Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel

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A central theme of Friel's play is memory. The action of the play, which takes place in the later summer of 1936, is framed as a depiction of Michael's memories of his childhood. In his closing monologue, the character of Michael as a young man explains the significance of these memories:

And so, when I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me. But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. In that memory, too, the air is nostalgic with the music of the thirties.

Friel is interested in personal memory not as a means of reproducing factual incidents, but as a means of recapturing the atmosphere of the memory. Thus, for Friel, memory is ‘‘simultaneously actual and illusory’’ because it is true to the emotional content of the memory without necessarily being true to the actual events that took place. Music is central to Friel's play because of the extent to which he associates nostalgic memories with ‘‘the music of the thirties.’’

Friel's play is concerned with the theme of change. The acquisition of the wireless radio in the Mundy household represents a turning point in the make-up of the family, as well as in rural Irish cultural history. The radio in 1936 is a newfangled technology that brings mass-produced popular culture into the home. The entry of this variety of music into the Mundy home unleashes repressed urges in the five single women who live there. The radio is also a harbinger of more significant historical and socioeconomic changes; namely, the Industrial Revolution. The opening of a knitting factory replaces the cottage industry by which Rose and Agnes had supported themselves by hand knitting at home. Kate, the oldest of the five sisters, expresses her anxiety at the realization that change is in the air:

You work hard at your job. You try to keep the home together. You perform your duties as best you can—because you believe in responsibilities and obligations and good order. And then suddenly, suddenly you realize that hair cracks are appearing everywhere; that control is slipping away; that the whole thing is so fragile it can't be held together much longer. It's all about to collapse.

This anxiety over change is also raised by the introduction of pagan practices and ideas into the Mundy home. Because she is the most resistant to change, Kate is especially dubious of the singing of pagan songs, and the explanations of pagan rituals from Uganda, which Uncle Jack describes at length.

Paganism and pagan ritual are central themes of Friel's play. The play is set during the festival of Lughnasa, a local pagan harvest ritual of which Kate is disdainful. Furthermore, Friel presents all dancing and singing, which permeate the action of the play, as a form of pagan ritual. Uncle Jack brings back from Uganda a wealth of experiences with non-Christian ceremonies and rituals, including sacrifice of animals and native dances. Kate makes the connection between paganism, or non-Christian belief, and the music brought into the household by the radio when she exclaims: ‘‘D'you know what that thing has done? Killed all Christian conversation in this country.’’ In an Act II monologue, Michael explains that Jack's recollections of his experiences in Uganda continued to bring more ‘‘revelations’’ regarding pagan rituals and ceremonies. Michael explains that ‘‘each new revelation startled—shocked—stunned poor Aunt Kate.’’ But Kate makes some peace with Jack's expressions of paganism when she ‘‘finally hit on the phrase that appeased her: ‘his own distinctive spiritual search.’’’ Friel seems to be celebrating such a personal ‘‘distinctive spiritual search,’’ as expressed through the pagan rituals of music, song, and dance by the various characters.

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