H-T Review: IU Theatre’s ‘Lughnasa’ a rich, realistic, but lengthy family drama

By Matthew Waterman, H-T Reviewer

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Ashley Dillard plays Kate Mundy in the Indiana University Theatre production of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa”.

The little Irish town of Ballybeg was something of an obsession for the playwright Brian Friel, who set a number of his dramas there. Ballybeg does not actually exist, but one wouldn’t know it from Friel’s work. Friel creates a rich sense of place, making Ballybeg seem as real as anywhere.

Friel died last October, but only after leaving behind well over a lifetime’s worth of writing. One of his Ballybeg plays, “Dancing at Lughnasa” (LOO-nuh-suh), is the first mainstage production of the year for the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. Dale McFadden directed the show, which plays in the large Ruth N. Halls Theatre.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” takes place in 1936. The story is told through the memories of Michael Evans, who was 7 years old at the time. Michael is growing up in the Mundy family home, inhabited by the five Mundy sisters.

1936 is a year of great change in the lives of Agnes, Kate, Chris, Maggie and Rose Mundy. They have just obtained their first radio. More importantly, the Mundy home takes in Father Jack, a weathered man in his late 50s (though he often seems much older) who has recently returned from decades of work as a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony.

Father Jack exhibits signs of dementia, as well as a persistent preoccupation with the cultural and religious traditions of Uganda. He no longer seems to be a Catholic.

The Mundy sisters are all unmarried, so much of the play revolves around their ever-shifting prospects for husbands. The most important suitor in the play is Gerry Evans, who fathered Michael but did not marry Chris Mundy, Michael’s mother.

There are many plots and subplots in “Dancing at Lughnasa,” but the one that captured my attention the most was the relationship between Gerry Evans and Chris Mundy. Gerry periodically visits Ballybeg, each time with enthusiastic but untrustworthy promises of becoming a wonderful father and husband.

He dances with Chris and even seems to love her. He promises young Michael a new bicycle. But soon enough, he’s gone. In 1936, he leaves to fight in the Spanish Civil War — not for any political motivation, but for the sake of adventure. Actor Jason Craig West gives Gerry an alluring charm that makes us occasionally forget his neglect of his son.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is a highly realistic play, one that shares the complexity and subtlety of a good novel. It’s also a long play, with extended conversations on a litany of topics that can become hard to track. There is little doubt that some who attend “Dancing at Lughnasa” will find the play boring. The drama isn’t mundane or inconsequential, but paying consistent attention becomes a bit of a task when a show in this style exceeds two and a half hours.

That being said, this production team has done a quite decent job of putting Friel’s script on the stage. The five Mundy sisters are played with energy, enthusiasm and convincing Irish dialects. Ashley Dillard (Kate), Meaghan Deiter (Maggie), Emily Sullivan (Agnes), Kathleen Cox (Rose) and Tess Cunningham (Chris) create palpable familial bonds onstage.

In a well-wrought performance as Michael Evans, Chris J. Handley ties the play together. Handley not only narrates us through what occurs before and after the onstage action, but also speaks the lines of the invisible 7-year-old Michael. Seeing the events of 1936 through a child’s eyes gives the story a special sadness and poignancy that it would not otherwise have.

The production is designed in a straightforward and authentic manner, with beautiful costumes from Emmie Phelps and a humble Irish homestead crafted by Ryan P. Miller.

As we approach the first anniversary of Brian Friel’s death, his work finds new life in the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. “Dancing at Lughnasa,” though not an intense play, is certainly a rich one.

If you go

WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

WHAT: “Dancing at Lughnasa” by Brian Friel.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Halls Theatre in the Norvelle Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave.

TICKETS: $15-25. Available in person at IU Auditorium Box Office, by phone at 812-855-1103 or online at theatre.indiana.edu.

