Memory is a common theme in Friel’s plays. Dancing at Lughnasa for example is a memory play, told in flashback by an adult narrator about his childhood. Memory was something that fascinated Friel.
Philadelphia, Here I Come! has elements of a memory play as well. Although it is set in the present many of the scenes are flashbacks, and much of the dialogue references things remembered from the past.
Through these flashbacks we see memories of the events leading up to Gar’s decision to leave. His encounter with Senator Doogan, Kate’s marriage to Francis King and the visit from Con and Lizzy on the day of Kate’s wedding.
The flashbacks give us background to Gar’s motives for leaving and help explain his ambivalence about the move.
However, it is his present thoughts about these events which are important on the night he prepares to leave. Gar Private admits that being rejected by Kate was “a sore hoke on the aul prestige, eh?”
Although he never admits it to any other character - including Kate - Gar Private says “in the privacy of the bedroom, between you and me and the wall, as the fella says, has it left a deep scar on the aul skitter of a soul, eh?”
Private also recognises, in hindsight, that Gar’s decision to go was based on a combination of worrying that he will turn into his father and his feelings about Kate Doogan’s wedding day. Referring to Aunt Lizzy, he says “She got you soft on account of the day it was” and “because she said you were an O’Donnell – ‘cold like’.”
The memories Gar has here reinforce his regrets at how things have turned out, and his uncertainty as to whether leaving is what he actually wants.
Memories haunt the characters throughout the play. We see this when Gar poignantly finds a newspaper in the old suitcase. This reminds him - and us - that it hasn’t been used since his parents honeymooned in Bundoran, a beach resort in Donegal.
This is one of many occasions in the play where we find out about Maire O’Donnell, a character only shown to us through the memories of others. Lizzy and Madge reveal some aspects of her character but it is obvious - because of S.B.’s unwillingness to open up - that there is a lot Gar does not know about his mother.
These moments in the play are therefore emotionally loaded. This can be seen for example in the dramatic Mendelssohn violin concerto which is playing as Gar discovers the old newspaper.
We also see the theme of memory explored in the mismatching recollections that Gar and S.B. have of Gar’s childhood. Gar’s very vivid memory of fishing with his father in a blue boat shows a moment of “great, great happiness, and active, bubbling joy” from his childhood.
S.B. contradicts this memory - much to Gar’s frustration. However, it does seem to get S.B. thinking about Gar’s childhood as later in the scene he speaks - in a more lengthy piece of dialogue than we have seen from him before - of a memory of he and Gar “as happy as larks … him dancing and chatting beside me”.
He recalls that Gar was wearing a “wee sailor suit as smart looking on him”, which Madge contradicts with “He never had a sailor suit.” However, this contradiction does not deter S.B., who insists Gar did have a sailor suit.
These memories and the importance they have for the characters - even if they are not accurate - show the ongoing affection they have for each other. Tragically, this affection has gone unspoken for many years.