On a summer’s evening in 1987, two Irish playwrights, Brian Friel and Thomas Kilroy, went for a walk along the bank of the river Thames in London to talk about life and the theater. The pair had just come from a performance of the former’s stage adaptation of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons at the National Theater, and as they walked, they passed huddled figures of the homeless cowering in doorways and alleys. Through the thick dark of the night, the pair heard something familiar to their ears: the lilt of the Irish accents of those impoverished masses. To Friel they represented more than just the result of centuries of colonial oppression; they reminded him of his family. He turned to Kilroy and said that he had, in fact, two aunts who had ended up just like that. Kilroy, wisely, suggested to Friel that he should write a play about them. That play became Dancing at Lughnasa, which will be performed in December by members of the Drama Division’s fourth-year class, directed by Ethan McSweeny.
Friel, who has spent a great majority of his life in County Donegal and is considered by many to be Ireland’s preeminent living playwright, sets most of his plays (as with Dancing at Lughnasa) in the fictional Donegal town of Ballybeg (in Gaelic, Baile Baeg means “small town”). Dancing at Lughnasa follows the story of five unmarried sisters and the youngest sister’s son, Michael, struggling to find joy in the hardship of a life of poverty in that rural Irish town during a time of great change. Not only have they purchased their first wireless radio, which opens them up to a cultural connection with the world outside their tiny town (piping in the music of Cole Porter and the rest of the 1930s world), but the sisters’ older brother, a priest named Jack, has just returned home for the first time in 25 years under somewhat mysterious circumstances, ill with malaria after working as a missionary at a leper colony in Africa. Michael’s father, a ne’er-do-well Welsh jack-of-all-trades named Gerry, also comes to visit the sisters, and meets his son for the first time. All this occurs one August during Lughnasa, the traditional pagan festival of the god Lugh. The sisters live in a world dominated by religion, and the relation of the Catholic Church to the pagan is a recurring motif within the play.
Friel unfolds his story through a particular lens. “It’s a memory play,” explains McSweeny, “so we meet the world of these five spinster aunts through the eyes of Michael, who is remembering the summer of 1936, when he was 7 years old, from a perspective some distance hence.” The adult Michael is able to provide a great deal of perspective for the audience, creating a frame through which we are allowed to see what will happen to the characters in the future—making the memories often “not just happy harvest times of yore, but something that’s quite dark,” observes McSweeny. While there are significant differences between Friel’s life and the plot of Dancing at Lughnasa, it is thought to be his most autobiographical play. Like the character Michael, Friel was indeed 7 in 1936, and all the sisters are named after the real-life models they were based on: his mother and her sisters, including the two who ended up destitute on the streets of London.
Friel explores the uses of, and the differing relations to, memory in many different ways throughout the play, from the wistful longing for days gone by, to the struggle to remember things once important that have been lost in the nooks and crannies of the mind. For Friel, McSweeny says, “memory can be both a balm and something quite painful. What I am learning about the play as we rehearse it, is how the narrator starts out remembering some of the happy times, and how the flip side of that is this dawning maturity and recognition, even as a 7-year-old, that this world he was living in was falling apart.”
The Juilliard production will feature a beautiful set designed by Michael Sims that creates a world of memory, in which a very realistic Irish kitchen exists, without walls, in the midst of a symbolic world of dream and recollection. “One of the things I really love about the set,” says McSweeny, “is that, in Michael’s design, we pulled the lids off the traps in the Stephanie P. McClelland Drama Theater and so the house actually juts out over some empty space. And that empty space is painted in the same way as the skyscape behind the set, so the platform that is the house kind of floats on sky, both below and above it. I think that’s something that takes the play out of pure naturalism, and allows the naturalistic detail of the life inside the house to function alongside the more theatrical conceits of memory.”
Dance indeed plays a role in Dancing at Lughnasa. Every character in the play at some point dances—but it is how each character relates to dance that illuminates them to the audience. In Lughnasa, dancing “is a release, actually, that expresses things that [the characters] can’t express with language,” explains McSweeny. “In a musical, they say if you could express yourself in words in a scene, then you wouldn’t need to sing—so the dancing is like singing in a musical; it’s the moment where the characters express something that they can’t say with language.”
But it is Friel’s language itself that is one of the primary glories of the play. He is, says McSweeny, “truly a wordsmith, because if you listen to the play, the way the sounds bump against each other is very elegant. There is just a lot of beautiful, very musical rhythm to his writing.” A play filled with joy and sorrow, resonating with the heart, soul, and rhythm of the characters, their longing, Ireland, and the 1930s, Dancing at Lughnasa is sure to be memorable.