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Last Updated on January 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

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 within an accepted dogma, and each speaker is literally as well as metaphorically outside the events in the Guildhall.

Balancing these glib efforts to impose order on a chaotic situation are the voices of the protesters. Uneducated, inarticulate, incapable of discerning motive or meaning in their own experiences, these voices nevertheless ring with vigor, authenticity, and individuality. Their view of life is often mocking, cynical, and chaotic, but it is also richly humorous and acutely perceptive, balancing the careful, detached formulations of official wisdom. However, the color of their language and their personalities does not disguise the fact that the mayor’s office is an enclosure, a trap as difficult to escape as the larger trap imposed by a fractured and hierarchical society.

If the real lives inside the Guildhall obviate the dry formulations outside, however, The Freedom of the City does not impose its own “truth.” The play balances the lives and concerns of little people against the sweep of historical events, but it never chooses—or demands that the audience choose—an acceptable version of events. Rather, it avoids ultimate interpretations and discards any pretense of final versions or wisdom. The audience becomes in turn jury, television audience, congregation, sociology class, and drinkers listening to a pub balladeer. Recognizing elements of validity in each version of the “truth,” they also recognize the extent to which no version approaches the reality of what has happened. The truth, if there is a truth, hovers somewhere as far beyond the formulations of a playwright as it is beyond the formulations of priest, judge, or newsperson. It is Brian Friel’s wisdom as a social commentator to realize that, and he pushes the audience to realize it as well.

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