Dancing at Lughnasa
 by Brian Friel
 Stetson University Theatre Arts “Second Stage”
 April 2013

This is a very richly textured play, and is commonly considered to be Brian Friel’s masterpiece. Besides its compelling story, the play features a metatheatrical staging technique in which the narrator represents himself as a boy in scenes remembered from his youth—by speaking his part while the other actors relate to the space he would have occupied as the boy.

The play is a bittersweet story told by Michael Evans of events he remembers from August of 1936, when he was seven years old and living with his unwed mother and her four sisters in a cottage outside a small town in County Donegal, Ireland. The routine of Michael's matriarchal family is upset by the appearance of two men.

One is his father, Gerry, who visits the family for the first time in over a year on his way to join the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Gerry rekindles his romance with Chris, Michael's mother, through dancing in the garden to music wafting by on the family's first radio set. As a virile man among unmarried and aging women, Gerry stirs up forgotten passions in them all.

Another crisis, this one of a spiritual nature, is brought on by Michael's uncle Jack, a Catholic priest who has been on a mission to a leper colony in Uganda for twenty-five years, and who has come home to recuperate from malaria. Instead of converting the Africans to Christianity, he has absorbed elements of their traditional culture and religion, and is now, in the opinion of the local parish priest, unfit to say Mass. Father Jack's amalgam of religious practices - "his own distinctive spiritual search" as his conservative sister Kate puts it - creates a scandal in their insular community and eventually costs Kate her job as a schoolteacher. Jack's condition highlights the similarities between the indigenous cultures of Ireland and Africa.

Lughnasa is a pre-Christian Celtic harvest festival honoring the Celtic god Lugh, featuring drunken revelry and dancing around bonfires. In the early twentieth century in Ireland, a form of the traditional festival and its rites were still being observed. Although the "many-skilled" Lugh has been described as "the Celtic god of just about everything," his presence in this play is particularly evident as the god of music and dance played haphazardly through the radio he inhabits, and the resulting impact on the passions of the characters.

This was the second time I directed this play at Stetson; the first was in 2000. We produced it again after polling students and faculty for their choice of plays, and as an opportunity to experiment with design elements and dialect work (English, Welsh, and Irish).




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Copyright © 2016 by Ken McCoy.