Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel

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The Motif of Song and Dance in Friel's Play

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Song and dance are major motifs of Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. They symbolize the play's central thematic concerns with paganism and societal change. The instrument of change in the Mundy household is the acquisition of the family's first wireless radio. The presence of the radio, which functions only sporadically, inspires in the Mundy sisters a spirit of freedom and expressiveness heretofore repressed within their traditional Irish Catholic household. The setting of the play during Ireland's pagan tradition of the Festival of Lughnasa provides a backdrop of pagan dance, music, and ritual, which is (inadvertently) inspired in the Mundy sisters by the radio. Throughout the play, various characters spontaneously break into song and dance, more often than not, at times when the radio itself is broken. Various references to the technology that made possible the spread of popular musical culture to a mass audience, such as the radio and gramophone, are included. References to American movie stars, such as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple, and Mae West, known for their song and dance routines, as well as references to specific song lyrics from Broadway and Hollywood musicals, elaborate the play's central thematic concerns.

Act I of Friel's play takes place during a Festival of Lughnasa, in rural Ireland. Elmer Andrews explains that Lughnasa “was one of the four major pre-Christian, Celtic festivals.... Basically a harvest festival, Lughnasa was celebrated over fifteen days in honour of the god Lugh, one of the most important Irish gods.’’ Andrews goes on to conclude that “Thus, Lughnasa is traditionally associated with sexual awakening, rebirth, continuances....’’ Andrews points out that ‘‘These motifs of sexual awakening and magical transformation are central to Friel's play.” Furthermore, the association of the ritual of Lughnasa with pagan song and dance is significant within the play because the sexual awakening of the Mundy sisters is inspired by the similarly pagan music emanating from their newly acquired radio.

In Friel's play, changes in both family dynamics and traditional Irish culture are represented by the arrival of the Mundy family's first wireless radio in 1936. The Mundy sisters dub their new radio, “Marconi because that was the name emblazoned on the set.’’ A brief history of radio broadcasting helps to put this key element of the play into a broader context. The first radio broadcast was transmitted in the United States in 1906, and included music, poetry, and a talk. The first radio station, however, was not founded until 1921, but soon led to the opening of many other radio stations across the United States. In the United Kingdom, the first radio broadcast, which was transmitted from Ireland, was not made until 1919. Throughout the early 1920s, the opening of radio stations, and the acquisition of radios in private homes, spread rapidly throughout the world. In the United Kingdom, the Post Office banned non-government-sponsored radio broadcasts until 1921, when it granted the Marconi Company the right to broadcast for fifteen minutes per week. In 1922 the Marconi House established a radio station in London. Radio broadcasts were regulated in the United Kingdom, beginning in 1922, by the British Broadcasting Company, until 1927, when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a public regulatory organization under the supervision of Parliament, took its place. The presence of the Marconi brand radio in Friel's play links technological advances to the spread of popular culture (in the form of music), which inspires the performance of pagan rituals of song and dance in a spiritually repressed family and society.

Michael's father, Gerry Evans, who stops by the Mundy household every few years to visit Chris, Michael's mother, embodies...

(This entire section contains 2050 words.)

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the free-spirited, pagan rituals of song and dance. Gerry tells Chris that he has gotten a job selling gramophones. ‘‘This country is gramophone crazy,’’ Gerry tells Chris. “People thought gramophones would be a thing of the past when radios came in. But they were wrong.” The gramophone was an early phonograph player, which eventually developed into the modern hi-fi record player, and has, since the 1980s, given way to the compact disk player. The first phonograph recording can be dated to Thomas Edison's experimental success at recording onto a wax cylinder in 1877. In 1887, Emile Berliner patented the gramophone, which utilized a disk for phonographic recording. In 1898, a branch of the Gramophone Company was established in London, and eventually branches spread throughout Europe. In the 1890s, phonograph recordings were a novelty of public entertainment, but by the 1910s, phonographs were popular in private homes. The popularity of the newly developed radio in the mid-1920s, however, resulted in a significant decline in popularity of phonographs. But in the early 1930s, several mergers reinvigorated the industry. In Friel's play, Gerry's mention of, and association with, the gramophone links his character to the pagan rituals of popular song and dance inspired by newly developed technologies of mass culture, such as the gramophone.

Thus, in Friel's play, while technological advances in the form of the newly erected knitting factory result in the death of tradition (in the form of the cottage industry of knitting), technological advances in the form of radio broadcast and mass-produced music reproduction inspire a mass audience to get back in touch with traditional pagan expressions of spirituality through song and dance.

