The Public and Private Aspects of Gar O’Donnell
Brian Friel explores the inner dilemma of a young man living in rural Ireland in the 1960s, caught between the fear of leaving the ‘land of curlew and the snipe’ and his aspiration of a better life in the ‘pagan country of gross materialism’. The protagonist’s thoughts on this impasse are truthfully extended by the inhabitual use of a Private figure as the spokesperson of Gar’s alter ego. The audience is given the privilege of understanding both the Gar that is shown to the world and the Gar that is completely hidden to others. This privilege allows the audience to interpret the relationship Gar has with his distant father and the housekeeper, Madge.
In ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come!’, Friel employs the very singular technique of physically representing the two sides of the protagonist’s psyche as two different actors. Public Gar, the Gar that people ‘see, talk to, talk about’ is self-effacing and reserved whereas Private Gar, the invisible ‘spirit,’ is truthful and outgoing. Public and Private Gar are unable to see each other, as ‘One cannot look at one’s alter ego’, but they are able to communicate and interact with each other. The presence of Private Gar gives the audience deep insight into Gar’s inner-most thoughts, at times with moving revelations and at times with a humorous use of accents such as in, ‘Pretty ou-la-la?’. However, it is the occasional interactions between the alter egos that reveal Gar’s most profoundly hidden hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations. One of the many aspects of Gar revealed by these interactions is his playfulness. The fantasies of Gar scoring at a football match and becoming the ‘pride of the Ballybeg team’ or even being a pilot with his ‘competent fingers poised over the controls’ show his use of ridiculously childish dreams to perhaps create excitement and entertainment in order to erase the fear of change and loss of familiarity from his mind. This element of fantasy appears to be Gar’s way of convincing himself of the potential of living the ‘American Dream’ and the opportunities it may bring.
It is apparent that the Father-Son relationship between Gar and S.B. is strained, there is a lack of communication and inability to verbalise emotions publicly from both sides. Public and Private Gar have different approaches to the relationship; Public Gar is unable to swallow his pride and verbalise his anger when his father fails to acknowledge his departure and claims it is a ‘matter of total indifference’ to him. However, a stage direction later on reveals that this show of indifference put on by Public Gar is weaker than his true instinct, as he ‘rushes to his door and opens it’ when his father arrives. On the other hand, Private Gar is able to release all frustration and disappointment due to the fact that no one else but Public Gar can hear or judge what he is saying. The build-up if anger is to such an extent that Private Gar goes on to calling his father a ‘Skinflint! Skittery Face!’.
Despite S.B.’s evident lack of affection, Madge defends him with the quote ‘just because he doesn’t say much doesn’t mean he hasn’t feelings like the rest of us.’, which insinuates S.B.’s cold attitude towards his son’s departure may hide true sadness and encourages the audience to question his silence. Nonetheless, the simple fact that Gar’s father is never given a full name other than S.B. and that his character description resumes to ‘a responsible, respectable citizen’ portrays a plain and absent father who has let Madge become the surrogate mother and take emotional care of Gar. Madge and Gar have developed a very affectionate and playful relationship where Gar does not hesitate to tease or even ‘tickle’ Madge, and she assures she will miss him. As the housekeeper, she is the realist in this situation and does not fear to speak the truth, which is why she is in no need of a Public/Private figure. This gives Madge the role of the motherly figure in the family, and even though she has not developed a romantic relationship with S.B. she does not cease to defend him when he is discussed by Public Gar.
Finally, Brian Friel portrays a rural household in Ireland in the small fictional town Ballybeg (‘small town’) at a time where emigration and fascination of the ‘American Dream’ were at their highest. The choice of an average middle-class family and of a fictional town allows the play to apply to most of Ireland in that particular epoch. The relationships illustrated in this play are typical of a 1960’s society, where a father would expect to have his son take over the family business and have all educational and emotional responsibility be given to the mother figure, exactly as it is played out by Gar, S.B. and Madge.
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Brian Friel explores the inner dilemma of a young man living in rural Ireland in the 1960s, caught between the fear of leaving the ‘land of curlew and the snipe’ […]