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times Online.
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3 out of 10 out of 12: In Tech with Lughnasa

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Last Saturday we had our tech for Dancing at Lughnasa in preparation for our opening this weekend. If you’re not in theatre, ‘tech’ is shorthand for the rehearsals that usually start about a week before opening, where the technical elements of the show – lighting, sound, props, scenery, sometimes costumes – are added in to the show and calibrated with painstaking detail, with the goal of creating the first draft of a “finished” production. Throughout the week before opening and into preview performances, the production is fine-tuned and altered, but tech is when everything comes together for the first time.

Tech gets a bad rap. Plenty of actors, directors, and designers seem to hate the process. I absolutely love it. As you work on a production, you spend so much time imagining the world of your play, and tech is the moment where you finally get to witness it as the audience will: fully-realized, alive and approaching completion. Sure, it’s a long process, it can get messy and frustrating, and it requires the attention span of a monk. But the satisfaction and ‘theatre magic’ when you see all the pieces of your puzzle start to come together is unparalleled.

What actually happens in that elusive ’10 out of 12′ (a 12-hour rehearsal with two-hour dinner break)? What takes so long and what is the team actually working on? Here’s a slice of tech life from 10am to 1pm:

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10:00: Actors show up and are greeted by bagels and donuts (compliments of their awesome stage management team of Verena Lucke, K. Ashlynn Abbott, and Rochelle Hudson). The actors won’t hit the stage for another half hour – the designers need this chance to set up.

10:30 am: The first thing that we tech is the preset – this is the look of the stage as the audience enters the theatre. Working the preset is one of my favorite moments of tech – you’re creating the first impression of the play, and it’s a chance to let the beauty of the designer’s work speak for itself before those pesky actors come on stage and draw all the focus. You can say so much about your play through the preset – what is the mood of this world? How bright or shadowy, warm or cold, realistic or abstract is the world? What music or sound is playing when you enter the theatre, and how might that indicate the energy or tone of the play? What props are on stage for you to discover, and how might they be used? Does the light accent anything in particular?

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The preset for Dancing at Lughnasa

For example, in Lughnasa, there is a soft glow of light on the Marconi radio in the house, which is already telling the audience it’s a bright, crucial part of the life of the house. There is no pre-show music, just sound effects of nature, which has a naturalistic, immersive impact on the audience. The lights have a trace of warmth, but there are striking shadows across the walls of the Mundy home, perhaps suggesting that there is some darkness hanging over them?

10:55: We move on to the opening tableau and monologue. Here the challenge is making sure the whole cast is lit, but the feel remains removed from reality – the action of the play hasn’t started yet. We run the opening sequence several times, taking long pauses afterward to tweak. As an actor, tech usually feels long and slow-moving, which is often due to how much attention needs to be paid to the very beginning. I overhear lighting design professor Allen Hahn start to say to director Dale McFadden, “As excruciating as it is, this first 90 seconds…” Dale nods, knowing how the sentence ends. He’s very familiar with how important it is to start the production on the right note.

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The opening tableau, as Michael begins the story.

11:37: We’re at the top of the first scene in the house. The lights here become warmer and more “realistic”, depicting the house as a lived-in place for the first time. The contrast between the look of the house interior now compared to how it was shown in the preset is a clear demonstration of how much theatre lighting can change space. It’s no small task for lighting designer Tony Stoeri to light the whole interior of the house without spilling much light onto the other parts of the stage, while at the same time preventing noticeable shadows from appearing on the walls.

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Chris J. Handley as Michael Evans

11:56: We’ve reached Michael’s second expository monologue, just 9 pages in. This bit takes a few minutes to maneuver, as it’s the first time we’ve dealt with the past and the
present overlapping. Chris J. Handley (Michael Evans) is remarkably patient as he stops and starts a dozen times.

12:19: We’re back into the main action, with Ashley Dillard (Kate Mundy)’s first entrance. Here, as in much of the continuous action of the play, large portions go by with no cues at all, so we progress steadily through the play.

