The Freedom of the City (1973) is one of brian Friel’s rare explicitly political plays. In this fiction, three peaceful political marchers in a Catholic rally in Derry, Northern Ireland, attacked by the police, accidentally find refuge in the empty Guildhall, in the mayor’s private office. Misled by foolish TV reports, the British authorities envision 40 armed terrorists, not three harmless, underprivileged figures: Michael Hegarty, 22, earnest and idealistic; Skinner, 21, a charming drifter; and Lily Doherty, 43, the sole support – in two rooms – of an incapacitated husband and eleven children.
Outside, the army joins the police in a state of siege. Inside, Hegarty tries to behave exemplarily and emerge unscathed; Skinner revels in the mayor’s liquor, fancy robes and hat, and sundry amenities; Lily, fluctuating between the two, finally warms to brandy and companionship, in which even Hegarty grudgingly joins. An army megaphone promises fair treatment for peaceful surrender; when the three comply, gunfire mows them down.
Freedom plays with manifold ironies. There is the dramatic irony, presenting the principals as corpses at the very start, accompanied by a police account of the events. There is the irony of the inquiry conducted by a partisan British judge that, making use of ambiguities by the forensic expert and court pathologist – not to mention the army’s lies – ends up justifying the summary shooting. There is the irony of stupid TV coverage, a Catholic priest’s
jejune blather, and an American sociology professor’s platitudinous pontifications. Also that of a drunken pub singer who improvises a ballad mythicizing the victims as martyred freedom fighters. And the final irony of the funeral, with the church, the politicos, and the media glorifying those whom, alive, they misled, maltreated, or neglected.
Though the central action rings true, the surrounding ironies may pile up too heavily. Still, Seamus Deane, a friend of Friel’s, writes persuasively of Friel’s work: “The voice of power tells one kind of fiction – the lie. It has the purpose of preserving its own interests. The voice of powerlessness tells another kind of fiction – the illusion. It has the purpose of pretending that its own interests have been preserved.” I disagree with Robert Brustein, who accuses the play of “substitution of political indignation for credible playwriting.” This may apply to the secondary characters; the main ones are fully rounded.
The Abbey Theatre’s guest production at the Lincoln Center Festival is deftly staged by Conall Morrison, including the attack with gas and rubber bullets on the marchers. All the performances persuade. Gerard Crossan’s Hegarty, one of the deserving poor, is as fine as Michael Colgan’s Skinner, one of the shiftless ones. And in Lily, zestily played by the winning Sorcha Cusack, we get Friel’s masterstroke: a salt-of-the-earth creature not patronized, sentimentalized, or embellished. When already aware of the precariousness of her condition, she can still lustily evoke her wretched spouse and neighbors and conclude: “And I’m here in the mayor’s parlour, dressed up like the Duchess of Kent and drinking port wine. I’ll tell you something, Skinner: It’s a very unfair world.”
His fellow Ulsterman and friend, the poet Seamus Heaney, says of Friel, “He means that an expert, hurt, and shocking laughter is the only adequate response to a calloused condition.” What could characterize The Freedom of the City better than “hurt laughter”?