Friel's play makes reference to the famous dance duo of classic Hollywood musicals, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In Act I, after the five Mundy sisters break out into a frenzied song and dance, inspired by music from the radio, Maggie lights a cigarette and says, ‘‘I’ll tell you something, girls: this Ginger Rogers has seen better days.’’ In Act II, toward the end of the play, Michael explains in monologue that, “The last time I saw [my father] was dancing down the lane in imitation of Fred Astaire, swinging his walking stick, Uncle Jack's tricorn at a jaunty angle over his left eye.’’ Fred Astaire (1899-1987) and Ginger Rogers (1911-1995) became an enormously popular dance duo in Hollywood's musical comedies throughout the 1930s, beginning with their first film together, Down to Rio, in 1933. Subsequent Astaire-Rogers films included The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Swing Time (1936). During the time in which Friel's play is set—1936—Astaire and Rogers would have been well known for their song-and-dance routines both in these films and through the mass marketing of recorded music and radio broadcasts.

In Act II, Gerry first dances with Agnes, then asks Chris to dance with him. When she refuses, Maggie enthusiastically blurts out, ‘‘I’ll dance with you, Gerry!” In preparation to dance, Maggie kicks off her shoes, saying, ‘‘Stand back there, girls. Shirley Temple needs a lot of space.’’ Shirley Temple (born 1928) was an enormously popular child movie star during the 1930s, known for her tap-dancing routines that were accompanied by song and music. Perhaps her most famous routine is ‘‘On the Good Ship Lollipop,’’ and some of her better known films include The Little Colonel (1935), and Wee Willie Winkie (1937). It is significant that Maggie associates herself with both Ginger Rogers and Shirley Temple, as her character seems to embrace, perhaps more so than some of the other sisters, the pagan spirit of song-and-dance.

References to Hollywood movie stars known for their song-and-dance routines are just one link between the medium of mass-produced popular culture to the pagan spirit of song-and-dance that preoccupies the Mundy household in Friel's play.

At various points in the play, characters sing lyrics from ‘‘Anything Goes,’’ the title song of the Broadway musical, Anything Goes (1934), which features songs by the famous musical composer Cole Porter (1892-1964). Porter composed an incredible string of hit musicals for both Broadway, including Gay Divorcee (1932), Anything Goes, Red, Hot and Blue (1934), and Silk Stockings (1955). Many of these were adapted to the screen and became hit Hollywood musicals as well, including Anything Goes in 1936, which starred Astaire and Rogers. Many popular hit songs emerged from Porter's successes on the stage and screen, including ‘‘I Get a Kick out of You,” “I've Got You Under My Skin,” and “Just One of Those Things,” as well as ‘‘Anything Goes.’’ In addition to his association with the popular entertainment forms of Broadway and Hollywood musicals, Cole Porter was known for his nontraditional relationships, such as his open homosexuality in conjunction with his open marriage to a wealthy divorcee. (A musical tribute to Cole Porter was compiled in the 1990 album release, Red, Hot, and Blue, which features Cole Porter songs as performed by various pop musicians.) Reference to a song by Porter in Friel's play indirectly invokes the free-spirited lifestyle that Porter led, as well as the free-spirited sexual implications of his famously risqué song lyrics. It is this free-spirited quality that Friel associates with the pagan ritual of song and dance.

The specific lyrics to the song “Anything Goes,” sung by characters in Friel's play, further develop the themes of popular culture both supplanting tradition and inspiring paganistic spirituality. While dancing with Agnes, Gerry sings several stanzas from ‘‘Anything Goes’’:

In olden times a glimpse of stocking Was looked on as something shocking … anything goes.

Good authors, too, who once knew better words Now only use four-letter words Writing prose, Anything goes.

If driving fast cars you like, If low bars you like, If old hymns you like, If bare limbs you like, If Mae West you like, Or me undressed you like, Why, nobody will oppose.

When ev'ry night, the set that's smart is in— 'truding in nudist parties in Studios, Anything goes.

These lyrics pick up on several key motifs and central themes of Friel's play. The basic gist of the song is that social morals in the modern world have loosened to such a great extent that ‘‘anything goes’’—particularly, open expressions of sexuality are referred to in the song as characteristic of changing times: ‘‘a glimpse of stocking,’’ exposing a woman's leg; the use of “four-letter words” even in print; even nudity, as indicated by the phrases ‘‘me undressed’’ and ‘‘nudist parties.’’ These changing times are also associated with the development of modern technology, as referred to in the song through the mention of ‘‘fast cars.’’ In Friel's play, as well, the release of sexual repression and other pagan impulses as a result of changing times is associated with the development of modern technology in the form of the radio. This is significant in that the five Mundy sisters, at the beginning of the play, are characterized by a deep sexual repression that is only unleashed with the arrival of popular music via the radio.

