February 23, 1974—The Freedom of the City only lasted nine performances on Broadway before closing at the Alvin Theatre, but not before setting off hackles over how accurately Brian Friel (pictured) had depicted British control of his native Ulster. Reaction to the play where it had been presented previously, in Dublin and Chicago, had already been polarized.
But the Broadway production turned out to be a virtual Rorschach test. The most prominent New York theater critic of the time complained that the playwright had examined the treatment of civil-rights activists to the disadvantage of British authorities, while Friel’s supporters observed that the play itself was being criticized unfairly by people who brought their own naivete and even prejudice into the theater.
The play premiered still relatively early in the Ulster "Troubles," the period from 1969 to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, when 3,000 lives were lost in the six disputed provinces under British control. The passage of four decades confirms that Friel was not only not a simplistic propagandist, but also that British security forces’ responsibility for human-rights violations had been as rigorously whitewashed as he had shown.
Friel’s chief antagonist in the New York critical establishment was Clive Barnes, then at the peak of his power as theater and dance critic at The New York Times. In the last decades of the 20th century, shows without a star or “brand-name” composer depended for its run on the imprimatur of the Newspaper of Record. Friel’s play, like many others in Barnes’ time at the paper, did not win the critic’s approbation.
But there was excellent reason to question how much Barnes’ negative opinion really derived from aesthetic reasons, for the review of the London-born critic reeked of disbelief that that Her Majesty’s forces could have reacted with anything other than restraint in a region that had been a tinderbox over the last half-dozen years.
Barnes might have, with justice, pointed out that much of any tension in the play was gone from the moment the curtain rose to reveal the corpses of two young men and a middle-aged woman in Guildhall at Derry, the city in which Friel was born.
But Barnes moved in a different direction, claiming that the events subsequently depicted—the British authorities’ ludicrous misreading of the three Catholic victims as terrorists (not as they were-- civil-rights marchers who, under the pressure of tear gas, tumbled by mistake into the mayor’s office) and the subsequent judicial whitewashing—were “luridly fictionalized,” “far-fetched” and “impossible.” In particular, he asked: “Can we really be expected to believe that the British Army would mobilize against these three people 22 tanks, two dozen armored cars, four water cannon and a ‘modicum of air cover’?”
New York City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, born in the Republic of Ireland and by this time a fierce opponent of British policy in Ulster, wrote a letter to the Times saying Barnes defended “The Empire” more than he had reviewed the play. But there was an even more cogent point to make: that Barnes was oblivious to the situation on the ground that Friel, a direct witness in the civil-rights marches, knew firsthand.
Actually, what the Catholic minority of Northern Ireland had already lived through was far from “impossible.” The play is set in 1970, perhaps as acknowledging when Friel first took up the pen to examine the dynamics of a region that, even as a child raised Catholic, had left him in fear for his life. But he worked on the play even more fervently after “Bloody Sunday” in January 1972, when British paratroopers, thwarting a civil-rights march intended for Guildhall Square, opened fire, killing 13 and wounding 13 others.
If Barnes felt that a British inquiry could never be guilty of whitewashing security abuses, he evidently did not pay much attention to the report by Lord John Widgery, which not only claimed the soldiers were justified in firing but also threw suspicion on the deceased (“there is a strong suspicion that some others had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon and that yet others had been closely supporting them”). The “paraffin test,” used in the play to cast aspersions on the deceased, also figured crucially in the report.
It was not until 1999 before British Prime Minister Tony Blair reopened the inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Bloody Sunday, and yet another decade would pass before this latter investigation, this time by Lord Saville, absolved the victims of responsibility for their own deaths and new Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for the affair as “unjustified and unjustifiable."
After encouraging reviews of the play in Chicago, the producers of the drama had decided to make the move to Broadway, despite Friel’s misgivings. The reaction of Barnes, and the show’s quick closing, proved that he had a better sense of events than they did. (It should be said that Barnes’ opinion, though decisive, was hardly unanimous about the drama’s merits. Richard Watts of the New York Post called it “a genuine masterpiece.” That, of course, was before Rupert Murdoch moved the tabloid from its tamely liberal stance to its current conservative tone, including aggressive cheerleading of the official government line in the U.K. concerning Ulster.)
Though the play might be faulted, to some extent, on dramatic grounds, it was not really the nationalist agitprop of the imagination of Barnes and his ilk. Other parties in the drama—not just the British judge tasked with determining the truth of the case, but also a Catholic priest and an American academic spouting “culture of poverty” theories—reduce the three victims to their own preconceived notions. But Friel gives each of the victims a habitation, a name, and idiosyncrasies that render them fully human.
In the 1990s, New York’s estimable Irish Repertory Theatre approached Friel about mounting the play at its Off-Broadway venue. At that point, the playwright was reluctant to grant approval, as he did not want anything to interfere with the delicate negotiations toward resolving the Troubles. In 2012, however, with the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement and more than a decade of progress toward justice and peace in Northern Ireland, the company put on its production with Friel’s permission.
By this time, with plays such as Dancing at Lughnasa to his credit, Friel could be seen as he desired: a playwright with far more than political concerns on his mind. Those with open minds, on both sides of the Atlantic, could also see—not only because of the new findings on Bloody Sunday, but also because of the Guildford Four and John Stalker inquiries—that the rights of civilians had been frequently violated by the military and law enforcement in Ulster. This production ended up being well received critically. (See, for instance, this piece in the Huffington Post by Wilborn Hampton.)