Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dancing at Lughnasa

Donegal, Eire

It seems a long time since I last contributed to this blog. Winter has given way to the delights of Spring and today the sun shines joyously upon newly blooming daisies. Truth is I have had a lot of work come in which in a recession has to be a joy in itself. I do enjoy my work. To be doing something creative that I love is itself a great blessing. In the midst of all the work I did manage to take time out to travel to London to see Brian Friel's play, Dancing at Lughnasa at The Old Vic.

The Old Vic is a little gem, almost two hundred years old, small enough to be intimate and now set up for theatre in the round. The stage play of Dancing at Lughnasa entirely takes place in the Kitchen and garden of a croft outside the village of Ballybeg (little town) in County Donegal. It is 1936 and the five Mundy sisters  barely make ends meet. Kate, a teacher at the local school, is the only wage earner. Agnes and Rose knit gloves at home to make a little money. Chris and Maggie have no income of their own. Catholic propriety is the order of the day in a closed world. Yet beyond the kitchen is another world that even now is breaking in. 

The play opens with the revelation that the sisters got their first wireless set that summer. "Maggie - she was the joker of the family - she suggested we give it a name. She wanted to call it Lugh after the old Celtic God of the Harvest ... But Aunt Kate - she was a national schoolteacher  and a very proper woman - she said it would be sinful to christen an inanimate object with any kind of name, not to talk of a pagan god." But this 'inanimate object' is the dwelling of the spirit of dance. It brings music into a home, into womens' lives. The music makes them dance and, as their feet leave the kitchen floor, unquenchable passions are released. 

The five sisters have a brother, Jack, a missionary priest who has spent all his adult life in Africa. In 1930's Donegal poor unmarried sisters have little status in the community. To have a brother who is a priest, a living saint who has devoted his life to lepers gives them a place in society. It is the festival of Lughnasa, harvest time, a time to dance, find a partner, gather in.

Jack returns home from the missions but all is not as it seems. Fintan O'Toole writes, "Friel spent two years between the ages of 16 and 19 at Maynooth training for the priesthood, and he later called it 'an awful experience' that 'nearly drove me cracked.'"

Jack has been sent home in disgrace and Kate is soon to lose her position as a teacher for Jack has discovered something beautiful in Africa. As the time of the pagan festival of Lughnasa plays out in Donegal Jack says, "Or maybe to offer sacrifice to Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth, so that the crops will flourish ... we have two very wonderful ceremonies: the Festival of the New Yam and the Festival of the Sweet Casava; and they are both dedicated to our Great Goddess, Obi ... We light fires ... and then we dance - and dance - and dance - children, men, women ... dancing, believe it or not, for days on end! It is the most wonderful sight you have ever seen! ... Oh, yes the Ryangans are a remarkable people: there is no distinction between the religious and the secular in their culture. And of course their capacity for fun, for laughing, for practical jokes - they've such open hearts."

At Lughnasa the Mundy family harvest their passions and then all is scattered to the winds. Jack's 'disgrace' means Kate loses her teaching job. A new factory opens and home knitting becomes a thing of the past. With the family income gone Agnes and Rose leave to find work in England. Jack longs for pagan Africa and dies within the year. Yet dance has brought with it true humanity, blessed freedom of spirit, the release of passion, the blessing of the Great Goddess of the Earth. The play ends with these words, " When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement - as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary."

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Blogger Brian Charles said...

Thanks Paul for reminding me of this play. I remember seeing it about ten or so years ago at the Salisbury Playhouse and being completely knocked out by it. It was beautiful and inspiring and full of love.

Blogger Moonroot said...

I've seen this play a couple of times (not at the Old Vic, though!), and it's wonderful. Thanks for reminding me.

Anonymous Judy Gribble said...

I saw the closing monologue written on a poster in a small restaurant in Everett, Washington where they have live music every Friday evening. As I read the monologue I fell in love with the they fit into my life today! I stood up and danced by myself in this little place after being inspired...words really cannot describe...thank you Brian Friel!


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