The Freedom of the City Themes
by Brian Friel

Start Your Free Trial

The Freedom of the City Themes

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.

Download The Freedom of the City Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Even for an audience unfamiliar with Irish history, the end of The Freedom of the City is evident in its beginning. Because the corpses are present in the opening scene, the audience knows from the start that these three Catholics will die before the combined guns of the British army and the largely Protestant police force. Like a Greek tragedy, this play demands that viewers ask not “what will happen next?” but “what does it all mean?”

Suggested meanings abound. British judicial hearings “prove” that these hapless citizens were armed and dangerous, killed only when a restrained British army found it had no choice. An American sociologist turns events into a depersonalized examination of the culture of poverty. An Irish balladeer simultaneously trivializes and celebrates Michael and Lily and Skinner by transforming them into one hundred Irish patriots who died trying to free their country from British domination. An Irish priest begins by praising their willingness to die for their beliefs and ends by condemning them as part of an excessive fringe element. An Irish telecaster surrounds their funeral with the sticky sweetness of popular sentimentality. Each jargon-studded official voice attempts to confine individual experience...

(The entire section is 828 words.)