Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 662 words.)