DANCING AT LUGHNASAby BRIAN FRIEL Introduction Brian Friel Biography Characters A Brief Summary Themes and Criticism
Introduction Dancing at Lughnasa opens with a monologue by Michael,who introduces his nostalgic memories of the summer of 1936. He is seven at that time and the five Mundy sisters living together have just acquired their first wireless radio. Dancing at Lughnasa belongs to the contemporary Irish Drama period.
Anglo-Irish precedents With the collapse of the Gaelic social and political order at the beginning of the seventeenth century,the cultural traditions of Ireland were abandoned.Until the end of the nineteenth century,the only contacts with the ancient civilization available were relatively inaccessible relics in the folklore of the countryside and manuscript rooms of the museums and academies.
Therefore,it is not surprising that although many of the most distinguished dramatists writing in English between 1700 and 1900 were born in Ireland,their works were written according to the idiom and conventions of the English stage. During all this period and until the nineteenth century,the most visible feature of the drama was the convention of the stage Irishman:
A humorous character,either gentleman or peasent,whose distinctive features were his outrageous dialect,proclivity to “Irish bulls” (blunders in speech or logic) and pugnacious disposition. This caricature like character has many variants such as “soldier,priest,gentleman, fortune hunter,servant…”.
Irish National Drama By the late nineteenth century,the Irish Literary Renaissance had introduced to the stage the resources of Ireland’s long- neglected cultural tradition.The father of this movement was the poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899,which became the showpiece of the national literary movement: Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
Although this group had a diversity of talents, sensibilities and inclinations,they agreed on the necessity to replace the caricature of Irish life on stage with serious and authentic drama which would be popular yet not ruled by political orthodoxies and they committed themselves to the experimentation with an imaginative and poetic drama that would harness the heroic legend to the demands of the modern stage.
Contemporary Irish Drama A significant development of the period has been the appearance of a considerable body work for the stage by dramatists from Northern Ireland whose work reflects both the social disruption caused by the political violence and the questions of political and cultural identity provoked by the physical confrontations on the streets.
Brian Friel Biography Friel was born in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland on 9 January 1929.His father was a teacher and when Friel was ten,the family moved to Londonderry where his father became the principal at Long Tower School. Friel at first thought of becoming a priest but he abandoned his plans to enter the priesthood and entered St.Joseph’s Teacher Training College in Belfast.
From 1950 to 1960,Friel worked as a teacher during which time many of his short stories were published. Friel quit teaching in 1960 to become a full-time writer of short stories,radio plays and stage plays. In 1980,Friel founded the Field Day Theatre Company in Northern Ireland along with Stephen Rea and produced works of social and political significance.
Friels Major Works Philadelphia,Here I Come Crystal and Fox The Freedom of the City Volunteers Translations Dancing At Lughnasa Molly Sweeney
Characters Uncle Jack Agnes Mundy Chris Mundy Kate Mundy Maggie Mundy Rose Mundy Michael Mundy as the narrator and the child Michael
Uncle Jack (Jack Mundy) Jack is fifty-three and he is the brother of the five women.He spent twenty-five years as a missionary priest in Uganda and he has recently returned to Ireland,sick with malaria. He can not keep the names of his sisters straight and has difficulty in remembering English words. The character of Uncle Jack highlights Friel’s theme of paganism.
Agnes Mundy She is thirty-five and is the middle of the five sisters.she knits to support them. After a knitting factory opens in their town,the sisters lose their jobs and Agnes,together with Rose,leave the family home,never to return.Michael locates her in London where she has died after 25 years.
Chris Mundy Chris is twenty-six and the youngest of the five sisters.Her son,Michael, was born out of wedlock,her love child with Gerry Evans. Chris is repeatedly taken in by Gerry’s unreliable promises.Gerry jokes with her,makes her laugh and frequently breaks into a dance with her.
Kate Mundy Kate is the oldest of the five sisters.She is forty years old and was once a schoolteacher.She is the most resistant to the changes taking place around her and especially critical of the pagan singing and dancing.
Maggie Mundy Maggie,thirty-eight,is the second oldest of the five sisters and works as the cook and housekeeper of their home.Michael describes his Aunt Maggie as “the joker of the family”.
Rose Mundy She is thirty-two and the second youngest sister.She works knitting to support the family.Rose is in love with Danny Bradley, a married man with three children.
Gerry Evans Gerry is thirty-three and he is the father of the illegitimate son Michael.Gerry appears every year or so and Chris is charmed by him all over again each time.Gerry is unreliable and has a new idea for a career path with each visit.
