Themes and Meanings
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 which they restructure their lives—and both jug and lives are easily shattered.
The stories that the prisoners create to explain Leif explain their own experiences as well. Each offers a specific, convincing reason for the hole in the skull and the noose around the neck. It hardly matters that the stories cannot all be true, since their major function is not to reveal reality but to create explanations. That these explanations are largely fabricated does not blunt the necessity for their comforting existence. People need “the protection of the myth” and its implication that their experiences are understandable.
The prisoners’ myths share a focus on tribal warfare. Each myth explains Leif in part by creating a situation which pits brother against brother, family against family, in bitter and unrelenting conflict. It is the contemporary Irish (and the contemporary human) situation in tenth century Viking dress. Volunteers illustrates what Friel once described as “life repeating itself and surviving,” and the play poses central questions about history: Does the past shape the present by providing a pattern for it? Or does the present shape the past by imposing a pattern on it?
Volunteers reveals a tangle of imprisoning forces. The volunteers are trapped by a political history which puts those, such as Wilson, who have cooperated with the British, in positions of authority while simultaneously leaving them subject to the judgments of such Englishmen as the music examiner. (The play’s title, Volunteers, is a reflection of the Irish Volunteers who fought in the Easter Rebellion of 1916.) They are trapped by economic forces which theoretical Marxists such as Des cannot break through, by the indifference of petit bourgeois (represented by George), and by their own need to create myths which shape and explain experience by oversimplifying it. Above all, they are trapped by habitual tribal warfare: Ostracized by those who ought to support them, the volunteers cannot even keep from fighting among themselves.
Given this welter of conflicting chains, Keeney maintains his sanity by mocking the authorities, American tourists, Irish schoolteachers, Marxist ideologues, his fellow volunteers, and himself. It is behavior which Friel describes elsewhere as “defensive flippancy.”