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

 

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Joe Dowling, who directed productions of ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ at the Abbey and Gaeity Theatres has said that the play deals primarily, ‘with the failure of people to communicate with each other on an intimate level.  It also makes us examine the nature of Irish society dominated by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster’.  Gar is being forced to leave Ballybeg because Ballybeg (and Ireland) has failed him and his generation. However, Friel is too subtle to allow us to imagine that the world Gar is about to enter in Philadelphia will be any better.

One of Brian Friel’s most important and most visited themes is that of communication. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘non-verbal communication’ and whether we are watching the referee demonstrate that he wants the TMO to view an incident at a rugby match or whether we empathise with Patrick Kavanagh as he visualises the ‘wink and elbow language of delight’ in Billy Brennan’s Barn, we can see its value.  Friel, however, introduces us to a wholly different type of communication in his plays, and especially here in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’.  This type of communication, almost exclusively Irish in origin, is what I would call ‘verbal non-communication’!

There are many striking examples of this throughout the play, probably best encapsulated by S.B. in such phrases as ‘Sure, you know I never take a second cup’ during his unchanging evening routine and  also ‘Did you set the rat traps?’ or ‘How many coils of barbed-wire came in on the mail-van this evening?’.  There are also many examples, as Gar Private reaches sensory overload, when he regresses and recites a rather quaint and obscure mantra which he obviously learnt in school during English class!:  “It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles”.  This oft-repeated phrase has no context or meaning within the play as a whole and its only function is as a perfect example of verbal non-communication!

The principal theme in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ is, therefore, the breakdown of communication between Gar and his father, S.B.O’Donnell.  This theme is the centre around which the entire play revolves.  At times it is presented very directly and forcefully.  On other occasions, it is hinted at indirectly and very subtly.  In all cases, however, it is the principal focus of attention in the play.

The communication theme is presented very dramatically in the description of Gar’s relationship with his father.  In Episode One, we saw the following exchange of dialogue between Gar and Madge:

MADGE:      He said nothing since I suppose?

PUBLIC:      Not a word.

PRIVATE:    The bugger.

MADGE:      But he hasn’t paid you your week’s wages?

PUBLIC:      £3.15S – that’ll carry me far.

MADGE:      He’ll have something to say then, you’ll see and maybe he’ll slip you a couple of extra pounds.

PUBLIC:      Whether he says goodbye to me or not, or whether he slips me a few miserable quid or not, it’s a matter of total indifference to me, Madge.

In this short dialogue, certain essential items of information are communicated to the audience.  S.B. has not yet appeared in the play, so it is necessary that we get some preliminary description of his character.  The picture that emerges here is of a person that is cold, uncommunicative, and slightly (!) miserly.  Also, we get the first indication of the conflict between Gar’s outward behaviour and inward thoughts.  While outwardly Gar pretends that his father’s lack of communication is a ‘matter of total indifference’ to him, his inward comments express anger and bitterness.  Madge arouses Gar’s expectations, and those of the audience as well, when she says, ‘He’ll have something to say….you’ll see’.  This is precisely the climax to which the whole play is directed.  The audience’s attention is engaged from the outset.

This theme becomes more obvious as the play progresses.  Its first emphatic expression is during the tea-time routine – a perfect example of what we have referred to earlier as verbal non-communication.  S.B. enters from the shop and goes through his nightly routine.  He hangs up the shop keys, he looks at his pocket watch and checks its time with the clock on the wall, he takes off his apron, folds it carefully and leaves it on the back of his chair.  Then he sits down to eat.  During all these ponderous jobs Private keeps up an endless chatter.  As the meal commences Private says, ‘ Now for a little free conversation’ (p 39.).  The tone of this is ironic, but with a touch of bitterness and sarcasm.  What we get is not, ‘a little free conversation’ at all, but precisely the opposite.  S.B. converses sporadically on boring impersonal topics.   He directs no personal remarks at Gar, nothing whatever that is even slightly intimate – this on the night before he leaves for Philadelphia, possibly forever.  As the scene continues all trace of humour fades from Private’s voice, and he makes a direct plea for communication (‘So tonight d’you know what I want you to do?  I want you to make one unpredictable remark…Go on Say it! Say it! Say it!).  This scene gives the first prolonged description of Gar and S.B. together.  What should be an occasion for communication and contact becomes, in fact, a series of embarrassing moments.   In this scene and elsewhere in the play Friel uses stage silence very skilfully.  This use of silence, of intermittent conversation only, is somewhat missed in reading the play, but it would be an important ingredient in the play’s performance. During a performance, we would notice how the tea-time scene is punctuated by long silences –  silences that are filled by Private’s comments or by the tick of the clock in the background.  This would serve to underscore the communication theme in a dramatic way by drawing attention to the large gaps in the tea-time conversation.  It also explains Madge’s ironic comments to S.B. and Gar,  ‘The chatting in this place would deafen a body.  Won’t the house be quiet soon enough – long enough?’  (P. 41).