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The Mundy sisters dance to Marconi

12:58: We’ve reached the first big dance. The intricacy of Nira Pullin’s choreography has already been worked out, so the only challenge is making sure the sound is calibrated to sound as though it’s coming from the radio. The movement of the dance is spread over the entire playing space, so lights has to adjust to bodies everywhere.

 

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As you can see, the work moves slowly but there’s so much to think about during the process. And by the time we run the show on Monday’s dress rehearsal, it feels like a completely different experience!

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The Dramaturg’s Desk: Romance vs. Reality

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Eleanor Owicki, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Theory, and Literature

In this final installment from Eleanor Owicki’s notes from the Dramaturg’s Desk, she provides some historical context for the 2016-17 IU Theatre Season opening production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa

This series is adapted from the packet of information, including historical research, analysis of the author’s biography and complete body of works, and more abstract explorations of the themes present in the text that was provided to the cast and creative team at the beginning of the rehearsal process.

If you’d like to meet Eleanor Owicki,  join us for the upcoming Theatre Circle Lecture:

Dancing at Lughnasa from a Dramaturg’s Perspective”
Thursday, September 22, at 5:30 p.m.
in the Studio Theatre
on the 2nd floor of the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center 

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Ireland in 1936: Romance vs Reality

“The Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul; a land whose countryside would be bright with cozy homesteads, whose fields and valleys would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youth, the laughter of happy maidens; whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.”

In this, the opening of his 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech, Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Eamon De Valera outlined a view of Ireland with which many will be familiar. It paints a picture of a country at peace with itself, full of joy. It is a primarily rural country, filled with the vitality of “athletic youth” and “happy maidens,” but with the “wisdom of old age” still presented at the firesides of “cozy homesteads.” It is an idyllic picture that seems to exist outside of time – there is little in the description that ties it to any particular century. It is the island of céad míle fáilte (one hundred thousand welcomes), the land of saints and scholars.

While this image is appealing, life in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century (when these versions of Irishness were most popular) was far grimmer. In 1936, when Dancing at Lughnasa is set, Ireland had only been independent from Britain for fourteen years. While many had hoped that independence would be a time of joy and renewal, it was actually a time of increasing conservativism and stagnation. Between the divisive effects of the Civil War and Ireland’s relatively poor economy, life was rather dark. The people of the country wanted stability, which made them increasingly drawn to the more socially conservative teachings of the Catholic Church. For the most part, people just wanted to get by and weren’t interested in taking risks. The literature of Ireland during this period reflects this. The most innovative “Irish” authors, such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, had left Ireland and were writing from continental Europe.

This conservatism was particular present in the ways women were treated during this period. Article 42.1 of the Irish constitution, which de Valera spearheaded in 1937 states:

“In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

This language codified the place of women that had already been assumed to exist. Women were expected to primarily dedicate their lives to taking care of their families. While the constitution acknowledged that a woman might be forced to work, the assumption was that this would not be her choice. This focus on the home and the private sphere was awkward for women like the Mundy sisters, the main characters in Dancing at Lughnasa, who were unmarried and (except for one) without children. Without responsibilities to male family members, these women would be assumed not to have a purpose. This also might explain some of the excitement at the return of their brother, Father Jack, who had spent years working as a missionary in Uganda. Caring for him would have been an acceptable life’s work for the women. It’s also important to note that the teachings of the Catholic Church against sex outside of marriage would have been particularly strongly enforced against women. Women who, like the youngest sister Chris, became pregnant out of wedlock would have been judged harshly.

The limited opportunities open to the women of Ireland in the 1930s are particularly depressing given that a number of women had been central to the independence movement of the 1910s and 1920s.   We know that Kate, the oldest sister, took part in the conflict, although not how. Although women’s achievements in this conflict were rarely celebrated, they were essential, and particularly useful as spies and message-runners since the British forces generally ignored them. Their role was decreased partially by the increasing conservativism of the country, but also because most of the women backed the losing anti-treaty side in the Civil War that immediately followed the war of independence. Thus, the narrow options available to women in the 1930s would have represented a decrease in opportunity, not simply “the way things had always been done.”

