Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a (1990) play by dramatist Brian Friel. It tells the story of five unmarried sisters; who eke out their simple lives, two miles outside the small fictional town of Ballybeg, Donegal, Ireland in 1936. They range in ages from 26-40. There is also a priest, who is their much older brother – he was sent home from the missions in Africa. He suffers with Malaria. He had worked in a leper colony for nigh on 25 years. It turns out in a comical way during the course of the play that he was being converted to the ways of the Africans, as opposed to the other way around. He is owner of the house. The youngest sister, Christina (Chris) has a wee boy of seven, called Michael, whose grown-up self acts as the play’s narrator, looking back on the tumultuous summer in his childhood when everything changed for ever.

The only real one bringing in a proper wage to the Mundy household is the oldest sister, Kate, who teaches at the local school. Agnes and Rose, earn a wee bit of money knitting gloves, whilst Maggie, the second oldest, who is housekeeper, earns nothing. So the clothes of all the sisters reflect the mean circumstances.

Rose, who is slightly retarded wears wellies all the time despite the warm weather of late summer. Maggie wears long boots with long, untied laces. Rose, Maggie and Agnes, the drab wrap-around aprons/overalls of the time. (I remember Mrs Boyne, who took me out of Goldenbridge at week-ends, also wore similar attire). All the sisters are very kind and protective towards Rose, but Agnes has taken on the role of main protecter.

The play’s title comes from a pagan Irish festival, celebrating the harvest, and the contrast between Catholicism and pagan ritual is a constant theme of the play.

The Welsh father of the child, Gerry Evans, turns up at the house and there is much ambiguity on the part of Kate, who fears he will upset the equilibrium, whatever little there is of it – anyway. However – she does tell Chris, that there is a bed for him if he wants one, though, in the outhouse. He tells Chris that he is off to the army, and he wants to marry her when he comes back.

I read Act 1 in the library today and was inwardly joyfully spaced out reading [pg. 21-22]. I felt myself on the verge of aping the behaviour of the sisters, as they incessantly leapt about the house and shouted and let rip to the tune of ‘The Mason’s Apron’ and other popular tunes of the day, such as The Isle of Capri sung by Frank Sinatra.

`Twas on the Isle of Capri that I found her
Beneath the shade of an old walnut tree
Oh, I can still see the flow’rs bloomin’ round her
Where we met on the Isle of Capri

She was as sweet as a rose at the dawning
But somehow fate hadn’t meant her for me
And though I sailed with the tide in the morning
Still my heart’s on the Isle of Capri

Summertime was nearly over
Blue Italian sky above
I said “Lady, I’m a rover,
Can you spare a sweet word o’love?”

She whispered softly “It’s best not to linger”
And then as I kissed her hand I could see
She wore a lovely meatball on her finger
’twas goodbye at the Villa Capri

Summertime was nearly over

Blue Italian sky above
I said “Lady, I’m a rover,
Can you spare a fine word o’love?”

She whispered softly “It’s best not to linger”

And then as I kissed her hand I could see
She wore a plain golden ring on her finger
’twas goodbye on the Isle of Capri
’twas goodbye on the Isle of Capri
’twas goodbye on the Isle of Capri

It was so infectiously healing. So good for pent-up emotions! They were truly drunk on some kind of Lughnasa potion and were on another planet. (Children in Goldenbridge learned their reels to the tune of The Mason’s Apron, etc.)

Act 1 

[Pause]

KATE: Is it working now, Christina

CHRIS: What’s that?

KATE: Marconi.

CHRIS: Marconi? Yes, yes,…should be…

( She switches the set on and returns to her ironing. The music, at first barely audible, is Irish dance music – ‘The Mason’s Apron’ played by a ceili band. Very fast; very heavy beat; a raucous sound. At first we are aware of the beat only. Then, as the volume increases slowly, we hear the melody. For about ten seconds – until the sound has established itself – the women continue with their tasks. Then MAGGIE turns around. Her head is cocked to the beat, to the music. she is breathing deeply, rapidly. Now her features become animated by a look of defiance, of aggression; a crude mask of happiness. For a few seconds she stands still, listening, absorbing the rhythm, surveying her sisters with her defiant grimace. Now she spreads her fingers (which are covered with flour), pushes her hair back off from her face, pulls her hands down her cheeks and patterns her face with an instant mask. At the same time she opens her mouth and emits a wild raucous ‘Yaaaaah!’ – and immediately begins to dance, arms, legs, hair, long bootlaces flying. And as she dances she lilts – sings-shouts and calls, Come on and join me! Come on! Come on! For about ten-seconds she dances alone – a white-faced freakish dervish. Her sisters watch her.

