Philadelphia, Here I Come! could be described as a ‘coming of age’ drama. It portrays a young man’s difficult separation from his family and his first steps towards making a new life by escaping to America - which in the 1960s was seen as a place of affluence and opportunity.
In contrast to this land of aspiration, the characters reinforce the nature of Ballybeg as a place lacking in job opportunities for its young people.
This reflects the real Ireland from which many young people emigrated in search of work and a new life.
Ballybeg is a fictional town. It is the setting for many Friel plays. The name comes from the Irish 'Baile Beag', which literally means ‘small town’.
Even Friel’s choice of place name suggests a stultifying small town mentality, perhaps hinting at the conservative mindset of the place and its residents.
Private’s commentary in the opening scene refers to Gar “leaving the country of your birth, the land of the curlew and the snipe, the Aran sweater and the Irish Sweepstakes”.
The stereotypical notions mentioned here place Ireland in the past.
This is reinforced when Private says that Gar’s plane to America will have its “snout pointing straight for the States, and its tail belching smoke over Ireland”, suggesting the future lies in America and Ireland must be left behind.
It is suggested in the play that Gar is escaping from many things - the routine life of his father, the lack of opportunity, his failed relationship with Kate Doogan, the suffocating nature of the town where he and his friends seem to have little to do and everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Literally then, this move to America is an escape from all these things.
However, at times we also see Gar metaphorically escaping his thoughts of uncertainty and regret - avoiding the fact that he may not be entirely convinced that emigrating is what he really wants.
The split persona is used effectively in demonstrating Gar’s attempts to distract himself from facing reality – through Private he fantasises about becoming “president of the biggest chain of biggest hotels in the world” and about a life of “Great big sexy dames and night clubs and high living and films and dances”.
Private’s visions serve to divert Gar’s thoughts from what is actually happening, but his problems remain the same.
At another point in the play, Gar Public absently sings She Moved Through the Fair, a romantic ballad which may show he is reminiscing about Kate. But Gar Private warns him to “Snap out of it, man! Get up and keep active! The devil makes work for idle hands!”
Gar’s friends, the boys, also use escapist fantasy to make their lives bearable. The boys’ tall tales of mischief and exploits with women - exposed as nonsense by Private - seem to mask the boredom and lack of opportunity Ballybeg offers these young men. One of the gang, Jimmy Crerand, has already actually escaped by emigrating.
There are suggestions that Master Boyle is an alcoholic. Perhaps he drinks to escape the suffocating life of a teacher in Ballybeg, but possibly also from his regretful memories of Gar’s mother with whom it is suggested he was in love.