The three posts in this Dramaturg’s Desk series provide the setting for Dancing at Lughnasa.  The characters’ lives are shaped by the world they live in, and which playwright Brian Friel also lived in.  I hope that together they’ve enriched your understanding of the play, and will add to your enjoyment when you come to see it!

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Dancing with the Stars (of Lughnasa)

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Dancing at Lughnasa is an actor’s play. At the center of the excitement for our production is the chance to see two of our finest MFA actors, Ashley Dillard and Chris J. Handley, deliver their 3rd year thesis performances as Kate Mundy and Michael Evans, respectively.

I was able to snag Chris and Ashley for a few minutes before rehearsal earlier this week to check in and ask them a few questions about the process. Let’s hear from the stars!

So these are your thesis roles. What does that mean?

Ashley: You know, a lot of people keep asking us this. It’s a role in which we get a lot of opinions and a lot of help from [faculty and advisors], and they determine whether or not we were successful in finding the tools to play the part. It’s not necessarily “Is this the best work you’ve ever done?”, “Is this the most research you’ve ever done?”, or “Is this the most effort you’ve put in?”.

Chris: I think that the ‘thesis’ word is an academic term… this is the culmination of everything that you have learned. And yeah, I think it is. I think this role is the culmination of everything I’ve learned up until this point. But I think that my next role will be the culmination of everything I’ve learned up until that point, and the next one and the next one. So if this is my best work ever – well, I hope not, because…

Ashley: You want to continue to learn and grow!

Chris: Right!

Did you have some sway over what your thesis role would be?

Ashley: Oh yeah. Last semester [the faculty] told us, “Here’s the season. Come to us with three options – it can be cross-gendered, if can be something you’ve never done – if you want to put it in for the musical, put it in for the musical. Anything, sky’s the limit.” And then we have to come up with reasons why we want to do the roles and how it’s going to serve as a thesis, how we’re going to apply what we’ve learned so far to them, why it will be challenging.

Chris: And then they take those three [roles] that we suggest and say “We want you to do choice X because we think it will challenge you the most.” So we offer the three options of what we think will challenge us and they take those and pick from them.

What about your role in Dancing at Lughnasa do you find the most challenging?

Chris: For me, it’s the connection to the audience, and figuring out who I’m talking to. I guess in a culminating way, this is a great thesis for me, because my first show here (Chris played Gallimard in M. Butterfly) was also talking directly to the audience. So I now have to do it again, and hopefully I’ve learned something over these three years and can do it more specifically to tell the story. It makes me want to go back and do [M. Butterfly] again! So the challenge is telling the story directly to the audience, to these people that are right here right now.

Ashley: This is probably the hardest role I’ve had so far. It’s hard to find the things I like

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Ashley Dillard (Kate Mundy) in rehearsal for Dancing at Lughnasa.

about [Kate]. For the most part, for the past ten years I’ve played characters that I like, that I understand. Me as Ashley does not necessarily understand me as Kate. 

On the surface, she can be so cold, and that’s such an acting trap.

Ashley: Yup. But that’s the fun of it – trying to find your way in!

So you’re in your 3rd year now, do you feel a noticeable difference in your skill or technique?

Ashley: Everything, absolutely everything. I know far more plays now, that’s for sure. I have a very good working knowledge of text in general. In a play like [Dancing at Lughnasa] that’s really difficult, I have a technique to go back to. I can say “Am I connecting with a person and having a real moment-to-moment conversation with them?”, and if I’m not, I know I have the tools: go back to something simple, look the person in the eye, listen to what they’re saying and respond truthfully. Have I scored my script? Do I know what verbs I’m using? There’s a nice technique to it now, as opposed to three years ago, I’d have been like “I don’t know what I’m doing! I guess I’ll be nicer!”

