitors book. They exit the Guildhall with their hands above their heads and a dawning realization that, although unarmed, they will be shot. Michael is astounded that such a mistake could be made. Lily regrets only that she is to die without really having lived. Skinner, his cynicism confirmed by the official actions, dies in his familiar posture of “defensive flippancy.” In the final scene of the play, the voices of the television announcer and the judge summarize the situation, while the three protesters, hands well above their heads, step out of the Guildhall into the burst of automatic fire that kills them. The lights go out.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

Like many of Brian Friel’s plays, The Freedom of the City utilizes a tightly restricted time period. The events inside the Guildhall take only a few hours, and though the outside commentaries are spread over a longer time, they all focus on the Guildhall events, which are viewed with heightened intensity.

The concentration this unity of time permits is bolstered by the restructuring of the traditional relationship between audience and stage. Viewers are not allowed to be passive spectators at removed events but are drawn into decision making, as character after character directs toward the audience an analysis of events in the Guildhall. By forcing the audience out of its familiar, comfortable relationship with the stage, Friel forces audience members out of their familiar, comfortable views as well, to realize the complexity of events and the interaction of public and private.

Friel bolsters the symbolic enclosure of his stage with several other minor symbols. The shots that kill the three protesters, for example, hit them in appropriate parts of their bodies. Lily is wounded in the lower abdomen, the chest, and the hands—the anatomy of motherhood. Michael is injured primarily in the head and neck—appropriate zones considering his stiff-necked insistence that he understands the movement. Skinner, whose acerbic wit only thinly veils the extent of his agony, has wounds evenly distributed over his entire body. The distinguished visitor’s book—and Lily’s comment in it that she is “looking forward to a return visit”—suggest that these are indeed the Guildhall’s most distinguished visitors. By plunging the sword into the portrait, Skinner comments on official Irish history. Even the place names are revealing. Friel identifies the city as Derry, the name preferred by Catholic nationalists, but characters in the play call it Londonderry, the name used by British loyalists.

Friel varies the time and place on the single set of his play by lighting it imaginatively and often expressionistically. He varies strict realism and believability by occasionally allowing his major characters to understand and articulate their feelings more successfully than is thoroughly believable given their limited education and experience. Skinner movingly summarizes the plight of the poor and the sense of power they gain from realizing their brotherhood of purpose and determination. As they leave the Guildhall to face death, each protester articulates a new awareness of the meaning of the life he or she has lived.

The play swings the audience between passages of rare comedy and parodic wit and passages of deceptively simple, powerful emotion. The audience sees the three main characters for a limited time, in limited circumstances, but Friel manages to create a remarkable depth and richness of character as he examines their entrapment by public events over which they have no control.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 172

Sources for Further Study

Birker, Klaus. “The Relationship Between the Stage and the Audience in Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City.” In The Irish Writer and the City, edited by Maurice Harmon. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1984.

Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1985.

Grene, Nicholas. “Distancing Drama: Sean O’Casey to Brian Friel.” In Irish Writers and the Theater, edited by Masaru Sekine. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1986.

Kennedy-Andrews, Elmer. The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Reality nor Dreams. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Kerwin, William, ed. Brian Friel: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.

McGrath, F. C. Brian Friel’s (Post)Colonial Drama: Language, Illusion, Politics. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

Maxwell, D. E. S. Brian Friel. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1973.

Maxwell, D. E. S. “The Honor of Naming: Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel.” In A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama, 1891-1980. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

O’Brien, George. Brian Friel. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

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