The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 462 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.