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 the...
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