The first of Gar’s attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his father is made in this scene, though in a slight and hesitant way.  It also meets with the usual rejection from S.B.  After a slight contention about money Gar tries to extend a hand of friendship to his father by offering him more tea. This meets with the following, predictable, remark: ‘Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p. 41).  Gar accepts this rejection and thinks,  ‘You can’t teach new tricks to an old dog’.  Following this, Private launches into a long speech that is full of obvious humour, but which has an important serious core: ’Let me communicate with someone… communicate.. pour out your pent-up feelings into a sympathetic ear.  So all I ask for the moment is that you listen  – just listen to me…’ (p. 43)By means of such comments as these, Friel keeps the theme of communication to the forefront of our attention.

We next see S.B. and Gar together at the start of Episode Three, during the rosary sequence, and the game of draughts that follow it. There is an interesting juxtaposition of past and future events in this scene.  As the rosary is being said Gar’s mind wanders.  He thinks of the future in America, and characteristically, his ideas are all exaggerated and somewhat unreal: ‘Swaggering down 56th Street… with this big blonde nuzzling up to you.  You’d need to be careful out there boy; some of those Yankee women are dynamite…’ (p.87-8).  The reverie continues with statements comparable to this.  Things of this sort are, however, remote from Gar’s experience and for this reason they fail to engage his feelings.  The real interest of Private’s speech here, is his surmising on a life in America without intimacy or friendship: ‘But you’ll never marry; never; bachelor’s written all over you.  Fated to be alone, a man without intimates; something of an enigma’ (p.88).

From here, Gar’s mind wanders back to previous incidents in the past, and his feelings are engaged more fully.  In this part of the speech, Gar’s boyhood affection for this father is the centre of interest:  ‘Do you ever dream of the past, Screwballs, of that wintry morning in Bailtefree, and the three days in Bundoran? ‘ (p. 89). Gar goes on to give the first of many descriptions in the play of the fishing trip with S.B.  He doesn’t, he admits, remembers every detail, ‘but some things are as vivid as can be’.  This occasion recalls to Gar’s mind the former sympathy between himself and his father, which is described in highly emotive terms: ‘between us at that moment there was this great happiness, this great joy – you must have felt it too – it was so much richer than a content – it was a great, great happiness, and active, bubbling joy…’  (p. 80-90).

Following this magnificent speech, one of the most poetic in the play, Gar decides to force the issued by asking S.B. if he remembers this fishing trip also.  He adopts his usual nonchalant tone as if the matter was one of indifference to him, when in fact, it’s his most precious memory: ‘‘Whatever happened to that aul boat on Lough na Cloc Cor… an old blue thing – do you remember it? (p.9).  This hesitant attempt at communication is interrupted by the Canon’s entrance. During the draughts game, Gar slips into the background.  Only one passing comment is directed at him (‘It’s getting near your time, Gareth’).  Here again, Friel makes use of silence to underline the communication theme.  Apart from the chatter of Private, the Canon and S.B. sit in almost total silence making only sporadic, predictable remarks about insignificant topics.  Private, meanwhile, hovers in the background commenting on the scene from his usual witty perspective.  But always in his speeches, there is an explicit earnestness that points to wider issues: ‘there’s an affinity between me and Screwballs that no one, literally, no one could understand…….’ (p.96).  As the Canon and S.B. sit motionless and in silence, oblivious to Gar’s presence, Private relates again the story of the fishing trip.  As often in the play, music excites Gar’s memory, reminding him of previous occasions, so also in the touching speech that ends this scene: ‘Listen! Listen! Listen! D’you hear it? D’you know what the music says? It says that once upon a time, a boy and his father sat in a blue boat on a lake on an afternoon in May, and on that afternoon a great beauty happened, a beauty that has haunted the boy ever since..’ (p.98).  For Gar, time is slowly running out.  He has patiently, waited for S.B. to make some sort of gesture towards him, some small demonstration of affection.  But as the play moves into its final scenes, the lack of communication is still firmly established.

