The comparative study in the Fifth Year English course includes Philadelphia, Here I come! by Brian Friel. I picked up a copy that lay on a student’s desk. ‘Has your teacher explained to you the Marie Antionette bit?’
The student looked justifiably mystified. I opened at a page where the line occurred and read.
“It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then dauphiness, at Versailles”
‘No,’ said the student.
‘I’m sure he will.’
Brian Friel’s character, Gar O’Donnell quotes those lines from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. For the character of Gar Burke’s description of Marie-Antoinette has become an unlikely defence against the onslaught of negative thoughts. The dullness of small village life in the rural Ireland of the early 1960s is transcended by thoughts of beauty and elegance and of a world beyond the imagination of those amongst whom Gar lived.
Time and again through the pages of Philadelphia, Here I come!, Gar shouts out the words of Burke as if they were an esoteric mantra that would lift his mind above the things that oppress him, as if words from a description of revolutionary France could become an incantation, as if recollection of the beauty of Marie Antionette could become a magic spell that would drive away the demons of mediocrity and repression that assailed him in his daily life.
Gar O’Donnell made a few shillings on the side selling eggs. Had he been a character living sixty years later, in times of New Age spirituality and mindfulness, he could probably have made considerably greater sums in teaching incantations. He could have run workshops where those present would learn lines that would assist them to exclude the grim things in life and to focus upon the bright and cheerful.
Perhaps Gar has reasonable cause for complaint. His life in rural Co Donegal seems almost uniformly bleak. He has a monotonous job that goes nowhere. He has friends who live in a fantasy world of things they might have done. He lives in a house shared with his father, who hardly speaks to him, and his aunt, who carries the emotional burden of them all.
Perhaps there are lines on other works that might be as efficacious as those from Burke. Perhaps there are quotes that might be recited to block all that is negative. Something to make one miss the bad and see the good would be an excellent discovery.