Mundy home. Typical rural Irish farm house of the 1930’s, with a kitchen serving as a general living and working area. Not just the cooking but all domestic tasks take place here, including the knitting Agnes and Rose sell to a local merchant. The wireless radio, which the sisters have dubbed “Marconi” after the name on its front, occupies a key position; also visible are an iron range, a sturdy table, an oil lamp, and buckets for well water by the back door. As the stage directions note, these austere furnishings are mitigated by flowers, curtains, and other items. The front door opens onto a garden, underscoring the grace with which the five women eke out a living.
Ballybeg. Literally “Smalltown” in Irish, Ballybeg is the village just outside of which lies the Mundy household. Brian Friel has made Ballybeg a symbolic Irish “everytown” in several of his plays, often using it, as he does here, as a microcosm for Irish society at various points in the country’s history. As Michael says in his opening monologue, these few weeks in August, 1936, produced in him an unease, a sense of things rapidly changing. Ballybeg, then, marks the threshold between childhood innocence and adult experience for Michael. Similarly, it marks the line between two eras of modern Irish life, as the family dissolves after the sisters lose their respective livelihoods to factory mass production or to the dwindling number of students at the village school.
*Donegal. County in western Ireland; remote even by rural standards, it is one of the last places to benefit from the electrification of the country and part of the Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking region. It is known for its rough beauty, with wilderness or backwater associations, hence the lingering customs of Lughnasa, the harvest festival honoring the pagan deity Lugh. These agrarian rituals at the village’s margins are set against the approaching changes to small village life, just as the Mundy sisters’ first wireless radio represents the encroachment of the wider world upon their lives in the mid-1930’s.
Friel's early plays were performed at the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The Abbey Theatre, established in 1904, has been an important influence in the history of twentieth-century Irish drama. In 1899, the poet William Butler Yeats and other Irish writers established the Irish Literary Theatre to promote Irish dramatic works. In 1902, this organization became subsumed under the Irish National Dramatic Society, which in 1903 was renamed the Irish National Theatre Society. The Abbey Theatre was located in an old theater on Abbey Street in Dublin, thanks to the financial contribution of a wealthy Englishwoman. In 1904, it opened with a series of plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge. Synge's controversial satiric work, Playboy of the Western World, first staged at the Abbey in 1907, lead to rioting and violent protest by outraged audiences in Dublin, New York, and Philadelphia. After a period of difficulty, the Abbey Theatre became state subsidized in 1924. In the 1950s, the Abbey Theatre was destroyed in a fire, and was relocated to the Queen's Theatre, until 1966, when a new theater was built at the original location on Abbey Street.
Uganda and Swahili
In Friel's play, Michael's Uncle Jack has recently returned from twenty-five years spent as a missionary in a leper colony in Uganda. During that time, Uncle Jack spoke Swahili with the local population, and has forgotten many English words. Uganda is a country in Africa which, during the mid-nineteenth century, was subjected to ‘‘exploration,’’ first by Arab traders in search of ivory and slaves in the 1840s, and then by Egyptian and Sudanese slave traders in the 1860s. In 1856, Mutesa I became the ruler of...
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