Then ROSE’S face lights up. Suddenly she flings away her knitting, leaps to her feet, shouts, grabs MAGGIE’S hand. They dance and sing-shout together; ROSE’S wellies pounding out their own erratic rhythm. Now after another five-seconds AGNES looks around, leaps up, joins MAGGIE and ROSE. Of all the sisters she moves most gracefully, and sensuously. Then after the same interval CHRIS, who had been folding JACK’S surplice, tosses it quickly over her head and joins in the dance. The moment she tosses the vestment over her head KATE cries out in remonstration, ‘Oh CHRISTINA–! But her protest is drowned. Agnes and ROSE, CHRIS and MAGGIE, are now all doing a dance that is almost recognizable. They meet – they retreat. They form a circle and wheel round and round. But the movements seem caricatured; and the sound is too loud; and the beat is too fast; and the almost recognizable dance is made grotesque because – for example – instead of holding hands, they have their arms tightly around one another’s neck and another’s waist. Finally KATE, who has been watching the scene with unease, with alarm, suddenly leaps to her feet, flings her head back and emits a loud ‘Yaaaaah!’

KATE dances alone, totally concentrated, totally private’ a movement that is simultaneously controlled and frantic; a weave of complex steps that takes her quickly around the kitchen past her sisters, out to the garden, around the summer seat, back to the kitchen’ a pattern of action that is out of character and at the same time ominous of some deep and true emotion. Throughout the dance, ROSE, AGNES, MAGGIE, and CHRIS shout-call sing to each other. KATE makes no sound.

With this too loud music, this pounding beat, this shouting-calling-singing, this parodic reel there is a sense of order being consciously subverted, of the women consciously and crudely caricaturing themselves, indeed of near hysteria being induced. The music stops abruptly in mid phrase. But because of the noise they were making the sisters do not notice and continue dancing for a few seconds. Then KATE notices — and stops. Then AGNES. Then CHRIS. Then MAGGIE. Now only ROSE is dancing her graceless dance by herself. Then finally she, too, notices and stopped. There is no sound but their grasping for breath and short bursts of static from the radio. They look at each other obliquely, avoid looking at each other; half smile in embarrassment; feel and look slightly ashamed and slightly defiant. CHRIS moves first. She goes to the radio.)

CHRIS: It’s away again, that aul thing. Sometimes you’re good at it, AGGIE.

AGNES: Feel the top. Is it warm?

CHRIS: Roasting.

AGNES: Turn it off till it cools down. (CHRIS turns it off and slaps it)

CHRIS: Bloody useless set, that.

KATE: No need for corner-boy language, CHRISTINA.

AGNES: There must be some reason why it overheats.  [pg. 21-22]

Despite being very true to their Catholicism, the sisters also have their pagan side. In the play’s most powerfully elated scene in the 1st Act, they dance like raging, out of their mind, whirling, stamping dervishes to the ceili reels coming out of their antique radio, a tumultuous celebration of life and wildness with more than a hint of chronic sexual frustration about it.

ACT 1

We learn more about Father Jack’s time out in Africa, as his voice was a little better.  He was reminiscing to Chris about their mother.

Do you think perhaps Mother didn’t believe in ancestral spirits? [pg. 39]

KATE chimes in Ancestral – !

What are you blathering about, JACK? Mother was a saintly woman who knew she was going straight to heaven. And don’t you forget to take your medicine this evening.  Your supposed to take it three times a day.

AGNES: That’s ROSE’S pet rooster. Keep away from that thing.

MAGGIE: Look what it did to my arm, JACK. One of these days I’m going to ring its neck.

JACK: That’s what we do in Ryanga when we want to please the spirits – or appease them: we kill a rooster or a young goat. It’s a very exciting exhibition – that’s not the word is it? – demonstration? – no – show?  No, no; what’s the word I’m looking for? Spectacle? That’s not it. The word to describe a sacred and mysterious…? ( Slowly, deliberately) You have a ritual killing. You offer up sacrifice. You have dancing and incantations. what is the name for that whole – for that -? Gone. Lost it. My vocabulary has deserted me. Never mind. Doesn’t matter… I think perhaps I should put on some more clothes.

Dancing At Lughnasa is on the Irish Leaving Certificate 2012 curriculum. I shall look forward to reading the second act.

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