The Theme of Escape in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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One of the most frequently recurring themes in Anglo-Irish literature is the flight or escape from a harsh environment.  The linked themes of escape, exile and emigration are frequently found in drama, prose and poetry.  One of its well-known representations is Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who chooses exile from his native land because he cannot come to terms with the authorities that hold its people in their grip.  So, Stephen sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’  In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Friel also explores the nature of Irish society fifty years after Joyce’s novel was written.  This society is still governed by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster.  The society that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation.  The question is will things be any better for Gar when he moves to Philadelphia?

Similarly, in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s local poet Michael Hartnett turns his hand to social commentary when he stated that Newcastle West in County Limerick,

‘is an Irish town that is not dying.  It has kept its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings.  It is the example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would certainly be ruined if those people born in the 30’s and 40’s had stayed at home en masse.

In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Brian Friel gives another particular instance of the ‘flight from the land’ theme in the story of Gar O’Donnell’s proposed emigration to America.  Here, Friel shows his awareness of an older, oral tradition.  Emigration is the subject of a vast number of Irish songs and ballads.  It is particularly close to the Irish spirit, having been forced on us by the circumstances of our history.  In this oral tradition, emigration is always viewed ambiguously. On the one hand, it offers escape from a hopeless environment, promising new opportunities that were unavailable at home.  But on the other hand, it is also viewed with nostalgia and sadness, as the emigrant says his last farewell to his home, his family and his friends.  It is this double aspect that makes emigration a suitable subject for drama and which Friel exploits with such effect in Philadelphia Here I Come!

However, Friel is also making a political point here.  Many see the play as a covert criticism of De Valera’s vision of a self-sufficient Ireland of cosy homesteads and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads.  S.B and Máire marry on New Year’s Day 1937, the very day that De Valera’s new Irish Constitution comes into effect.  Twenty-five years or so later and the product of that marriage, Gar O’Donnell, is packing his suitcase to head for Philadelphia in the morning.

The escape theme is emphatically present in the play right from the start.  The first Episode begins in an optimistic mood as Gar considers his departure on the next morning.  Life in Ballybeg is monotonous and offers little scope for his ambitions.  America is considered to be the land of opportunity, where ambitions are fulfilled and fortunes are made.  The thrust of this opening Episode is entirely towards release, freedom, escape: ‘Think ….up in that big bugger of a jet, with its snout belching smoke over Ireland…’ (p. 17).  S. B. makes a brief entrance at this point in the play, and through him Friel expresses the type of life Gar wishes to escape from.  S. B. is elderly and somewhat out of place in the modern world.  So too is the business he owns.  Gar emphatically rejects S.B.’s old-fashioned world.  He speaks on numerous occasions of the weariness and boredom of weighing up sacks of flour and sugar, cleaning and salting fish, unloading barbed wire and sacks of spuds.  To all of these unpleasant chores, he contrasts the broader horizons offered by American life.  Initially, at least, he is in no doubt about the wisdom of his decision to emigrate.

Other events in the play serve to strengthen this decision even further.  The characters of the play are seen by Gar as a somewhat pathetic group.  As he sees it, they are all the victims of the restrictions imposed on them by their lives in Ballybeg.  Gar wishes to escape to America before he too becomes like them.  This emerges quite clearly in his conversation with Katie Doogan in Episode Two.  Indeed in this conversation, the escape theme is most pronounced.  Earlier in the play, Gar rejects Ireland in his reference to it as, ‘the land of the curlews and the snipe, the Aran sweater and the Irish Sweepstakes’ (p. 18-19).  In his conversation with Katie his rejection is more emphatic, ‘I hate the place, and every stone, and every rock, and every piece of heather around it…’ (p. 81).  (This is reminiscent of Kavanagh’s outburst in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’).  On this occasion, it is principally the people of Ballybeg who lead him to this outburst.  For example, Gar is impressed with Master Boyle’s visit; he is also impressed by the visit of ‘the boys’ later in the play.  But on both these occasions, there is a common element to Gar’s reaction.  He is not blinded to the failings of ‘the boys’ or of Master Boyle.  The latter in particular has sacrificed his ideals for a life of quiet boredom in Ballybeg.  Like Gar, he once had the opportunity to emigrate, but unlike Gar, he was unwilling to take it.  There is a marked feeling of regret in Boyle’s conversation with Gar, a sense of having let life’s possibilities slip by.  Boyle’s character is pathetically drawn.  He is an isolated figure, unhappy with his situation, a lonesome bachelor, and a secret drinker.  He is determined to escape from the environment that produces such characters as Master Boyle.

Indeed, it must be said that the escape theme is inextricably linked to the theme of escapist fantasy used by Friel in this and other plays in his oeuvre.  At the root of this escapist fantasy lies a deep-seated dissatisfaction within every character with themselves and their environment.  Gar has not attained a sufficient identity for himself in Ballybeg. Pulled towards the future and yet drawn backwards towards a sentimental vision of the past, he seeks to escape by running away to Philadelphia, which represents the solution to all his problems.

Ironically, as the play unfolds and we begin to glean insights into his character, we realise that escape will only intensify rather than solve any of his problems. He condemns Ballybeg for the very things which will solve his problems, love, affection, identity and warmth. Gar is no better at the conclusion of the play. Escape to Philadelphia, as Madge tells us, will solve nothing.

Master Boyle also compensates for his failure as a schoolteacher by dreaming up challenging professional situations in Boston. He tells Gar he has been offered a ‘big post’ in a ‘reputable university’ in Boston. Unable to face the reality of his own alcoholism he hides behind imaginative dreams of another world and unrealistic achievements.

