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Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel


Dance and Dream Before Night Must Fall

Since Dancing at Lughnasa was first seen on Dublin's Abbey stage in April 1990, it has become one of the most successful and universally acclaimed plays of the decade, earning its author, director and cast the most prestigious awards in Britain, the US and Australia.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play. Michael recalls the time of the Festival of Lughnasa in 1936 when he was seven years of age and lived with his mother and her four sisters in Ballybeg in Donegal. The play in more than one way marks a culmination and new departure point for Ireland's leading playwright Brian Friel. Never before did a play of Friel's focus so centrally on women. In Dancing at Lughnasa the men remain on the margins. The five Mundy sisters are centre-stage. Remarkable women characters Friel may have written when we think of Cass in The Loves of Cass McGuire (1966), Lily in The Freedom of the City (1973), Maire in Translations (1980), or Mabel in Making History (1988), to name but a few. Yet never before has he so consciously and successfully balanced out the "male gaze" - his male writer's perspective, here evenn reinforced by the male narrator on stage - both by sheer numbers and by creating, as Claudia Harris has remarked, "open-ended" female characters leaving room for interpretation which the actors as collaborators of author and narrator can fill.

This is best illustrated by the famous scene in Act I when the five sisters burst into their Irish dance. Writer and narrator seem to look wondrously at the ecstasy of this wild and savage outburst - a moment of pure theatre, a moment of transforming power. "More than any other recent contemporary Irish play by a male writer," contended Tony Roche, "Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa puts the Irish stage in touch with the otherness of woman." The Mundy sisters seem to dance out their impassionate yearnings, seem for a moment to forget what they are otherwise painfully aware of: "that life is passing them by and that they are trapped in deadening routines from which no escape seems possible." (Andrews)

Friel has created memorable scenes of heightened realism before, when we only think of the central love scene between Maire and Yolland in Translations, which already transcended language by reducing communication to the poetic sounds of place names. But never before has he relied so fully on non-verbal theatre, on the sole language of the body, on ritual and dance. Dancing at Lughnasa thus seems the synthesis of recent developments on the Irish stage. In the 1980s the traditional 'literary theatre' had increasingly come under challenge from new modes of non-realistic and non-verbal presentations, most notably in the collaborations of writer Tom MacIntyre, director Patrick Mason and actor Tom Hickey and their 'imagist theatre' at the Peacock stage of the Abbey theatre, but also carried out by the experiments of countless independent theatre companies all over Ireland.

Moreover, after Making History, his last contribution to Derry-based Field Day, Friel seemed to have been looking for a new departure thematically. The 80s had been framed by his history plays, Translations and Making History, with their dominating themes of historical interpretation and Irish identity, very much tied up with the unfinished business of the Northern Ireland conflict and its roots.

Historical background is not totally eclipsed in Dancing at Lughnasa, but it is kept to a supporting role. Against the backdrop of De Valera's Ireland of the 1930s, a petit-bourgeois, anti-liberal, un-inspirational, repressive state and society to be enshrined in the Constitution of 1937, with its emphasis on Family and (Catholic) Church as the pillars of society, Michael remembers the five sisters as somewhat mesmerisingly different from De Valera's "comely maidens".

But with his return to the Abbey, Friel chose a more personal theme: "our need for a past, for memories, and our need constantly to revisit and re-invent those memories." (O'Toole) In fact, Dancing at Lughnasa bears autobiographical allusions. The Mundy sisters are based on Friel's aunts who lived in Glenties, Co Donegal, and Michael would have been born the same year as Friel himself. And while echoes of earlier Friel plays (The Gentle Island, The Enemy Within) can be found in Dancing at Lughnasa, it is the focus on women, and their "ferocious dance of pent-up sensuality" (Listener) which mark new ground in his work.

Dancing in all its forms was frowned upon by the Church in the 1930s, if not outright condemned as immoral. Dancing is the central image of the play, from the civilised, 'tame' Ginger Rodgers/Fred Astaire style of Gerry and Chris (Michael's parents) through Father Jack's ritual dances of pagan Africa to the wild frenzy of the women's Irish reel.

What leads into the dance in the play is the awareness and the talk about Lughnasa being celebrated, the pagan feast of the Celtic sun god Lugh, the traditional harvest festival - in Celtic mythology the celebration on 1 August of the union between sun and earth, nine months before the feast of Beltaine (1 May) which in turn marked the beginning of summer. Many pagan festivals may have been hijacked by Christianity, but Dancing at Lughnasa more than hints at the fact that they might, particularly in Ireland, have been superseded rather than fully replaced. "I think I am a Christian," said Friel's friend Seamus Heaney once, "because the Sermon on the Mount satisfies so much in me that pines consciously and subconsciously for appeasement. But I have no doubt that I am also a pagan..."

Two meanings oscillate in the feast of Lughnasa: connotations of sexual awakening and transformation, and the beginning of the darker days, the 'eventide' of the year. In the dance the five sisters seem to triumphantly express their atavistic life-force, their "emotions far beyond the reach of words". (Guardian). In the liberating force of the dance, Pan seems to celebrate his victory over civilised Christianity, paganism seems - at least temporarily - to win out over the constraints of Christian society. Their dance - individual and collective at the same time - links the Mundy sisters to the dancing which was one of the main features of the Lughnasa celebrations and thus to the "hidden, submerged culture which neither colonial influence nor Christian teaching has been able to extinguish." (Andrews)

But the dance is not the catalyst into a bright future for the sisters. On the contrary, it is more like the last orgasmic manifestation of the women's joy of life, the last fling of the spinsters - where hope and passion and the present meet - before the evening of their days sets in. What follows, is dismal and tragic. None of the Mundies will go to the Lughnasa dance in the "back hills". Agnes and Rose will soon go to London to die there in poverty. Father Jack will be dead within a year. What lies ahead is the sad break-up of a family - in many ways emblematic for the stifling social and cultural circumstances of Ireland in the 1930s, for an Ireland edging closer to total isolation during the 'Emergency'.

And yet, the play does not end on a note of hopelessness. In Michael's memory dream and reality form the blurred inbetween-land of conjured-up reminiscence. The past is, despite the acknowledged tragic facts, illogically enchanted. Evoking in Michael's final narration this "space somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary meet," as Elmer Andrews has written: "Life retains its aura of enchantment. The play refuses pessimism."

Frank Rich, the theatre critic of the New York Times, ended his appreciation of Friel's masterpiece of the Nineties, with the following words:

"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."

Eberhard "Paddy" Bort