Chris: Yeah, there’s a lot of times you go into [a role] you really connect to and think, “Oh I can do this role, because I get it. Done.” Then you go in and just do it. But [other times] you have a role that maybe you can’t figure out, and there’s a challenge, and now we have the technique to go in and say “This is why I can’t figure it out, and here’s how using this tool can fix it.” I want to go back and audition for all the roles I didn’t get when I was living in New York, because now I could get more of them. I’ve learned the skills to get them.

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Chris J. Handley (Michael Evans) in rehearsal for Dancing at Lughnasa.

Chris, what is your favorite Ashley Dillard moment in Dancing at Lughnasa?

Chris: In the only scene we have together, she says – and I’m going to cry saying this – she says, “Call me the moment you’re going to fly those kites, because I wouldn’t miss that for all the world.” And Michael feels so happy looking back and hearing her say that, and the way Ashley brings life to it is wonderful. And it’s wonderful to be on stage with her and share that moment every time.

Ashley: (laughs) But we don’t really get to share that moment because I can’t actually look at him.

Chris: But I get to look at you!

Ashley, do you have a favorite Chris Handley moment?

Ashley: My absolute favorite moment is when he starts to talk about who his father really was. And I don’t ever get to actually see what Chris is doing, all I can do is hear, so we all go through such a journey listening to him talk about [his father] and explore, come to terms and forgive, all in this little four-minute speech about who his dad actually was. It’s all the hopes and dreams and realizations, and it’s just lovely.

James Nelson is a first-year MFA directing candidate. He is currently assistant directing IU Theatre’s season opener Dancing at Lughnasa.

 

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HT Preview: IU theater season opens with drama

By Joel Pierson, H-T Theater columnist
Sep 11, 2016

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Kathleen Cox (Rose)

What’s a Lughnasa, you might be asking this week, and why are people dancing at it? Well, for one thing, it’s the first play of Indiana University’s new theater season, a 1990 drama written by Brian Friel.

A few years back, “Dancing at Lughnasa” was turned into a film with Meryl Streep, but then again, what hasn’t been? (Remember the whole Julia Child thing? I think they made a movie out of a cookbook or something! But I digress.) A story like this has to be experienced live, and the good folks at IU are more than happy to make that happen for you.

Lughnasa is an Irish harvest festival, a time of great joy, typically, which would inspire the dancing. (To say it properly, each “a” should be voiced as “eh,” so it comes out sounding like “LOO-neh-seh.” ) Was the playwright punning on the word “lunacy”? Perhaps. In fact, in 1999, a Chicago theater company created a parody called “Chancing at Lunacy.” But let’s examine the plot.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is the story of five sisters in the Mundy family, all unmarried and living together in a cottage near the fictional town of Ballybeg in Ireland. We learn their stories through an adult narrator named Michael Evans, whom we learn is sister Christina’s son. He shares his memories of living with the five women in the summer of 1936, when he was 7 years old. The action of the play all takes place within the family cottage. Events from the outside world are shared verbally.

Also in the mix is the girls’ brother, Jack, a missionary who is back from 25 years working in a leper colony in Uganda. He’s quite ill now and has forgotten important things like this sisters’ names and some basic English. The others begin to suspect he was sent home for a very good reason.

The play touches on themes of poverty and unfulfilled dreams, which, I will grant you, does not add up to a laugh riot, but it doesn’t try to be one. And sometimes it’s important to view the drama and the challenges of others, to remind us that there’s more to life than the troubles we experience ourselves.

The good news is Friel does it well. The play has won an Olivier Award, two Drama Desk Awards, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and three Tony Awards, including best play. So it’s safe to say that you’re in capable hands. The same is true of your IU cast and crew. Director Dale McFadden leads a cast of eight, including Ashley Dillard, Chris Handley, Meaghan Deiter, Emily Sullivan, Kathleen Cox, Tess Cunningham, Matthew Murry and Jason Craig West.

