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Ghekov in Ireland: Brief Notes on Friel’s Philadelphia James Coakley Probably no recent Irish play of more than passing interest has been so largely ignored by critics as has Brian Friel’s Phila­ delphia, Here I Cornell A success in Dublin and New York, it enjoyed inclusion in that annual, dreary volume which grants the title of “Best” to scripts sometimes, though not always, “Good” or “Better” than most of the commercial theatre’s pro­ ducts. But box office returns or fame in the marketplace do not necessarily guarantee recognition in the study, and the play’s considerable virtues, both literary and dramatic, have gone un­ noticed, perhaps overlooked in the ballyhoo surrounding “the longest running Irish play on Broadway.” Friel, of course, is no stranger to the theatre; once a teacher in the public schools of northern Ireland, he abandoned his academic career in 1960; since then he has written full time, publishing two books of short stories and eight plays, the latter produced in Ireland and America with varying success. He is a playwright, however, of note: further proof, if it be needed, that the English theatre is, essentially, an Irish creation. And he brings to the stage a remarkably sophisticated literary sensi­ bility, a confident sense of what is theatrical, and a precise and exquisitely lyrical talent for the spoken word which are note­ worthy. What I propose to do in this brief essay is discuss Friel’s play in what seems to me the most profitable and useful terms: those we have come to call Chekovian. To relate certain of Fidel's dramatic methods to those of Chekov is to illuminate, I think, the structure and effects of a substantial new Irish drama which deserves to be better known. Philadelphia, Here I Come! is a memory play set in the country of a young man’s mind. To explore that difficult terrain 191 192 Comparative Drama it avoids “big moments”; its attitudes are ironic, its emotions understated, and its dialogue painfully, though not self-con­ sciously, introspective. Its characters are not larger than life, and unlike so many vague, imprecise examples of dramatized mem­ ories, it refuses to sentimentalize its experience; uncovers a past not burdened with guilt, but merely tinged with regret; lingers over a difficult present devoid of meaning; and looks forward to a future neither bright nor promising. Devoid of Celtic mists and windy heroics, however, the play is remarkable for the skill with which it dramatizes a common experience in a most un­ common manner. Essentially retrospective in outlook, its sub­ ject matter concerns that most Chekovian of rituals: departure or leavetaking; and its plot is simple, familiar, even banal: a young man of 25, Gareth O’Donnell, is about to leave a frustra­ ting and dull life in a rural Irish village for the adventure prom­ ised by a job in America, a position at a Philadelphia hotel arranged for by his Aunt Lizzy, the sister of his dead mother. And like the Moscow of Chekov’s famous sisters, the Philadel­ phia of this play’s protagonist is a supposed mecca, a glorious place where wishes come true and dreams are realized. It is then upon this characteristic principle of the incongruity be­ tween reality and delusion, this clash between things as they are and things as they are believed to be that the drama rests. Subtitled a comedy, the play’s action is “on the night before, and the morning of, Gar’s departure for Philadelphia,” circum­ stances old-fashioned critics might call ripe, but which Friel regards as no more than the sources of uncertainty. What he dramatizes then are not only a young man’s growing pains with their attendant loss of illusions (albeit a large part of the play’s concerns), but, more importantly, of how fearful and difficult it is to speak our deepest feelings, particularly to those we love. Indeed, the integrity of feelings (hence the poignant drama) Friel discovers in this most everyday of situations constitutes the play’s most admirable theatrical virtue. It is in its very commonality of interests, its refusal to be original or significant that Friel’s play recalls...


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pp. 191-197
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