The critical context of Philadelphia, Here I Come! is suggested by the two thematic interpretations of the play. It is at once part of a long tradition of coming-of-age plays and of the experimental movement of the 1960’s.
As a play about growing up, Brian Friel’s treatment of the theme risks criticism for sentimentality. The subject of leaving home is emotional enough, and the melancholy music of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto only underscores this sentimental thrust. In the closing moments, when Gar and S. B. privately reveal the significant memories they cannot share with each other, the mood is especially moving. However, Friel rises above sentimentality by his masterful exploitation of comedy. Private’s satiric commentary on the action, as well as some moments of pure slapstick, helps to keep the play from becoming maudlin.
So, too, does the experimental technique. The clearly nonrealistic method of presenting one character with two actors helps to dispel the sentimentality invited by the surface of the story. In fact, it is the familiarity of the story that allows the experimental technique to work. Though the 1960’s saw significant experimentation in dramatic presentations, the mainstream, popular plays remained fairly traditional. Friel’s experiment was an exception. In fact, it enjoyed a long run on Broadway in 1966. It has been characterized by Christopher Fitz-Simon as one of the most important plays of the 1960’s. The tension between the familiar, sentimental plot and the highly experimental technique emerged as the decisive factor in creating the play’s commercial and critical success.