The reference to Mae West (1893-1980) in Cole Porter's lyrics furthers develops the focus of the song on outward sexual expression as an acceptable facet of modern times. Mae West is best known for her outward display of female sexuality on both the Broadway stage during the 1920s, and in Hollywood movies during the 1930s. On Broadway, West was given greater artistic freedom, and became enormously popular for the character Diamond Lil, whom she created through a musical that she both wrote and starred in. The degree of controversy aroused by West is indicated by her arrest in 1926 for her role as a prostitute in her play Sex. After her film debut in 1932, West became equally popular and controversial for her Hollywood movies, such as She Done Him Wrong (1933), I'm No Angel (1933), and Belle of the Nineties (1934), in which her characters were often based on Diamond Lil. West became a target of Catholic organizations pushing for greater censorship in Hollywood movies, a battle that they effectively won with the institution and enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. West was especially known, on both stage and screen, for her sexual innuendoes, as expressed in her musical numbers, dialogue, and bodily gestures. The significance of a reference to West in Friel’s play is to invoke the image of a woman famous for her outward expression of female sexuality as a means of contrast to the sexually repressed Mundy sisters. West’s risqué expression of sexuality through her song-and-dance numbers once again suggests that the Mundy sisters experience a form of sexual awakening through song and dance.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

The Importance of Ceremony and Ritual

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Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, written in 1990, surrounds the lives of five grown sisters in rural Ireland in 1936. Though the eldest sister, Kate, struggles to maintain a hard-working, god-fearing Catholic household, Ireland's pagan origins beckon constantly, and the tension between the two ideologies threatens the family's already tenuous harmony. The characters have many unrequited longings (such as romantic love and material possessions) but the lack of religious or spiritual ritual is conspicuous.

Brian Friel was born the son of a Catholic teacher in County Tyrone, Ireland in 1929. He is known not only as a playwright but also as a theatre director and a short story writer. He now lives in County Donegal, which is also the setting for Dancing at Lughnasa.

The five Mundy sisters keep chickens and knit gloves to support themselves. Kate, the oldest sister, earns the only steady wage in the household as a schoolteacher. Economic hardship and isolation are taken for granted. The only males present are Michael, age seven, the son of Chris (the youngest sister), and Father Jack, the Mundy sisters' only brother, a priest who has just returned from a twenty-five year mission in Africa.

Lughnasa is not a place, as the title might suggest, but a pagan festival of the harvest, complete with roaring bonfires, ritual chants, and animal sacrifice. The fires of Lughnasa seem to burn off in the distance throughout the play; we're always aware of their presence. The Mundy household, though, is not a place where such revelry is enjoyed. Not only is it limping along financially, but sibling relationships are strained to a breaking point. Kate, as the eldest and the wage-earner, feels obliged to be the arbiter of everyone else's moral conduct. This positioning of the sisters is clear from the first scene, when Chris muses that she might begin wearing lipstick, and Agnes retorts, ‘‘As long as Kate’s not around. Do you want to make a pagan of yourself ?” All things forbidden are associated with paganism.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play. Our window into this world is provided by Michael. He appears to us as an adult and takes us through the story like a narrator, but also plays the role of the seven-year-old Michael, making us ever aware that we are looking backward into childhood through the eyes of an adult.

The play opens with a monologue by Michael, in which he prepares us for the world we are about to enter. He explains that this is the summer his Uncle Jack, whom he had never before met, came home from Africa. He tells us that this is also the summer the family got their first wireless radio set. The set is less than reliable, but its effect on the household is dramatic. His mother and aunts have launched a spontaneous dance in the kitchen, something Michael has never seen before. Michael explains that the radio has been named like a family pet; first Lugh, after the Celtic God of the harvest, but that name was nixed by the pious Kate and they finally just called it Marconi (the name stamped on the front of the set). Though he’s only seven, he's somehow aware that the life he has come to know is on the verge of change: “I know I had a sense of unease, some awareness of a widening breach between what seemed to be and what was, of things changing too quickly before my eyes, of becoming what they ought not to be.’’

Almost as an afterthought, Michael explains that this was the summer his father Gerry came home for a brief visit. This event seems no more or no less important than the arrival of the wireless in his memory.

While Michael delivers his speech, he flies a kite, and the other characters stand behind him in a formal tableau. A tableau can freeze the world of the play and its characters like a painting. The use of tableau at the opening of the play also underscores the concept of the memory play. The characters are frozen in the midst of an activity that well represents them, much as the mind can capture a long-ago memory in a kind of single-frame snapshot. In this case, Father Jack (Michael’s Uncle) and Gerry (Michael’s father) are dressed in ceremonial uniforms. We learn that Father Jack was a chaplain in the military, and that Gerry is on his way to join the war in Spain. In this memory tableau, their uniforms might suggest the occasional (and mythic) role of men in Michael’s life.