Michael Mundy Michael,as a young man,functions as a narrator and describes the action of the play through direct monologue to the audience. The child michael in the flashbacks is making and painting a series of kites.Only toward the end of the play are his paintings displayed to the audience.
Brief Summary/Act I Act I is set on a warm day in early August, 1936,in the home of Mundy family,two miles outside the village of Ballybeg,County Donegal,Ireland. The play opens with a monologue by Michael’s memory of the summer when he was seven.The family have just acquired a new radio.
In addition to the arrival of the radio, Michael’s uncle Jack has returned home from Uganda. The action of the play opens as the five sisters do chores while breaking into singing and dancing,inspired by their new radio. Agnes suggests that they all attend the upcoming local harvest dance,to which Maggie,Rose and Chris respond enthusiastically.Act I ends with Uncle Jack’s re-enacting a ritual dance from Uganda.
Act II The act takes place in early september,three weeks later.The women are doing chores,the little boy is making kites.After one of his annual walks of the day,Uncle Jack describes a ritual ceremony in Uganda that he participated in,which included the sacrifice of animals. In the meantime,Rose returns from a boat ride with Danny Bradley.
The adult Michael then provides a long monologue that explains the fate of all characters.Agnes and Rose leaves the family and never returns;Uncle Jack dies of a heart attack. The scene returns to the kitchen in September,1936,where women are doing chores.The kites with the primitive faces on them are presented to the audience.
The adult Michael ends with a monologue in which he states that “much of the spirit and fun had gone out of their lives;and when my time came to go away,in the selfish way of young men,I was happy to escape”.Michael tells the significance of music and dance to his nostalgic memories of the summer of 1936.
Themes and Criticism Memory Change Paganism Music Dancing,rituals and history
Memory 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.
Change The acquisition of the wireless radio in 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 culture into the home.The radio is also a harbinger of more significant historical and socioeconomic changes;namely the Industrial Revolution.
Paganism Pagan ritual and paganism are central themes of friel’s play.He presents all dancing and singing as a form of pagan ritual. Kate makes the connection between paganism,or non-Christian belief, and the music brought into the house by the radio when she claims : “D’you know what the thing has done?Killed all Christian conversation in this country”.
Music Music is a central theme of the play.The radio represents an agent of change in Mundy family. Music is associated with the pagan or non- Christian rituals.
Criticism 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”.Andrew goes on to conclude that “Thus,Lughnasa is traditionally associated with sexual awakening,rebirth…”
Michael’s father Gerry embodies the free- spirited,pagan rituals of song and dance. ”This country is graophone crazy” tells Gerry to Chris.In the play,Gerry’s mention of gramophone links his character to the pagan rituals of popular song and dance inspired by newly developed technologies.
References to Hollywood movie stars known for their song and dance routines are link between the medium of mass-produced popular culture to pagan spirit of song and dance in the Mundy family.
At various points,characters sing lyrics from the famous Hollywood musical “Anything Goes” which features songs by the composer Cole Porter.Porter was known for his nontraditional relationships,such as open homosexuality in conjunction with his open marriage to a wealthy divorcee.
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 famous song lyrics. It is this free-spirited quality that Friel associates with the pagan ritual of song and dance.
Long-ago suitors and missed chances at love hang in the air like ghosts.The women discuss attending the festival,which none of them have gone to for years,but which was once the site of much youthful revelry.In dancing,they find a sense of release and belonging,which resembles religious ecstacy.
Religion functions more as a set of rules and admonishments than as a source of strength and spiritual renewal.It’s not the faith but the ceremony they yearn for.Uncle Jack suggests that in the realm of the ritual, spoken language is unnecessary.
Like the Celtic-inspired dance the Mundy sisters burst into very often,ritual traanscends language and intellect.Words do not convey meaning of the past and today all together and can not go beyond the superficial reality. The play ends with Michael’s vivid memory of dancing as if language had surrendered to movement.This wordless ceremony was now the new way to speak.
Movement is the new way to whisper private and sacred things,to be in touch with some otherness.This is a play about growing up,the transition from innocence to experience. The play enacts an ideal balance-between narration and enactment,the rational and irrational,language and music,the religious and the secular,past and present.
To live in one sphere alone is inadequate. Not only belief but also history should be regarded from different point of views,the theatre should renew and reveal and it’s a rejection of “fossilised history”. The End