The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Volunteers is set on an archaeological site in the middle of an Irish city, presumably Dublin, in the mid-1970’s. A parking garage and some houses have been razed to allow construction of a luxury hotel, complete with underground swimming pool. Workers have removed layers of Georgian cellars and Norman debris to reveal the foundations of a tenth century Viking house. These foundations and a Viking skeleton the workers have named Leif are the dominant features of the set, which remains unchanged throughout the play.

Because of the archaeological value of the discoveries, hotel construction has been temporarily halted to allow fuller study. Funding for the project, however, has been exhausted, and the task is being completed by the volunteers of the title—five prisoners on daily parole. These prisoners’ offenses, though revealed only in broad outlines, have resulted from a frustrating Irish mix of political and economic disfranchisement, so that they are neither clearly criminals nor clearly political prisoners. Shortly after the play begins, they are delivered to the site by Wilson, an obtuse guard (a former officer in the British army) who leaves immediately to spend the rest of the day observing his daughter’s music examination.

On the site, the prisoners are supervised by Des, an archaeology student fond of Marxist clichés, and by George, an indifferent bureaucrat who proudly displays a thirteenth century jug he has pieced together out of 593 fragments. The fragments were discovered by Smiler, a volunteer whose only crime was civil disobedience but who has been beaten by the police into a state of childlike dependence on his friends. Keeney, the closest thing to a leader of the volunteers, is a cynical joker with a fondness for limericks and a sardonic dislike of pretense.

As the play begins, it is to be the last day of the dig, and it is revealed that the prisoners, by volunteering, have completely isolated themselves. The other prisoners resent cooperation in any form with the government which has interned so many and have refused to speak to the volunteers since the project began five months ago. Old friends outside the prison have similarly ostracized the volunteers, who now have only one another to talk to. It is that companionship, the guard Wilson correctly realizes, which they will miss...

(The entire section is 959 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The set of Volunteers emphasizes the play’s themes of entrapment and isolation. Simultaneously a construction and an excavation site, the area of the dig is fifteen feet below ground and shielded from the life of the surrounding city by sheets of corrugated iron that make it impossible to look in or out. The prisoners, literally and symbolically beneath the surface, dig into their own and the city’s pasts. The supervisor’s office perched halfway up the wall of the excavation reflects the hierarchical nature of this society. The tips of television antennas and the fact that it will soon be the location of a high-rise hotel emphasize the commercial nature of contemporary Ireland, set to destroy its varied past in favor of a graceless commercial present. The set reflects the enclosed nature of Irish society, the enclosed nature of the volunteers’ experiences, and the enclosed nature of the Irish minds (including the prisoners’ minds) which produced this situation.

The relative bareness of the set adds importance to a number of symbolic props, most notably the skeleton of Leif and the jug which has been glued together out of fragments. At the end of the play, when the jug has been smashed, and when George folds the tarp with which the prisoners have sought to provide a minimum of protection and dignity for the skeleton, the audience is given powerful visual reinforcement for two of the play’s major themes: the difficulty of reconstituting...

(The entire section is 481 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Andrews, Elmer. The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Reality nor Dreams. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Dantanus, Ulf. Brian Friel: The Growth of an Irish Dramatist. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1985.

Delaney, Paul, ed. Brian Friel in Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Kearney, Richard. “Friel and the Politics of Language Play.” Massachusetts Review 28 (Autumn, 1987): 510-515.

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

Maxwell, D. E. S. “The Honour of Naming: Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel.” In A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama, 1891-1980. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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