The Marconi, again, is unreliable, flickering on and off without warning. So, it seems, is Father Jack’s conscious grasp on reality. Twenty-five years in Africa (first as a military chaplain, then as a missionary priest in a leper colony) have left him physically weak and mentally unhinged. His return has had an uneasy affect on everyone. Michael, who has heard Father Jack described in resplendent terms, is disappointed and confused by the first sight of his wasted, disoriented uncle. Jack seems to forget where he is rather easily, which unnerves his tightly wrapped sister Kate. He refers to Michael (whose parents are not married) as a “love-child” and says that in Africa it’s good to have ‘‘love-children”; he goes so far as to encourage the other sisters to have one too. Jack often slips and refers to his sisters by the name of his African houseboy. But most unsettling is the fact that he seems to have come to regard the African rituals he witnessed (and participated in) for several decades as perfectly harmless and commonplace, giving no offense to his Catholic sensibilities. Father Jack’s level of comfort with paganism is ultimately a catalyst to the household’s disintegration.

The sisters have a kind of marriage (to each other), and have worn comfortable (if unsatisfying) grooves into their daily lives. Agnes and Rose earn a little money by knitting gloves, until eventually they're put out of business by a nearby factory. Maggie's job seems to be to keep the peace and make everyone laugh. Kate's role resembles that of an iron-fisted patriarch. She earns the wages and makes the rules. Agnes, along with her knitting, takes care of the house and does the cooking. Though all the women seem to help, it's clear that Agnes is relied upon to make sure it all gets done, and that Rose is her right hand. It's clear, also, that she feels taken for granted by Kate. Agnes finally says, ‘‘What you have here, Kate, are two unpaid servants.’’ Agnes and Kate bicker like an unhappily married couple whose union is one of necessity. The forces pulling them apart are stronger than those holding them together.

Chris is the youngest of the sisters, and is also Michael’s mother. When Michael’s father arrives unexpectedly to see Chris, all the other sisters are as watchful and protective as young parents on their teenage daughter’s first date. Kate is sure that Gerry is going to break Chris’ heart again, and furious that he does not contribute financially to his son’s upbringing. While some of the other sisters have affection for him, all are wary of the effect Gerry will have on their lives. For his part, Gerry is casual about his comings and goings, and is completely out of touch with his son, to the point where he invents a reality for Michael. He asks Chris how Michael is enjoying school, and when Chris tells him that Michael doesn’t have much to say about it, Gerry quickly replies, ‘‘He loves it. He adores it. They all love school nowadays.’’ It’s clear that though Gerry feels a guilty twinge here and there, he feels no real sense of obligation, and has no moral dilemma telling Chris that he’ll be gone again for an indeterminate period. Gerry and his son have no shared memories, no family traditions, no father-son rituals.

The women have created a home, something solid and constant. It’s a place for Father Jack to come home to, and a place for Michael to grow up. Gerry seems quite comfortable abandoning the care of his son not just to Chris, but to the household created by Chris and her sisters. But of course this home is not as stable as it seems.

Rose, who is thought of as “simple,” is constantly alluding to her fascination with a certain man in town named Danny Bradley, a man of whom all the sisters disapprove. Danny is a married father of three, and Rose’s assertion that his wife has left and gone to England does little to reassure her sisters. Though she’s not the youngest, Rose is the innocent of the family, and it seems that any man who preyed upon her would arouse the family’s suspicions.

Meanwhile, the lack of male companionship has created an almost palpable sense of longing in the house. Long-ago suitors and missed chances at love hang in the air like ghosts. At one point, the women discuss attending the annual harvest dance, which none of them have gone to in years, but which was once the site of much youthful revelry. Briefly, the women enjoy a discussion of what they will wear and how much they love to dance. Kate, though momentarily swayed by the idea, forbids them all from attending, complaining that household expenses demand any extra money that would be spent on frivolities such as dances and fixing the wireless. It’s dancing, though, that transcends their differences. In dancing, they find a sense of release and of belonging, which resembles religious ecstasy.

Kate denies herself everything she denies her sisters. The one man in town who seems to interest her, Austin Morgan, the shopkeeper, marries someone else. Kate is held together by work and a sense of order and obligation. All this begins to unravel when she loses her job (the implication being that Jack’s African rantings do not befit a Catholic schoolteacher's household) and finally when Agnes and Rose leave home.

