I had the pleasure of catching the tremendous performance of Brian Friel’s masterpiece, Philadelphia, Here I Come! last weekend. Friel is Ireland’s greatest living playwright and Philadelphia is a classic work that examines with wit and profound sensitivity the lonely desperation of rural Ireland in the 1960’s. Gar O’Donnell is the main character, although we are treated to the dialogue in his head with his inner self, Private gar. He is a 25 year old man, living in remote Donegal with his county councillor father, working for a pittance in the family shop, set to emigrate to Philly the following morning. The play takes the form of an observation on the series of encounters over the course of the evening and night and the introspection that ensues.
Gar’s mother died 3 days after he was born. His father is a silent, unhappy man who is unable to reach out to his son. Madge, the housekeeper is a surrogate mother and the only example of emotional intelligence in the play. Over the course of the evening he meets an old school teacher, now a drunk, who once went with his mother before she was married, his four school friends, his old girlfriend who is now married to a doctor in the town, the parish priest and his household. He dwells often on his mother who he never met and reminisces about the few glimpses of true happiness he has experienced.
It is quite simply a pristine work of art. It is surely my favourite play. It is generous in its treatment of characters who are fully fleshed but at times truly depressing. It is wonderfully witty. And most importantly, it is true. Ireland was and still is perhaps, a culture which finds it hard to cultivate emotional maturity. In the face of the ongoing tragedy that is his life, Gar engages in maniacal inner dialogues and silence in public. To avoid thinking about things that trouble him he repeats mantras and disappears into music. His existence is too much to confront. Raised by strong silent men, he is bound, in the words of Madge, to become just like them. Escape through escapism and then escape through emigration is his only hope. Anonymity is his chief desire.
Which brings me to the performance I saw. You couldn’t fault the acting. The initial material, as I have said, is the best there is. And yet it was a deeply unsettling show. Why?
Because of the audience.
Watching a heart rending play about the failure of human beings to comprehend their situation and make a true connection with each other, I was trapped in a room with an audience who failed to comprehend their situation and make a true connection with the play. Watching a heart rending play about the tragedy of a man’s youth squandered in restless high jinks, I was trapped in a room with an audience who failed to comprehend the tragedy and saw everything as hilarious high jinks. Watching a heart rending play about a man who couldn’t deal with his existential orphanhood and so retreated into manic laughter, I was in a room representative of Irish society, who when confronted with their own existential orphanhood, retreated into manic laughter.
Judging from their uproarious response, they think that a heartbroken man driven by insecurity and economic hardship into emigration is the material of the latest Brendan O’Carroll man-dressed-as-woman-with-accent crapfest.
At one point, the actor who plays the father, S.B. O’Donnell, actually stopped the performance to give the side split hysterical audience a look that said, “Imbeciles, a tragedy is unfolding”. They mis-read this as playing to the crowd. The laughter grew more raucous again.
It was a metaphor for me and Wife #1’s life. The eery sense that we are in a very small minority who perceive the tragedy while everyone else is laughing at a “joke” that makes us weep.
I don’t go to the theatre to learn anything about myself! Waste of a bleedin’ €50!
Your Correspondent, Always waits until the rosary is said and the tea is on.