The boys also indulge in this escapist fantasy. They come to say farewell to Gar on the night before he departs yet they spend their time indulging in monologues about themselves and their imagined exploits. Life in Ballybeg is more bearable when it is relieved by fantasy and escapism. Rather than admit their own inadequacies they hide behind bravado and loud talk.  The visit of ‘the boys’ also confirms Gar in his decision to escape from Ballybeg.  Superficially at least, ‘the boys’ and Master Boyle have little in common.  They make a noisy entrance, speak loudly and with arrogance, whereas Master Boyle is quiet and soft-spoken.  But Gar is aware of the characteristics shared by each of them.  They are all ‘lost souls’.  The future, which faces ‘the boys’, is as dim as that which has faced Master Boyle.  They speak enthusiastically about themselves and their situation, but to Gar these words sound hollow.  In the end he is forced to admit that they are ‘ignorant bloody louts’ who cover the meaninglessness of their situation with pretence and lies.  Significantly, in his speech with Katie, Gar groups ‘the boys’ with Master Boyle, S.B., and Canon O’Byrne: they are all pathetic figures.  They all confirm his decision to emigrate.

The escape theme in Philadelphia Here I Come! is not a simple one, however.  To create a sense of drama Friel explores the theme from a contrary point of view.  Friel uses the same technique as Kavanagh in ‘Stony Grey Soil’, a poem in which the escape theme is also evident.  Kavanagh enumerates the aspects of his life in Monaghan, which led to his decision to leave.  But he also provides a contrary statement at the end of the poem.  In spite of all the hardships, which have been inflicted on him, he still feels some affection for Monaghan.  The same feeling of affection is evident in Philadelphia Here I Come!, in spite even of Gar’s emphatic statements of rejection.  As the play opens Gar is confirmed in his decision.  But as the action progresses he is subjected to numerous situations, which remind him of the more pleasant aspects of Ballybeg and its people.  As these situations continue to arise in the play, the desire to escape is made more complicated, and even meaningless.  In the play, a definite bond of affection unites the characters, which is all the more touching because it is left unspoken.  Gar’s relationship with Master Boyle, ‘the boys’, and S.B. is characterised by rejection.  They have all, in part, contributed to his desire to escape.  But his relationship with them also contains traces of affection.  He is moved by the visits of Master Boyle and ‘the boys’ and is in a distressed state when they leave.  His affection for S.B. is secretly expressed by Private throughout the play and is openly articulated to Madge at the end (p. 109).  But in particular, his relationship with Katie Doogan represents a part of his life he is sorry to leave behind.  As is usual with Gar, he speaks casually and with forced nonchalance.  But his decision to emigrate, to become ‘100 per cent American’ (p. 82), is complicated by the affection he still feels for the ordinary mundane life of Ballybeg.  In this way the escape theme is fully dramatised by Friel.  Gar’s need to escape, coupled with the affection he feels for the people he is leaving, constitutes one of the effective conflicts of the play. Indeed, the ending is very inconclusive and we are left to wonder as we leave the theatre: well, did he ever leave or did he continue to live a life of futility fuelled by fantasy?

Private: God, Boy, why do you have to leave? Why? Why?

Public: I don’t know. I – I – I don’t know.

There is also a double-dimension to all Friel’s work. He tends to illustrate the same theme from different points of view – Gar leaving for Philadelphia and Lizzie who has come home.  Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation.  She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought.  She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance.  While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly.  Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence giving us a perfect cameo of the reality behind many a ‘returned Yank’. and a rather stark reality check for Gar as he prepares to leave.  Friel returned to this theme later in The Loves of Cass McGuire which explores the psychology of Cass as she returns from her emigration and exile.   Gripping, often humorous, but steeped in compassion, Friel scripts a rich and complex portrait of a marginalised emigrant returning home.   We can all easily empathise with Cass’s dilemma.  She has returned to a world she cannot recognise and the play explores the difficulties she has in coming to terms with a life not as she imagined and the exclusions society now imposes upon her.  Whereas, Philadelphia Here I Come! dealt with Gar’s physical act of emigration, The Loves of Cass McGuire deals with the psychology of returning and this  marks it out as a very relevant work – indeed, it can be said of Cass, like many a returning exile, she comes back to a home that does not exist except in her fantasy.

So, we can see that the linked themes of escape, exile and emigration (and eventual return) are as relevant today as ever.  Friel’s plays are at times caustic commentary on successive governments for their failures to provide for the people in their care.  As Michael Hartnett also suggested in the 70’s we have been able to maintain our economic stability at a terrible price: ‘the constant exportation of human beings’.

Philadelphia Here I Come!, therefore, contains considerable political and psychological insights. Gar is a kind of ‘split-personality’ and we sense that he will have great difficulty coping with this schizophrenia wherever he ends up. He can escape from Ballybeg, from the small-town people who annoy him, but he can never be free from his own inner voice, constantly exploring, questioning,  and rebuking.

Author’s Note: My favourite production of this play was by the Ardagh Drama Group in County Limerick, which was staged some time in the 1990’s.  It featured a superb tour de force of a performance by Jim Liston as Gar Private.  He was ably supported by sterling performances from Garry McMahon as SB, Margaret Enright as Madge, Senator Doogan was played by Sonny Crowley (RIP), Rory O’Donnell (RIP) was Lizzie’s browbeaten husband, Master Boyle was played by Tom Madigan and ‘the boys’ were superbly marshalled by Mike O’Flynn.

You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!’   here

You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!” here

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