In the last episode of the play Gar makes one final effort to reach out to his father.  Throughout the play, their spoken comments to each other have been impersonal and superficial. Now, in ‘the small hours of the morning’, Gar takes up the issue of the fishing trip in a final attempt to provoke a reaction.  Gar and S.B. are surprised and slightly embarrassed to be in each other’s company.  At the start, their conversation falls back onto the usual impersonal topics.  They talk about fencing posts, plug tobacco, tinker’s cans, ‘cookers and ranges and things’.  All personal issues are carefully avoided.  Also, we notice the same irritable behaviour on S.B.’s part.  When Gar asked him will he have more tea, S.B. gives his typical response: ’Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p.101). Yet there is some slight hint of affection in S.B. at this point.  Here, as so often in the play, Friel is a master of understatement, and in this scene, his description of S.B. is delicately and skilfully drawn.  S.B. is unable to sleep, and though we are never told why, the implication is that he is disturbed by Gar’s departure.  He awkwardly tells Gar the day’s weather forecast and he has at least enough interest in his welfare to advise him to ‘sit at the back’ of the plane, in case there was ‘an accident or anything’.  Gar notices the slight affection suggested by these remarks and he tries once again to introduce the subject of the fishing trip and the blue boat.  For a short space, their conversation takes on a new dimension.  Gar describes his memories with growing enthusiasm and S.B. listens attentively.  Then comes the final important question, and the inevitable let-down: ‘D’you remember?… No.. No.., then, I don’t.. ‘(p.105).  Here Friel raises our hopes slightly so that he can demolish them again.  This is the final appearance together of Gar and his father in the play. The same communication problems, the same misunderstandings are apparent up to the end.

Throughout the play, S.B. is depicted as a cold, uncommunicative character.  This is the picture that emerges from his initial entrance, and this picture of him lasts throughout the play.  Lizzy Sweeney’s comments in Episode Two contain brief but appropriate reference to S.B.: ‘That was the kind of us Gallagher girls wasn’t it…either laughing or crying….you know, sorta silly and impetuous, shooting our big mouths off, talking too much, not like the O’Donnell’s – you know – kinda cold…’ (p. 64).  But before the end of the play, Friel gives one last look at S.B. which shows him up in a different perspective, and which arouses the audience’s sympathy for him in a way that was not done in the rest of the play.  Indeed, S.B.’s comments in his conversation with Madge are all the more pathetic because they are unexpected.

In this final scene (pp. 106 – 108) S.B. is shown to be very human.  Because of Gar’s departure, he will have a lot more work to do himself, but he insists that he’ll ‘manage rightly’.  Suddenly we see the extra chores which Gar had to do (p. 16) in a different perspective.  In Gar’s absence, a lot more responsibility falls on S.B.’s shoulders, but he still doesn’t go against Gar’s wishes by asking him to stay.  There is also a slight hint that S.B.’s business is going into decline, ‘It’s not like in the old days when the whole countryside did with me; I needed the help then, but it’s different now…’ (p. 107).  In this matter also S.B. looks to Madge for reassurance, ‘I’ll manage by myself now. Eh?  I’ll manage fine, eh?’

The most striking reversal of sympathy for S.B. comes about through the description he gives of Gar’s first day at school.  S.B.’s memories of this event are as sharp in focus as Gar’s remembrance of the fishing –trip.  S.B. describes how he and Gar went ‘hand in hand’ to school, ‘as happy as larks, and him dancing and chatting beside me…’ (p. 107).  Their easy spontaneous communication in this scene from the past is in sharp contrast to their predicament in the play as a whole: ‘You wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with all the chatting he used to go through…’.  S.B. is aware of the sad decline in their relationship, but he places all the blame on his own side: ’Maybe, Madge, maybe it’s because I could have been his grandfather, eh?….I was too old….’.  S.B.’s last words in the play again refer to Gar, in another image of happier days: ‘In the wee sailor suit – all the chatting he used to go through…’  Both Gar and S.B., so unlike in many ways, have one common characteristic: they both hold memories of the past and of each other, but unfortunately they are different ones.  The contrast in the play is not between depth of feeling on the one hand and absence of feeling on the other.  Communication is the real problem in this play, namely the channels through which personal feelings are expressed.  Gar wrongly assumes that S.B.’s failure to remember the fishing trip suggests a lack of feeling or affection.  In fact, S.B. has his own private memories that Gar knows nothing of.  The tragedy of the play is that they are unable to communicate these memories to one another.

