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Living Quarters is a memory play set in a soldier's home in Donegal, near Friel's favourite fictional town of Ballybeg. It tells the story of the fateful day that Commandant Frank Butler returns a hero from a successful UN mission in the Middle East. His four children from his first marriage all return home for the |celebrations, along with Frank's young wife, Anna.
The extent to which Commandant Butler's first wife (deceased) dominated the family is obvious; Frank's son (Ben) suffered a nervous breakdown on her death, and eldest daughter Helen is still scarred by her mother's opposition to her marriage to a private soldier.
Unique is the way in which the story is told: not through conventional flashbacks, but through an artificial narrator, called Sir, who acts as arbiter and director, making sure that the characters' memories reflect reality. In an environment of people trying to reestablish connections with their family, Ben has a secret he shares with Anna, and the attempts to reveal that secret temporarily bring father and son back together, but ultimately lead to a grim conclusion. Living Quarters deals with accepting responsibility for one's actions.
Critical acclaim was initially muted, but the play has enjoyed increased popularity in later years, including a season at the Greek National Theatre.
Many have considered this play (a proud family with three sisters and a weak brother) to be a forerunner to Friel's masterpiece Aristocrats.