order and disorder: celebrationS of MUSIC, dance, passion, Paganism AND WAR.
the warrioresses of dancing at lughnasa
Márcio Hemerique Pereira
(Department of Arts and Humanities, University of Minho, 4710-057 Braga, Portugal)
Abstract: The essay proposes to analyze Brian Friel’s work, Dancing at Lughnasa, in a peculiar perspective – that of dance, language and music forms, in which the ‘warrioresses’ Mundy are involved. Exploring these forms intrinsically attached to public and private lives which are issues to that society, we will try to go beyond the text and understand what Friel intended to say to the Irish society. Beyond the language movement and its contrasts, we will analyze in what performance can, at certain point, mystify life. We will be (re) organizing the rituals and myths absorbed in the Mundy family and Irish society in order to contextualize them in present Ireland and world. Equally important, relate the motifs in Ballybeg inside-out world (the carnivalization invoked in Friel’s work). Finally, the essay tangles the different efforts of Brian Friel’s in Dancing at Lughnasa when using representative forms of speech (music, dance, silence) and what considers being a more viable and broader definition of Ireland itself.
Key Words: Dance, Music, Friel’s play - Dancing at Lughnasa, and Family.
“Reading or watching a play with an historical basis acquaints us with a certain amount of what we recognize as history. From such a drama, we might even learn some history; inevitably, although possibly unconsciously, we will become aware of the nature of history.” (Barfoot, 1995:1)
“The great global debates of the next hundred years are anticipated in Dancing at Lughnasa. He will be read not just in this country but increasingly widely. He will be watched by countries whose names we don’t even know now.” ( N í Aluain, 2000:78)
The narrative of Dancing at Lughnasa is staged as Michael’s pushes his memory back. The story of the five sisters, in a small village of Ballybeg (Donegal – Ireland), is introduced by this young man, son of one of the five sisters, who stands back and remembers one summer in August 1936, when he was seven. We are transported to several years in his mind, when his childhood was full of notorious and sad events. He, intrinsically, creates a framework in which audience can see how his family had numerous forth and back situations. This is a product of his own life story.
“The narrator’s main role is to make the scenes he describes more poignant by letting us know in advance what happened to those people in the end.” (Mutran, 1995:140)
Michael observes that there are people leaving home and people coming home all the time. His uncle Jack returns from far Africa to live the rest of his days with his sisters, after over two decades distanced from home, working as a missionary in Africa soil. “Father Jack is wearing the uniform of a British army officer chaplain.” (ii) Then, we also have Michael’s father who visits the Mundy family twice. I personally would say that such visits had no clear purpose, they meant only to approximate Michael’s mother, Chris, to his father, but it does not seem to be possible and ever happens. We think, at first, Gerry love Chris and that would explain his visits, but it ended up being just a trick of Friel. It is understood, later in the play, what turns out to be no more than insincere visits towards Chris feelings, but she does not get to know that. Gerry in his comes and goes, - it is explained factually in the end of the play - is due to a household and children he has elsewhere, precisely in Wales. Also, Gerry does not try any further approximation to Michael. The fact of promising Michael a bike does not justify that. It is just an attempt to get Chris attention for while he is around. Michael knows, and we are also conscious, Gerry is leaving soon.
Our first impression is of a play in the realistic tradition, with circumstances that will be complicated according to the adding of the characters.
“When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936 different kinds of memories offer themselves to me. We got our first wireless set that summer – well, a sot of set; and it obsessed us. And because it arrived as August was about to begin, my Aunt Maggie – she was the joker of the family – she suggested we give it a name.” (Friel, 1990:1)
The summer ends with the departure of two of his aunts (Agnes and Rose) from home in an attempt of getting a better life outside that closed world, the misfortunate village and the economic situation they are in. The destination is the big London which will be another wrong choice. Destiny or not, that is the assumption given to the Mundy ‘warrioresses’. The play gives a big part for the romanticized (re)encounter of Gerry and Chris but it does not bring them together as a family at all. The marriage, another important issue in the play, is no longer expected, she does not trust him - in her subconscious, he is a liar - and besides, he is already married. The play pinpoints the Mundy’s struggles to survive all the obstacles of that harsh life, also the fact that The Mundy women are getting old and destined to end their lives alone. Michael’s illegitimacy is also a counterpart as it is provocatively and systematically developed by Friel as a break of the rules, Michael was born outside marriage. Michael is the good and the bad of the family after all, because he is young and brings life to the Mundy sisters. All this information is displayed in the beginning but through it that the audience will see how this family manage the struggles in such a conservative Irish society, because they need at all times to preserve their dignity and cover what has been evaded. It also contrasts the cruel period of unemployment, poverty and a time for no hope, which the family are submitted. I would like to pinpoint the extreme conservatism in relation to what family concept is. Family is a symbol of honor in Ireland and it could not be touched. Any kind of conversation that could lead to an unchristian understanding should not be spread all over the place. Any sort of problem should be solved at home and the secrets kept in family. A conversation between Kate and Maggie clarifies my point:
Kate: God forgive you, Maggie Mundy! The poor creatures are as entitled to –
(She breaks off because Chris’s laughter is heard off. Kate jumps to her feet.)