The communication theme of the play is principally expressed through the relationship of Gar and his father.  But it is also seen in the presentation of other episodes and characters.  A close look at the language of the play reveals an interesting feature of Friel’s use of dialogue.  Conversation is difficult for the play’s characters.  Communication of personal feelings is almost totally impossible.  The most prolonged dialogue in the play is that between Gar and his private self.  Dialogue with other people is much more difficult to achieve.  In fact, what Friel presents us with in the play is not really dialogue at all, but a series of monologues.  Characters who start talking to each other usually end up talking to, or about, themselves, and what they say is usually untrue.  We can see examples of this interesting technique on two important occasions in the play.

The first of these is in the scene with Master Boyle.  Ostensibly, the Master has called to pay his farewell to Gar.  But after a brief mention of Gar’s departure, ‘Tomorrow morning, isn’t it?’ (p. 44), Boyle’s conversation is completely given over to matters concerning himself.  He talks about his controversy with the Canon, about his poems and his own possible emigration to America.  He is also slightly formal and ill-at-ease, though we detect that unspoken feelings lurk just below the surface.  The problem of self-expression, so dominant throughout the play, is evident here also.  After a very awkward handshake and quick embrace, Boyle makes a hasty exit from the stage.

We notice a comparable use of dialogue and self-expression in ‘The Boys’ scene.  Here again what we get is not so much a dialogue but a series of short monologues punctuated by silence.  Gar’s friends speak loudly and enthusiastically about insignificant matters.  They relate stories and episodes (mostly untrue) in which the principal characters are themselves.  When they are not engaged in these personal monologues, embarrassing silences develop, which they desperately try to fill by even louder and more exaggerated accounts of their adventures.  These silences occur ‘like regular cadences’, and to defeat them, someone always introduces a fresh theme.  However, when the time comes to say good-bye to Gar, they are all pathetically stuck for words.  Tom leaves without any word of good-bye at all, whereas Ned’s farewell is embarrassed and awkward.  He stands casually at the door and says, ‘So long, Gar’ (p. 75).  He then throws his parting gift – the belt with the big brass buckle – across the room to Gar.  Despite all the loud talk about his exploits, Ned is incompetent when it comes to real displays of affection.  Here again, the problem is not that he feels no affection for Gar, but that he is unable to communicate it properly.  Joe, the youngest member of the group, makes the only sort of proper farewell to Gar.  When the others have left, Joe stays behind as a gesture of his friendship.  But even his final words to Gar are casual and superficial: ‘Send us a card, Gar, Sometime, Eh?…..Lucky bloody man….so long….’ (pp. 77-78).

The communication theme can also be seen in the episode describing Gar’s visit to Senator Doogan.  Here the theme is placed in a slightly wider context.  The scene in Doogan’s house describes not only the breakdown in communication between individuals but also between different social classes.  (Is this similar to Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘thick-tongued mumble’ in his poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’?).  The conversation with Senator Doogan is presented as a monologue.  Doogan wanders on about his personal successes and his important family connections.  He also wants the same successes and connections for Katie.  Consequently, Gar is excluded from this upper-class world.

The most extended ‘monologue’ in the play, however, is Lizzy Sweeney’s prolonged description of the events that brought about Gar’s decision to emigrate.  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.

What makes Gar O’Donnell’s situation so tragic then is not so much that he is so publicly inarticulate towards his father but that he fails to allow for a similar complexity in his father!  All the lines uttered by Private on Gar’s behalf might just as easily have been said on behalf of his father.  As Declan Kiberd has said, ‘Language is what comes between Gar and his freedom of expression – his education has left him fluent but not articulate and so his skill with words is greatly in excess of his emotional development’.

Friel’s concern with communication is, therefore, central to this play.  Gar has this crazy notion that language and talking and dreaming about something is the equivalent to living life.  On the one hand, Friel presents us with characters who speak too much, and on the other hand with those who speak too little. Gar’s mistake is that he foolishly equates emotion with its expression: if a feeling isn’t stated by his father, he won’t believe it’s there at all.  This has impeded their relationship and so genuine communication is virtually impossible and the end result is tragic.  The final words of both Gar and S. B. – “I don’t know” – captures their shared bewilderment and the sad fact that it is precisely this bewilderment that both connects and separates them.

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

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

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