The Freedom of the City

by Brian Friel

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Importance of Political Convictions

In presenting the events related to one political protest, Brian Friel draws attention to the ongoing conflicts between English and Irish people in a seemingly endless struggle between dominance and autonomy. The playwright prompts the audience to ask what causes are worth dying for. The strong commitment that Skinner shows to the cause of freedom makes him stand out among all the characters. Michael’s belief in his equal social status is presented as naïve but heartfelt. Friel also suggests that the authorities, no matter how convinced they are of the need for order, set events in motion by adhering to a violent oppositional stance. The playwright further raises the question of cause and effect in volatile political situations, as the police reaction creates martyrs for the other side.

The Role of Fate and Happenstance

A contrasting theme emphasizes the randomness of events that can change a person’s life. Depending on the viewer’s perspective, one possible conclusion is that the three characters were fated to spend their last hours together. From another point of view, it was simply chance that brought them together. Of the three central characters, only Skinner is dedicated to the cause that ultimately took their lives; Lily seems to show limited commitment. Friel uses this randomness to suggest ways in which all Irish people might benefit from self-governance, despite the varying impact on different social sectors. The interpretations of the outsiders, after the three are killed, likewise seem to depend on happenstance as much as their political stance.

Individuals Versus Society

Although the play centers on the last hours of three characters, the playwright includes a neutral commentator who stands outside the action, much like a Greek chorus. The intense focus on Lily, Michael, and Skinner is balanced by the abstraction of the sociological analysis that this commentator presents. The analytical category of the “culture of poverty” proves inadequate for interpreting the psychological nuances of human experience. Because sociological thought underestimates the differences among individuals, Friel suggests, its power in making sense of real life is limited.

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