Thoughts & Musings

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: Brian Friel’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’

Discussion Sunday is October 13th


© 2013 by Eileen Warburton

O body swayed to music,
O brightening glance,
How can we tell the dancer from the dance?
[1]

In the Gaelic, the name Ballybeg (“Baile Beag”) means “little town.” It is just a commonplace small community in the rural countryside, impoverished, remote, a kind of universal stage to present Irish experience. The great playwright Brian Friel has set 14 of his 31 original plays in and around the fictional village of Ballybeg, ranging them through the years from the 1880s to our own time. Ballybeg, rather like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, is peopled with generations of characters from Friel’s imagination. Ballybeg is close enough to being the real village of Glenties, nearby Friel’s home in County Donegal but, as an imaginary landscape, Friel is able to liberate his characters there, letting them act as they need to, say what they must, become who they are.

Of all the Ballybeg plays, Dancing at Lughnasa is closest to the bone of personal experience. The characters of the Mundy sisters are very reminiscent of Friel’s own aunts and his mother. Michael Evans, the boy and middle-aged narrator, is born in the same year as Brian Friel. Although fictional, this is a play born in memory, a landscape of the heart.

The month Michael summons up is the harvest time of August 1936, the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasada. This ceremony was an “assembly” or ritual gathering for the pagan god Lugh, the mercurial deity of light, just at the moment when summer’s light lingers before it begins to slip away into the darkness of the winter to come. In the old Celtic world this was the celebration of harvest, a propitious time for matchmaking and feasting, a time requiring burnt sacrifice and dances on the hilltops and mountains. For the spinster Mundy sisters, Lughnasa is the bright last moment of hope for the possibility of romance and of family stability and survival. When the month is over, the darkness will gather indeed. We learn the desolation in store for this family from the narration of Michael Evans. What is telling, however, is that Michael’s memory play doesn’t dramatize the sorrows that will come. What Michael chooses to remember and to flesh out in his imagination is the expression of the profound love that surrounds him as a child and the earthy energies that transfigure care and ordinariness into the laughter of heaven.

“In memory,” Tennessee Williams once wrote, “everything seems to happen to music.” [2] In Michael’s memory, underscored with the intermittent broadcast of the Marconi, everything seems to flow towards the dance. Dancing was considered an invitation to sin in those days and was discouraged by the clergy. Dance, therefore, becomes the great metaphor of this festival, expressing the dramatic tension between an underlying, surviving pagan culture and the surface repression of a regulated, judgmental Irish society. Dance is the emotional release of the pent-up sexuality of these unmarried sisters. It is relief from trouble, as it dispels the veneer of impoverished gentility. For Chris and Gerry, dance is romantic possibility, the only courtship allowed them. For Father Jack, his tribal shuffling is a ritual channeling of religious feeling, but one that connects him to the old gods of his afflicted African congregation, rather than to the Christian deity. Dance in the “back hills” of Ballybeg summons up the pagan, connects the dancers to their common past. For all of them, it is an affirmation in the face of what would be despair.

1936 was a transitional moment in modern Irish history as well as in the life of the Mundy family. It was economic hard times for most people and the dark clouds of war (what the Irish called “the Emergency”) were beginning to gather. The country was only a year away from the new national constitution crafted by Éamon de Valera, which would separate them from Britain, partition Northern Ireland and Eire, and impose an exceedingly conservative social agenda on the newly independent nation. The restrictions of Catholic dominated social customs are reflected in Kate Mundy’s fearful observance of the proprieties, in the local priest’s refusal to visit kindly but disgraced Father Jack, and in the general consensus that Michael’s “out of wedlock” existence is a scandal.

Born in 1929 and, thankfully, still among us and still writing, Brian Friel is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest living dramatists in the English language. As a young man, he taught Maths at a primary and intermediate school in Derry, a position he only left at age 30 to take up writing full time. His short stories and Irish Press political articles were well received, but Friel was at first a poor playwright. His initial efforts were flops and he was actually labeled by a prominent Irish journalist as one of the Abbey Theatre’s “rejects.” In 1963, however, Friel spent a short stint as an “observer” of Tyrone Guthrie’s work at that maverick director’s newly opened theatre in Minneapolis. Here, suddenly, all the pieces came together for the struggling playwright. With Guthrie’s methods inspiring him and the themes of Ireland urging him, Friel wrote Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), the emigration play that not only brought him enduring success, but transformed the Irish theatre from worn-out clichés of peasant life to expressionist dramas that grappled with contemporary realities. Decades of award-winning plays followed, among them Faith Healer, Aristocrats, Translations, Wonderful Tennessee, Molly Sweeney, and, of course, Dancing at Lughnasa which won the Olivier Award for Best Play in Great Britain, and the Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, as well as barrels of individual awards for the actors, the director, and the set design. Friel is notoriously private. He has remained married to the same woman since 1954, has five children, and lives but a stone’s throw from his birthplace. Ireland honors him as one of the seven living Saoi, elected by the members of the Aosdána (people of the arts), the national artists’ association.

Friel is known for mixing politics and myth, for building modern familial stories on ancient foundations. An excellent Russian translator and adaptor of Turgenev and Chekov, to whom he is often compared, he, like them, is a master of domestic ironies and hinted consequences. Like the characters in, say, The Cherry Orchard or A Month in the Country, the sisters Mundy and their brother are trapped in soul deadening routines that cannot be escaped. Life is passing them by. What explodes the pattern in Dancing at Lughnasa is Friel’s amazing annexation of the sensual, joyful spirit world that lies alongside dismal reality and which may be accessed through the dance, speechless, abandoned, and wild.

[1] W.B.Yeats, “Among Schoolchildren” (1928)
[2] Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (1944)

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the theatre.

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