Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel is a memory play. We can see this in how the play is structured. The play is framed by Michael, as an adult, reflecting on his childhood. The play begins with an adult Michael on stage, and he tells the audience,
When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936 different kinds of memories offer themselves to me.
Michael is looking back on his childhood. We see the events of that summer play out on stage, and the play ends with adult Michael on stage again, offering us a closing monologue:
And so, when I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me. But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. In that memory, too, the air is nostalgic with the music of the thirties.
The play is about memory, but also change. Not only do we see how the familial relationships change, but the experiences of the Mundy family are representative of a greater historical change in Ireland. One example of this is the radio, a symbol of the Industrial Revolution. The Mundy sisters enjoy singing and dancing along to the music from the radio.
With this too loud music, this pounding beat, this shouting—calling—singing, this parodic reel, there is a sense of order being consciously subverted, of the women consciously and crudely caricaturing themselves, indeed of near-hysteria being induced. The must stops abruptly in mid-phrase. But because of the noise they are making the sisters do not notice and continue dancing for a few seconds.
This passage is an example of how memory and history intertwine in the play. Michael's memories are not meant to be factual reproductions; in fact, he is not even present during this specific scene.
MAGGIE: (At window.) Where’s Michael, Chrissie?
CHRIS: Working at those kites, isn’t he
MAGGIE: He’s not there. He’s gone.
CHRIS: He won’t go far.
MAGGIE: He was there ten minutes ago.
CHRIS: He’ll be all right.
Michael as a young boy does not need to be present on stage, because Friel is more concerned with the atmosphere of the memory, which is exactly what the music achieves.