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...
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