Throughout the play, the sisters discuss the Lughnasa festival that they know only from rumor. A local boy has been burned in the bonfire. How did it happen? Are animals actually sacrificed? Kate forbids discussion of the ceremonies but curiosity still hovers. Though the women appear to be practicing Catholics, there is a conspicuous lack of religious ritual in their lives. Religion functions more as a set of rules and admonishments than as a source of strength and spiritual renewal. Perhaps it’s not the faith they yearn for, but the ceremony.

Father Jack tells of animal sacrifices in Africa. He struggles to describe the rituals and finds himself at a loss for words. He has to grope for the word “ceremony.” He suggests that in the realm of ritual, spoken language is unnecessary. Like the Celtic-inspired dance that the Mundy sisters seem ready to burst into at any moment, ritual transcends language and intellect. ‘‘Coming back in the boat there were days when I couldn’t remember even the simplest words,’’ he says. ‘‘Not that anybody seemed to notice.’’

In the final scene, Father Jack emerges in the uniform he wore in the opening tableau, but now it is worn and soiled. He hands off his hat to Gerry. Michael's kites have primitive, mask-like faces on them, suggesting that something pagan has taken hold for Michael to carry into the next generation. In his final speech, Michael talks about the disintegration of the household, and of his own departure: “In the selfish way of young men, I was happy to escape.’’

Like all the men before him, he can come and go without a sense of obligation. But Michael is self-aware and can name his own selfishness. He's also able to name the importance of ceremony and ritual, the dancing that his mother and aunts have denied themselves. The play ends with dance music reverberating over a dark stage. The music has the final word.

Source: Leah Ryan, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Leah Ryan is a writer and a teacher of dramatic writing with an MFA in playwriting.

The Characters in Dancing at Lughnasa

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Friel’s play is set in 1936, in the months when De Valera was drawing up his Catholic Constitution for a Catholic people. ‘Will you vote for De Valera, will you vote?’ sings Maggie to Rose’s song about Abyssinia. These women are the victims of an oppressively Catholic ethos, shortly to be enshrined in a Constitution which recognised ‘the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society’ and ‘the special position of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church as the guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of its citizens’. Responding to a demand in the country at the time for traditional Catholic social teaching in matters of marriage and family law, the Free State outlawed divorce, contraception and abortion. De Valera’s programme, writes Robert Kee, was characterised by a ‘homely narrowness’ and ‘pious dogmatism’:

Conservative in social and economic outlook, paying limited attention to problems such as housing, slum clearance and social welfare in general, safely—some would say smugly—steeped in the orthodox moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church of that day, it offered little in the way of inspiration to the young. Emigration, so long held by nationalists to have been one of the evils of English rule and to have been caused by the lack of freedom, continued. A strict literary censorship banned at different times almost all the best modern writers, including Irish ones.

Terence Brown refers to ‘an almost Stalinist antagonism to modernism, to surrealism, free verse, symbolism and the modern cinema’, which combined with ‘prudery (the 1930s saw opposition to paintings of nudes being exhibited in the National Gallery in Dublin) and a deep reverence for the Irish past’. Summarising the attitude of Irish writers of the 1930s and 1940s, Brown continues:

Instead of de Valera’s Gaelic Eden, the writers revealed a mediocre, dishevelled, often neurotic and depressed petit-bourgeois society that atrophied for want of a liberating idea. O’Faolain’s image for it, as it was James Joyce’s before him, is the entire landscape of Ireland shrouded in snow: ‘under that white shroud, covering the whole of Ireland, life was lying broken and hardly breathing.’

The repressive Catholic ethos may have helped to consolidate a sense of identity, but it certainly left little room either for modernism and cosmopolitan standards or for the instinctual needs of ordinary people or for the least remnants of ‘pagan’ tradition....

Kate objects to levity, playfulness and novelty for they are threats to her fragile order. The hair cracks, we recognise early on, are caused not just by external forces over which the sisters have no control, but by equally unruly forces within the family itself, within consciousness (even Kate’s). The greater the effort of repression, it would seem, the stronger the insurrectionary pressures. The great merit of the play is the unmistakable tension which we feel between the very human desire for order and stability and the equally strong desire for excitement and new experience. This tension has various forms. On one level, it is a struggle between Christianity and paganism, on another, it is the challenge offered to civilised value by an irruption of repressed libidinal energy, at yet another, it is the harassment of the symbolic order of ‘ordinary’ language and fixed structure by a semiotic force outside language which disrupts all stable meanings and institutions.

