By Eleanor Owicki
As a dramaturg, one of my primary jobs is to help the creative team, actors, and audiences understand the contexts that shape the play. This can take a wide variety of forms, from historical research, to analysis of the author’s biography and complete body of works, and to more abstract explorations of the themes present in the text. On the first day of rehearsals, I present an “actor packet” that gives an overview of the information I’ve found that seems most immediately relevant. Some of it will (I hope) become central to the production, while some of it will inevitably prove to be irrelevant as we work through the process of understanding the story that this production is telling. This blog post is adapted from the information contained in that actor packet.
Dancing at Lughnasa chronicles the events of a few weeks in the summer of 1936 in a small cottage near the fictional town of Ballybeg in the Irish county of Donegal. The audience does not see these events unfolding directly, however. Instead, the story is curated by Michael, who looks back on the summer when he was seven years old and remembers his observations of his mother, aunts, uncle, and usually-absent father. The audience does see these characters, but only through the filter of Michael’s memory, which he freely admits may be unreliable.
This structure places Dancing at Lughnasa firmly in the genre of “Memory Plays,” the most famous of which is Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. In Menagerie¸ as in Lughnasa, the audience sees the past through the eyes of a man who acts as both a narrator and a character. In Menagerie, this character is Tom, who lives with his mother Amanda and sister Laura. While the younger Tom within the memory is eager to escape the oppressive atmosphere created by his mother, the older Tom who narrates and remembers the events is hampered by the knowledge that when he did gain this freedom, he did so by abandoning his beloved sister. In this play, as in Lughnasa, the audience cannot be entirely certain how much of what they see is the “true” way events unfolded within these fictional universes. In both plays, the main characters look back on events that seemed mundane at the time, but which they now see as essential turning points.
An understanding of the plays as “memory plays” is further complicated by the fact that both contain elements of autobiography without being strictly autobiographical. Friel dedicates Lughnasa to “those five brave Glenties women,” a reference to his mother and her four sisters who lived in the town of Glenties (on which Ballybeg is loosely based). Lughnasa also features five sisters, one of whom is raising a son born in 1929 (the year of Friel’s birth). In interviews, Friel revealed that the eventual fates of two of the fictional sisters were based on the real lives of two of his aunts. Glass Menagerie also had autobiographical elements. While Friel and his main character shared a birth year, Williams and his main character shared a first name (“Tom” was Williams given name, while “Tennessee” was a name he adopted). Williams also based the overbearing matriarch Amanda on his own mother Edwina (hardly a flattering portrait), and the delicate sister Laura on his own sister Rose, who was institutionalized in 1937.
Yet in spite of these similarities, there are many differences. In both plays, the main characters have absent fathers in ways that the playwrights didn’t. In Glass Menagerie, Tom describes his father as “a telephone man who fell in love with long distance” and left the family. In reality, Williams’s father did work for the telephone company and was distant from his son, but did not abandon his family. Similarly, in Lughnasa, Michael’s father Gerry is a traveling salesman (among other professions) who is not married to Michael’s mother and only sees his son infrequently. In reality, Friel’s father was a quiet school teacher. So even though both playwrights certainly drew on their own lives to craft their plays, we should be careful about assuming they represent reality too closely.
Brian Friel was a playwright who drew inspiration from playwrights internationally, and indeed he has frequently been compared to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. But Friel also engaged with writers a bit closer to home. Irish literature frequently depicts the tension between Catholicism and paganism, and this is one of Dancing at Lughnasa’s key themes. So in the next post, I’ll examine how this tension is present in Lughnasa, some of Friel’s other works, and other important Irish plays.
Stay tuned for more from The Dramaturg’s Desk!