Brian Friel is one of Ireland’s most prolific and successful contemporary dramatists. Dancing at Lughnasa won both London’s Olivier Award and New York’s Tony Award for Best Play. Though successful in New York with Philadelphia Here I Come (1964), Friel is better known in Dublin and London for dramatic triumphs such as Faith Healer (1979), the more political Translations (1980), and Molly Sweeney (1994).
Friel was educated for the priesthood at Maynooth Seminary, Ireland, but, instead of taking Holy Orders, he became a teacher like his father. Following the success of his very elegant short stories, available in two collected editions, The Saucer Full of Larks (1969) and The Gold in the Sea (1966), he gave up teaching and devoted himself to the theater, working in 1963 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Dancing at Lughnasa (pronounced LOO-na-sah) represents Friel’s utilization in his writing of the regional life he knows so well. Young artists are often advised to write about what they know, and Friel demonstrates just how satisfying this course can be for a much wider audience than simply the people of his home, the northern counties of Ireland, the locale in which he situates Dancing at Lughnasa and much of his writing. This geographic area and this family life become metaphors for a wider audience by far. Friel’s concern here is to show the fragility of any community and his keen awareness of the slippery quality of language as a means of communication.
The dominant metaphor in this play is the dance, a claim that becomes much clearer in a theatrical production than in a simple reading of the text. Ironically, for a wordsmith as skilled, careful, and responsible as Friel, it is the dancing in the play, as opposed to the frozen immobility of the tableaux that open and close the drama, which most makes his point about the necessity of honest communication, or connection, between and among people in any context.
Behind the action, never appearing on stage, is the pagan dancing of the Lughnasa Festival in the hills. Lugh(pronounced “Loo”) is an ancient pre-Christian, Celtic god of fertility and harvest, still honored by some of the “Christians” in Ballybeg (Gaelic for “small town”). Father Jack’s beating of rhythms with young Michael’s kite sticks supplies yet another pre-Christian art form to the mix. The radio the sisters enjoy so much is their intermittent link to the traditional Irish folk music and dance; it is also their link to the popular dance music of the time in which the play is set. Chris and Gerry dance together beautifully, though marriage is out of the question because of Gerry’s lack of reliability as a provider.
This play suggests that communities, including family communities, are under a severe threat. Many writers have extolled the virtues of local communities while failing to offer a clearer solution to prevent their erosion. Here, Friel shows the reader the doomed cottage industry of knitting and the corrosive religious prejudice from religious orthodoxy that leads to Kate’s dismissal from her teaching post because of her link to the lapsed Catholic, Father Jack. Political engagement, a thorny issue for Irish writers such as Friel, is evidently not Friel’s answer to these problems. Gerry’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War is bathetic and ridiculous; he gets his war wound from falling off his motorcycle.
For Friel, communication is evidently an important key to community at all levels. Words came dangerously close to failing in the Irish politics of the time of the play including a litany of broken treaties. What might work better, Friel suggests in this play, is the necessary trust and harmony needed to dance. Everyone in this family does dance, with the exception of Michael. As the lights are brought down finally on the stage, the tableau moves ever so slightly to the music, the mysterious source of which is not the radio: “Dancing . . . because words were no longer necessary.”