By the time that Translations revealed that Brian Friel was one of the major dramatic talents of this or any age, he had found success with The Enemy Within. Following that success came the play that turned Friel into a figure of international renown and thus set him up for the masterpiece to come. Philadelphia, Here I Come! is actually a rather strange title considering that the inspiration for the piece was a prolonged sojourn to Minneapolis. From that time spent in Minnesota, Friel produced the stage work that would cement his reputation around the globe and transform him into one of the leading figures in the world of drama in the 20th century.
The time spent in Minnesota had served to teach Friel a lesson put proudly on display in Philadelphia, Here I Come! That lesson was that great drama could be made from the most prosaic of circumstances and need not be reliant upon melodramatic exoticism. With this newfound motivation in mind, Brian Friel crafted the play which had its premiere at the appropriately named Gaiety Theater on September 28, 1964 in advance of a successful nine-month run at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway.
While the setting may not have indulged Friel’s previous preference for exoticism, the play itself does engage in a rather exotic conceit: the main character, Gar, is portrayed by two different actors: one who interacts with the other character and one who is seen only by the audience. This bifurcation of Gar is a concrete representation of the deep-seated psychic ambivalence of the character stimulated by his anxiety at leaving his home in Ireland to set out for Philadelphia. Thus, the title.
Worth noting here is that Philadelphia, Here I Come! has become a standard part of the syllabus for English Higher Level and Ordinary Level for the Irish Leaving Certificate examinations. In addition, it would behoove any student facing the English A1 course of the International Baccalaureate to become intimately familiar with Friel’s first truly international success.