Dancing is the play’s central image for a contravention and violation of ‘normal’ reality. It is Friel’s new expression of the secret life which before he had represented verbally (in the character of, say, Private Gar) but which we know in actuality never formulates itself in words, even in the mind. The dancing is the play’s chief ‘opening’ activity which is disturbing because it represents a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the usual routine, a ritualised suspension of everyday law and order. In the repressive climate of the 1930s, dancing was regarded with some suspicion as representing a species of moral decadence and a threat to the morals of the nation’s youth. These puritanical attitudes were reflected in the Public Dancehalls’ Act of 1953 which required licensing of dance-halls. This pleased rural businessmen and the clergy for it did away with open-air dancing at crossroads and dances held in private houses. But it was a measure which contributed to the dying out of many traditional customs, though ironically the government which enacted it was officially pledged to a revival of Irish folklore and Irish traditional music and dancing.

When Agnes suggests that the sisters all go to the harvest dance, Rose quickly launches into ‘a bizarre and abandoned dance’ while Kate ‘panics’....

In reacting to the dancing as she does, Kate is reacting to the id, to the assertion of the spermatic principle, the free imagination, the buried impulse. She represents the repressive force of Christianity inhibiting full and free embracement of this primitive, pagan, secret life of Pan. ‘Just look at yourselves!’ she shouts at her sisters, ‘Dancing at your time of day. That’s for young people with no duties and no responsibilities and nothing in their heads but pleasure’. In Kate’s eyes, dancing is ‘pagan’, associated with a kind of sexual freedom which contravenes her strict Catholicism: ‘Mature women dancing? What’s come over you all? And this is Father Jack’s home—we must never forget that’.

Later, when Irish dance music comes over the radio, Kate’s remonstrations are ignored by all the other sisters who, one by one, succumb to the music’s strange enchantment. Friel comments that ‘there is a sense of order being consciously subverted’. Their dancing, as Julia Cruickshank notes, is both an expression of individual identity and an affirmation of collectivity, the five sisters dancing as a family but still preserving their own distinctive personalities. Maggie’s features ‘become animated by a look of defiance’ and she emits ‘a wild, raucous ‘‘Yaaaah!’’’. She draws her flour-covered hand down her cheek, patterning her face ‘with an instant mask’. Described as a ‘white-faced, frantic dervish’, she is associated with the Ryangan natives amongst whom Father Jack has lived and who paint their faces with coloured powders and then ‘dance—and dance—children, men, women, most of them lepers, many of them with misshapen limbs, with missing limbs’. Similarly, the Mundy sisters find momentary release from harsh reality in the ecstasy of the dance. Maggie is joined by a transfigured Rose, Agnes and Chris. Agnes moves ‘gracefully, most sensuously’ while Rose dances wildly, her ‘wellingtons pounding out their own erratic rhythm’. Eventually, even Kate, who has been watching the scene with unease, suddenly leaps to her feet, flings her head back, and utters a loud ‘Yaaaah!’. Kate, the most repressed of the sisters, dances alone. Her dancing, we are told, is ‘ominous of some deep and true emotion’, but it is ‘totally concentrated, totally private’. When the music stops, the sisters selfconsciously and awkwardly recollect themselves, and the old routines are resumed....

The pagan connotations of the sisters’ dancing is emphasised by relating it to the dancing which is a part of the festival of Lughnasa taking place in the ‘back hills’. The play, that is, concerns itself with the collective as well as personal memory. Just as the sisters’ dancing expresses their individual private feelings so the dancing in the ‘back hills’ is the manifestation of a hidden, submerged culture which neither colonial influence nor Christian teaching has been able to extinguish. When Maggie and Rose first break into song—the appropriately exotic ‘Abyssinia’ song—and dance around the kitchen, Agnes’s comments again playfully echo Kate: ‘A right pair of pagans the two of you’. Rumours of what has been going on at the Lughnasa festivities infiltrate the Mundy household. Kate, the guardian of Christian value, is appalled when she hears the story of how a local boy has been badly injured when, during the drinking and dancing, he fell into the bonfire. Young Sweeney becomes her prime example of the dire consequences of yielding to ‘pagan’ and dissolute impulses and letting slip the properties of civilised order. The boy’s name links him with the ancient Irish archetype of pagan disobedience and impiety, the legendary Sweeney who defied the Christian authorities and was punished by being condemned to fly around like a bird for the rest of his life. Young Sweeney is a denizen of the ‘back hills’, the pagus, the wilderness beyond the bounds of civilisation. It is to these same ‘back hills’ that the sinister Danny Bradley later takes Rose courting. Kate claims to know the people who live there: ‘And they’re savages! I know those people from the back hills! I’ve taught them! Savages—that’s what they are!’

