Exile is one of the dominant themes permeating Brian Friel's long career as a playwright. Philadelphia, Here I Come! was his first big international success. It was also the first to focus on the plight of characters torn by the need to abandon the place to which they feel deeply attached for the sake of their own growth and integrity.
The exile in Philadelphia is twenty-five-year-old Gar O'Donnell. He lives in familiar Friel territory, the fictional Irish village of Ballybeg, in this instance, circa 1964. The action, such as it is, unfolds during the night and early morning of Gar's leaving the dull familiarity of his native village for the unknown terrain of an American city.
As we follow Gar through his last night at home and watch his unfulfilled yearnings to communicate meaningfully with the people in his life -- most importantly, his father -- we realize that, emotionally speaking, he is already an exile, whose emigration is a desperate and frightening move to escape the dull routines into which he has allowed his life to settle. With the scene shifting between the present and past we learn about opportunities for happiness he has missed (he dropped out of college, passed dull nights out with superficial friends and, through timidity, lost the girl he loved). We meet the taciturn father he resents but wants desperately to know better; Madge, the housekeeper who has been the closest thing to a mother he has known; Kate Doogan, the girl now married to another and her father, Senator Doogan; his teacher, Master Boyle; the Philadelphia Aunt Lizzy and her husband who have jumpstarted his emigration to that city; four of his cronies and the local priest.
Following Gar actually means following two Gars, the Public and the Private. Each is played by a different actor. This is not the gimmick of an emerging playwright, but a most effective innovation to illustrate the inability of any of these people, Gar included, to connect with each other or themselves...
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