Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The entrapment of the prisoners in Volunteers—caught by historical, political, economic, and personal forces—reflects the entrapment of all Irish people and, by extension, of all humans at all times. Brian Friel’s play about the very public issue of the Irish troubles has a very private focus, recognizing the complexity of factors which shape both public and private action.

As the volunteers excavate layers of history—Georgian, Norman, Viking—they reveal the forces which have made Ireland. They also help to shape the Irish future, in this case represented by a luxury hotel. As Keeney insists in his parody of a visiting schoolteacher, however, “the more we learn about our ancestors . . . the more we discover about ourselves. . . . So that what we are all engaged in here is really a thrilling voyage in self-discovery.” The volunteers cannot excavate their country’s history without discovering their own personal histories; they cannot shape their country’s future without shaping their own futures. What they discover is that nation and individuals are both trapped by forces difficult to sort and evaluate. They are no more certain how and why Leif died than they are about what determined their own opposition to authority. The precise date of the foundations they are excavating turns out to be as uncertain as their reasons for volunteering. The difficulty of putting the pottery fragments together reflects the difficulty with...

(The entire section is 589 words.)