Any good reference work on Irish myth and legend will provide information about the meaning and origins of ‘Lughnasa’. It was one of the four major pre-Christian, Celtic festivals, the others being Oimelc, Samhain and Beltaine. Basically a harvest festival, Lughnasa was celebrated for fifteen days in honour of the god Lugh, one of the most important Irish gods. In Peter Berresford Ellis’ A Dictionary of Irish Mythology we find that Lugh, cognate with Welsh Lleu and Gaulish Lugos, was a sun god, known for the splendour of his countenance, and god of all arts and crafts. Over the years this mighty god’s image diminished in popular folk memory until he was simply known as ‘Lugh-chromain’, which became Anglicised as Leprechaun....

The dancing in the play is associated not only with the pagan festival of Lughnasa but also with African tribal rituals. As Cruickshank observes, the Celtic and Ryangan worlds are both small, neglected communities on the fringes of civilisation; both are ex-colonies, both are cultures rich in dance and ritual. Jack admires the Ryangan ‘capacity for fun, for laughing, for practical jokes—they’ve such open hearts! In some respect they’re not unlike us’. And so, like the Sweeney boy, Jack has ‘gone native’, attracted by ancient ritual and wordless ceremony. Jack’s lapse from Christian orthodoxy is synonymous with his loss of language ( ‘My vocabulary has deserted me’), the primary tool of the rational western mind. What Jack particularly values in Ryangan culture is the fact that there is ‘no distinction between the secular and the religious’. The Ryangans allow the spiritual and the sensual to interpenetrate each other: ‘almost imperceptibly the religious ceremony ends and the community celebration takes over’. Ryangan primitivism emphasises both the sensuous and the communal life. In Ryanga ‘women are eager to have love children’, Jack informs a horrified Kate who earlier, we may recall, sought to discourage Chris’s participation in the festival dance by reminding her of her maternal role: ‘You have a seven-year-old child. Have you forgotten that?’. Like Father Chris, the returned missioner in the early play, The Blind Mice, Jack is forced to reassess conventional piety in the light of his experience of the ‘alien’ and the ‘Other’. Repatriated to Ballybeg, he seeks to create a new, more congenial ‘home’ for himself than the one he has inherited. Michael remembers him as ‘a forlorn figure ... shuffling from room to room as if he were searching for something but couldn’t remember what’....

In the play, dancing signifies a freeing of human behaviour from predetermining norms and motivations and an attunement of the individual to his or her deepest impulses, to the rest of the group and, ultimately, to the cosmic forces symbolically (and actually) transmitted through the music on the radio, ‘Marconi’s voodoo’. It is Gerry to whom the sisters turn when their radio keeps breaking down. He is the one who tries to fix their aerial so that they can tune in again to the ‘dream music’. He is their link with the ‘Other’, with the world beyond their usual, stifling routines. He leads them out of themselves and helps them to discover the submerged parts of their own being. Not only is he a professional dancer, he is also one of the birdmen of the play, one of those adept at flying. Aloft in the sycamore tree tinkering with the radio aerial, he sways and sings, ‘‘‘He flies through the air with the greatest of ease ... That daring young man on the flying trapeze”’, while down below Agnes covers her eyes in terror, unable to watch the daredevilry of the dashing risk-taker, the ‘clown’ amongst the branches. Gerry is linked with the ancient Sweeney and, by extension, with the young pagan celebrant from the ‘back hills’. He is also linked with the boy Michael, another ‘flyer’, who throughout the play is engaged in making and trying to fly two kites. Michael’s kites are decorated with grotesquely painted, savage faces, which recall the painted faces of Jack’s Ryangan dancers. In the complex web of parallels and correspondences which we find in the play, there is a connection between flying, dancing and pagan ceremonial. All of these activities are forms of release from the tyranny of routine and the pressure of the fact. Recalling earlier ‘flying’ motifs—Cass’s ‘winged armchair’ or Manus’s ‘airplane seat’—we remain uncomfortably aware that flying can all to easily become mere avoidance, delusion, escapism....