It’s good to see another IU Theatre season underway. It means autumn can’t be too far off. We welcome our student actors back, and we hope you’ll come out to see them express themselves on stage once again.

Contact Joel by sending an email to features@heraldt.com with “Pierson” in the subject line.

If you go

WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance

WHAT: “Dancing at Lughnasa” by Brian Friel

WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23–24, 27–30, Oct. 1; 2 p.m. Oct. 1

TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. Read this story and more Bloomington Arts news at The Herald Times online.

 

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Directing the Details

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So…what does a director do?

It’s a difficult question, and a little too broad to tackle in a neat, concise fashion. Like other lofty questions (such as “What is theatre?” and “Why do we tell stories?”), it’s easy to throw a lot of words at the subject without feeling like you’ve gotten a complete picture.

The function of a director is further obscured because the audience doesn’t directly experience their work. When it comes to opening night, the director has (hopefully) finished their contribution to a production, and the audience sees their work only through the final product created. If you ask a random theatregoer to evaluate the direction of a show they saw, they will often equate it to the overall success of the production, but struggle to reflect on what the director’s specific involvement was.

Also, EVERY director is a different beast. We sometimes draw from the same techniques, but no two directors work in the exact same way. Ask an experienced actor who has been in the room with dozens of directors – there is a crazy range of styles.

That’s why assistant directing can be valuable for a director: you get to be in the room and watch somebody more experienced than yourself work. The point is not to try to emulate that director in the future, it’s to watch a process happen in a different way, challenge or re-affirm your own technique, and hopefully make some valuable discoveries along the way.

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Director Dale McFadden talks to Tess Cunningham (Chris Mundy) and Jason Craig West (Gerry Evans) in rehearsal.

Watching Dale McFadden direct Dancing at Lughnasa has been fascinating. At times, he works very much like an engineer: with a specific eye for the machine he’s building, he crafts very small pieces with precision. He’ll often deal with a handful of acute details in quick succession, before taking a step back to see what he’s built. If the machine is running well, he’ll let it run. If it’s malfunctioning, he’ll put his gloves back on and return to work.

Having a deep level of specificity serves the story of Lughnasa well. Much of the play simulates the daily life of the five Mundy sisters, and there is an abnormal amount of activity and stage business: clothes are ironed, bread is baked, groceries are unpacked, gloves are sewn, chickens are fed. The repetition of chores helps us feel the release of the women when they stop everything to dance to the radio – we understand their need to escape.

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Meaghan Deiter (Maggie Mundy) kneads her bread dough.

So the craftsmanship that Dale is providing by breaking down each detail is essential – without the sense of realistic specificity to the stage business, we won’t be as engaged with the world of the play. For the actors, knowing their exact movement allows them to inhabit the story more deeply.

On opening night, will the audience realize the amount of time spent in rehearsals working each activity with careful detail? Probably not, nor should they. If the play is successful, this work will serve the larger purpose of the story and help the audience believe in a living, breathing world.

So I guess you could say even the audience’s attention was… directed.

James Nelson is a first-year MFA directing candidate. He is currently assistant directing IU Theatre’s season opener Dancing at Lughnasa.
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The Dramaturg’s Desk: “The Necessity of Paganism”

By Eleanor Owicki

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Eleanor Owicki, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Theory, and Literature

In this second installment from Eleanor Owicki’s notes from the Dramaturg’s Desk, she explores the roles of Paganism vs. Christianity in Brian Friel’s Dancing at LughnasaThis series is adapted from the packet of information, including historical research, analysis of the author’s biography and complete body of works, and more abstract explorations of the themes present in the text that were provided to the cast and creative team for the 2016 IU Theatre production.

