Volunteers takes place on an archaeological site in a contemporary Irish city centre. The ‘volunteers’ are political prisoners. For five months they have been excavating ‘from early Viking down to late Georgian — in other words over a period of approximately a thousand years’.
So that what they have around them is ‘encapsulated history, a tangible precis of the story of Irish man’. And on the last day of their ‘dig’, before the builders move in, they learn that they have been sentenced to death by their fellow internees for treason, their defection in volunteering.
[Volunteers] represents a transitional stage in Brian Friel‘s career. He drew back from impassioned polemics and used the political context to challenge historical determinism through an incisive mixture of storytelling, role-playing and irreverent humour. This oblique and bravely inconclusive approach was met with some bemusement in Dublin. One critic lamented that “the great dramatic subject of internment” hadn’t received the “great play” it deserved. But, as Translations and Friel’s other subsequent plays have proved, the dramatic subject is just the start; the greatness lies in the ground he excavates around it. — The Independent