The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Philadelphia, Here I Come! begins the evening before Gar O’Donnell is to leave home for Philadelphia. He has finished his last day of work in his father’s dry-goods store. He jokes with Madge, the housekeeper, as she prepares his tea, and then he begins to fantasize about life in the United States.

This fantasy, like all of his private thoughts, appears to the audience in the character of Private Gar, unheard by the other characters and unseen by anyone. Gar’s first fantasy is wild and exuberant, with images of flying in a plane and playing football. Madge enters, and they briefly discuss his father, who has apparently expressed no thoughts or feelings about his son’s departure. While Gar expresses disdain for old S. B. (Private Gar calls him Screwballs), he is clearly pained by the estrangement.

At this moment S. B. enters with a question about a delivery to the shop, and his immediate departure sets off a long fantasy scene between Public and Private Gar. Gar imagines his first day at work in a Philadelphia hotel, then, accompanied by a recording of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, thinks of his long-dead mother. He breaks the melancholy mood with some Irish music, but it, too, holds associations, recalling his proposal of marriage to Katie Doogan.

That memory scene appears in its entirety. Kate resists Gar’s insistent proposal because he does not make enough money for them to live on. Finally he confesses his secret income from selling eggs. Though the profits are smaller than Kate first imagines, she yields and takes Gar immediately to talk to her father, Senator Doogan.

At the Doogan house Gar can only stutter in front of the self-important senator, who promptly reveals his intentions for Kate to marry someone else. Gar leaves in disgrace, and the next memory is of the newspaper announcement of Kate’s wedding. In another attempt to break the mood, Gar imagines a farcical scene with his father, followed by a fantasy of picking up a woman in the United States.

Once again Madge breaks in on the fantasy, calling him in to his meal. She reveals, in passing, that her niece has had a baby girl and has promised to name it for her. As S. B. joins Gar for tea, Private mocks him mercilessly, providing accurate predictions of everything he will say. The pain beneath the mockery emerges as Private reveals, “Screwballs, we’ve eaten together like this for the past twenty-odd years, and never once in all that time have you made as much as one unpredictable remark.” He pleads (in his thoughts) for that unpredictable remark, that one thing that might tempt him to stay. His thoughts are interrupted by the entrance of Master Boyle, the drunken schoolteacher, who has come to say good-bye to...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The most significant dramatic device in Philadelphia, Here I Come! is the use of two actors to play the role of Gar. The convention of a character revealing private thoughts through soliloquies or asides is traditional. On the other hand, Brian Friel’s splitting of a character into a public and a private self is highly innovative. Friel explains in his note on staging that “Private Gar, the spirit, is invisible to everybody, always. Nobody except Public Gar hears him talk. But even Public Gar, although he talks to Private Gar occasionally, never sees him and never looks at him. One cannot look at one’s alter ego.”

The device not only allows Gar to make private observations about the actions of the other characters but also provides opportunity for extensive revelation of Gar’s fantasy life. Gar talks to himself, acts out imaginary scenes, and reenacts scenes from his memory. Without the alter ego, these scenes would be available only through asides and soliloquies or through speeches of exposition (which would be uncharacteristic of characters who barely speak in one another’s presence).

The closest parallel is Arthur Miller’s use of acted memory scenes in Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949). As in Philadelphia, Here I Come! these memories help to reveal the motives for Willy Loman’s present actions. Even more significantly, in Miller’s play the character of Ben, Willy’s brother, functions as a kind of self-manufactured conscience, goading Willy to action. Ben remains, however, a shadowy figure, an undeveloped alter ego. Friel, in contrast, moved the private self to the center of the play, exploiting all of its possibilities.

One additional technique in the play which deserves brief attention is the masterfully appropriate use of music. On two occasions Gar plays a recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, a particularly emotional and melancholy composition. In each case the music moves Gar into nearly maudlin reminiscences; with great effectiveness the music works on the audience as well. Playgoers hear it with him and, feeling the effect, understand his reaction.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Coaklay, James. “Chekhov in Ireland: Brief Notes on Friel’s Philadelphia.” Comparative Drama 7 (1973): 191-197.

Friel, Brian. Brian Friel: Essays, Diaries, Interviews. 1964-1998. London: Faber & Faber, 2000.

Hogan, Robert. After the Irish Renaissance: A Critical History of Irish Drama Since “The Plough and the Stars.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967.

Kerwin, William, ed. Brian Friel: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.

Leary, Daniel. “The Romanticism of Brian Friel.” In Contemporary Irish Writing, edited by James D. Brophy and Raymond J. Porter. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Maxwell, D. E. S. Brian Friel. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1973.

Peacock, Alan J. The Achievement of Brian Friel. Lanham, Md.: Oxford University Press, 1997.