In an interview with New York Times Theatre Reviewer Mel Gussow before Dancing at Lughnasa opened on Broadway, Brian Friel suggested that the play might be “about the necessity of Paganism.” The hesitance was typical of Friel, who generally resisted being drawn into conversations about the themes and meanings of his plays. The mere fact that he singled this idea out therefore demonstrates its importance.

Dancing at Lughnasa is set in 1936, at a time when the Catholic Church wielded considerable actual and symbolic power in Ireland (although the same could be said for many other periods). When Ireland (or most of it) gained independence in 1922, more than 90% of the country identified as Catholic, and this percentage would rise over the following decades. In addition to the moral sway the church held, it was responsible for providing many of the public services that Irish people relied on. These included schools, hospitals, orphanages, and similar institutions. The power of the Catholic Church at this time is illustrated by the scandals about these institutions that arose beginning in the 1990s. Accusations of rampant abuse—physical, sexual, and emotional—emerged, and these were frequently supported by the findings of government inquiries. Time and again, these inquiries noted that the abuse was allowed to continue largely because few people felt they could challenge the church and accusations that were made could easily be covered up.

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Inishmore, Ireleand (http://archaicwonder.tumblr.com)

In spite of this power, however, another religious tradition held sway in Ireland. When Christianity first came to the island, its supporters frequently attempted to adapt existing practices and beliefs into the framework of the new religion (indeed, missionaries in many different countries have followed similar patterns). While this blending made the locals more likely to adopt Christian beliefs, it also made it harder to eliminate the earlier Pagan beliefs. While few Irish people would identify as “Pagan,” folklore ensured that ancient practices and beliefs would continue to circulate. This is a tension in much of Irish literature. For example, John Millington Synge’s 1904 play Riders to the Sea depicts a family living on the remote Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast. Although the local priest is referenced as an offstage character, it is clear that he holds far less authority than the supernatural power of the sea and the omens it brings.

The “Lughnasa” of Friel’s title (pronounced LOO-nah-sah) is the harvest festival, which takes place in early August (when the play is set) and is sacred to the Celtic god Lugh, a powerful warrior. While the public manifestations of the holiday have been transformed into civic, secular events, its Pagan roots continue to linger beneath the surface. As the play progresses, we learn that there are other, private events that more closely echo the festival’s Pagan origins. While the Mundy sisters, the play’s main characters, have little direct connection to these practices, they are still drawn by the spirit of Lugh, wanting to escape the rigid restrictions society and religion have placed on them as unmarried women. Their brother, Father Jack, has recently returned from missionary work in Uganda, where he also found the indigenous beliefs more powerful than the religion in which he was raised.

This theme was also present in the next play Friel wrote, 1993’s Wonderful Tennessee. In this play, three couples arrive at a dock near Ballybeg (where Dancing at Lughnasa is also set) and hope to take a boat across the water to Oileán Draíochta, “The Island of Mystery.” Although they never make it across, the island’s history asserts a powerful effect. The island seems to be one of the many places in Ireland which the early Catholic Church attempted to colonize – building a church on a location that already had spiritual significance. The play’s characters are middle-class professionals with little connection to this part of Ireland, but as they hear about the practices and superstitions surround the island, its power – for good or ill – becomes clear to them. In particular, they are disturbed by a story of a death that happened on the island in 1932. A group of young people were returning from a church convention, and decided to spend the night on the island. No one is quite certain what happened, but it is suggested that the group may have ritually sacrificed one if its members that night. The close proximity between the church event and the apparent frenzy of the group once they reached the magical island suggests that the space’s Pagan power remained, resisting efforts to rewrite it as a space with Christian significance.

Friel described Dancing at Lughnasa as representing the necessity of Paganism, and it is certainly clear that these older beliefs represent a powerful escape for the play’s characters. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the more direct historical context for the play, and go into more detail on the forces that structured these women’s lives so closely.

 

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