This must be kept in the family, Maggie! Not a word of this must go outside these walls d’you hear? – not a syllable!
Kate: You work hard at your job. You try to keep the home together. You perform your duties as best you can – because you believe in responsibilities and obligations and good order. (…)
His technique [Friel], says Pine (1990), is drawing us into his world leading to a ‘illusion, disillusion, and attempts at dignity, so that when he resolves whatever crisis has been posed’ he will, in all senses, have ‘lost faith, disintegration of the family, failure of memory and displacement of affection – we become responsible for that resolution.’ (p.50) This sort of issue is always present in his work. Family runs throughout Friel’s work as a major theme like Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa. Now in the light of this we may safely say that Friel is concerned about other aspects of Irish life rather than maintaining a broadly nationalist outlook on recent historical events in Northern Ireland. But also, he will be mentioning the problems that the outside world brought to Ireland. The Spanish Civil War which was taking men out of Ireland but giving them no expectation to return was another issue. All the disappointment and nostalgia has been framed as a reality portrayed of an Ireland which is unique in all meanings and in a broad sense of the word. Nostalgia that could not be, simply, washed away, they were just real facts to be drowned.
Its title (Dancing at Lughnasa) come from a scene (transcribed below) in which the sisters interrupt their household chores to break out into a wild and completely unexpected dance, as they celebrate a pagan Irish Festival called Lughnasa (pronounced LOO-na-SA). It is a festival of the Celtic harvest god Lugh, which still practiced in certain rural areas of Ireland. Celebrated during the time of harvesting, the occasion is a time for merrymaking as well as contests of strength and skill. Some Irish people still honor the holiday with fires and dancing.
Kate: Ballybeg’s off its head. I’m telling you. Everywhere you go – everyone you meet – it’s the one topic: Are you going to the harvest dance? Who are you going with? What are you wearing? This year’s going to the biggest ever and the best ever.
Agnes: All the same I remember some great harvest dances.
Agnes: We’re going.
Kate: Are we?
Rose: We’re off! We’re away!
Kate: Maybe we’re mad – are we mad?
Chris: It costs four and six to get in.
Agnes: I’ve five pounds saved. I’ll take you. I’ll take us all.
Kate: Hold on now –
Agnes: How many years has it been since we were at the harvest dance? – At any dance? And I don’t care how young they are, how drunk and dirty and sweaty they are. I want do dance, Kate. It’s the Festival of Lughnasa. I’m only thirty-five. I want to dance.
In spite all the trouble insights and bravura performances, most of the sisters are decided to go to this dance at any cost. The Mundy sisters realized that the world is moving around and they are not with it. Kate replies to that not very positively, though.
 Munira Hamud Mutran (1995), The Two Mirrors of Brian Friel in the Mundy Scheme and Dancing at Lughnasa, in C.C. Barfoot and Rias van den Doel (eds.), Ritual Remembering: History, Myth and Politics in Anglo-Irish Drama. The Literature of Politics, the Politics of Literature: Proceeding of the Leiden IASAIL Conference. (Amsterdam-Atlanta, GA: Rodopi. vol. 2.), pp.137-144. Mutran relates this reflexion as a mirror where you can see yourself in. The copy of it is a mere product of exhaustive demand of self. “However, the lifelike impression is not all. The mirror’s surface shows an imitation of everyday life, but all at the same time it conceals other meaning. On one hand, these women perform all their daily tasks: they bake soda bread, make tea, wash, iron, and sweep, make a mash for hens, knit gloves, cut grass, bring a basket of turf into the kitchen. There is no end to their domestic chores. Gradually, one becomes aware that the central concern of the play is language and its devaluation.” (p.140)