The play would seem to emphasise lost opportunities, tragic waste, failure, a gradually diminishing life. And yet the feeling one is left with is not at all as simple as that. The play doesn’t end with the narrator’s blunt account of the ultimately tragic ends of the characters. Even knowing the destiny of his aunts, Michael remains ‘fascinated’ by the hypnotic, magical power of memory. ‘The stage is lit in a very soft, golden light so that the tableau we see is almost, but not quite, in a haze’. This is the space somewhere between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet. Life retains its aura of enchantment. The play refuses pessimism. Unlike Maggie, Michael is conscious of change—change for good as well as bad. He acknowledges the sordid deaths of Agnes and Rose, but also registers the survival of young Sweeney. In the closing tableau, ‘the characters are now in positions similar to their positions at the beginning of the play—with some changes’. Michael’s kites may never have flown in the course of the play, but they are still ‘boldly’ displayed, the savage faces on them ‘grinning’ defiantly. One of the kites stands between Gerry and Agnes, the other between Agnes and Jack, for the failure of Agnes’s flight has to be balanced by the perpetually buoyant quality of Gerry’s life and the freedom which Jack discovered. As Michael begins his final speech, Friel directs that the music—‘It is Time to Say Goodnight’—should be ‘just audible’ in the background. ‘Everybody sways very slightly from side to side—even the grinning kites. The movement is so minimal that we cannot be quite certain if it is happening or if we imagine it’. Like memory, our experience of the play itself is ambivalent. The liminal movement and sound act to undermine our sense of a solid, fixed reality. We are put in the position of Private Gar who, thinking of his childhood fishing trip with his father, ‘wonders now did it really take place or did he imagine it’. Friel explores that space between objective fact and subjective imagining, that ‘limbo’ in which, as Michael puts it, ‘everything is simultaneously actual and illusory’. Michael’s final speech powerfully asserts a ghostly presence, an ‘atmosphere ... more real than incident’, ‘a mirage of sound—a dream music’— which mesmerically leads people out of themselves, even out of the prison-house of language. The play ends with Michael’s vivid memory of ‘dancing as if language had surrendered to movement—as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness’. In his opening speech of the play, Michael speaks of a rite of passage, indicating how, on one level, this is a play about growing up, about the transition from innocence to experience: ‘I had a sense of unease, some awareness of a widening breach between what seemed to be and what was’. The stability and solidity of his childhood world have been disturbed: ‘That may have been because Uncle Jack hadn’t turned out at all like the resplendent figure in my head. Or maybe because I had witnessed Marconi’s voodoo derange those kind, sensible women and transform them into shrieking strangers’. He comes to recognise a deep mystery in life. He has seen frustration, break-up, unbearable drudgery, failure, but he also becomes aware of a force for change which, though it may threaten the ‘safe’ world of childhood, is also the ground of hope and aspiration. His final tableau rearranges the opening one and the most abiding memory he is left with is of ‘atmosphere’, of ‘dream music’, ‘dancing’—of a mysterious libidinal energy. The significance of this intuitive, illogical, level of experience is finally articulated verbally, in Michael’s powerful, lyrical closing narration.

The play enacts an ideal balance—between narration and enactment, the rational and the irrational, language and music, the religious and the secular, past and present. To live in one sphere alone is inadequate. As Julia Cruickshank observes, Rose may be the one ‘not educated out of her emotions’, but she perishes away from the security of the family. On the other hand, Kate, the one most alarmed by instinct and irrationality, makes a strenuous effort to adapt and come to terms with Jack’s ‘nativism’. Michael can’t help but be amused by her valiant struggle to accept. ‘Startled’, ‘stunned’ and ‘shocked’ as Kate is by the change in Jack, ’finally she hit on a phrase that appeased her: ‘‘his own distinctive spiritual search”, “Leaping around a fire and offering a little hen to Uka or Ito or whoever is not religion as I was taught it and indeed know it,’’ she would say with a defiant toss of her head. ‘‘But then Jack must make his own distinctive search.’’’ Ballybeg, too, is faced with the challenge of adapting to change in the form of the knitting factory. As in Translations, the community’s survival depends on its ability to move with the times. Frank Rich, the influential—even feared—New York Times critic, commenting on the success of the Abbey Theatre production of the play at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre in October 1991, concluded his review with these words of appreciation of Friel’s complex vision:

Even knowing that he (Michael) knows and what everyone knows about life’s inevitable end, he clings to his vision of his childhood, a golden end-of-summer landscape in the production’s gorgeous design, for what other antidote than illusions is there to that inescapable final sadness? Dancing at Lughnasa does not dilute that sadness—the mean, cold facts of reality, finally, are what its words are for. But first this play does exactly what theatre was born to do, carrying both its characters and audience aloft on those waves of distant music and ecstatic release that, in defiance of all language and logic, let us dance and dream just before night must fall.

If in Faith Healer Friel takes us to the very edge of the postmodern Apocalypse, in Dancing at Lughnasa he recollects himself to affirm the vitality and dialogue of individual experience even when we are aware of what the future holds. Just as Chris’s and Agnes’s dancing is not simply socialised as Gerry’s is, their story is not merely a chronicling of events. Like Father Jack’s spirituality which cannot be held by the words of the Mass, it is fluid. The ultimate image of Friel’s drama is of a space where ‘language surrendered to movement’. The almost imperceptible fluidity of the play’s closing tableau is a celebration of the power of theatre to renew and reveal, and a rejection of ‘fossilised’ history.

Source: Elmer Andrews, “Body,’’ in The Art of Brian Friel: Neither Reality Nor Dreams, St. Martin’s Press, 1995, pp. 220-234.


Critical Overview