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Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel

I love revisiting plays that I haven't read for years. The last time I read this play was in college when NYU did it as a Mainstage production. I was called back for Chris then and she is the character that still intrigues me now (and I'm much closer to her real age now.)

Dancing at Lughnasa is the story of five Irish sisters, all unmarried, all struggling to live day-to-day. The youngest, Chris, has a child named Michael out of wedlock with her on-again-off-again sweetheart Gerry. Michael is seven but only seen on stage in the form of a grown-up narrator, as it is Michael's memories that we are revisiting in the play. The 7-yr. old version is never seen but often interacted with, while narrator Michael voices him from the side of the stage. The other male member of the family - Jack, the girls' brother - has returned from a long trip in Africa and has seen better days.

The title refers to a Festival in honor of the Celtic God of the Harvest, Lugh, at which there is much dancing and cavorting. The sisters haven't been to the festival in years and can't really afford to go, but Agnes, the middle sister, has saved some money from her knitting and wants to treat everyone to an evening of fun! Kate, who at 40 is the oldest and strictest, responds:
Just look at yourselves! Dancing at our time of day? That's for young people with no duties and no responsibilities and nothing in their heads but pleasure.
Why should those qualities should be limited to young people? Everyone deserves a break from the weight of the world (why do you think weekends exist?) Course, for us theatre people the weekend is still the workweek, but even then it's full of pleasure! I digress.

Poor Chris. I feel for her - loving a man that came in and out of her life like a whirlwind, waiting to know if he'll come again, believing his promises even when it's foolish to do so. She has received a certain amount of shame by having Michael without getting married and the shame has cast a shadow over the family. Gerry is not exactly the sisters' favorite person but during the play he comes to visit and sweeps Chris right back up off her feet. They spend the afternoon dancing and talking and Gerry sees his son for the first time in a while. Chris gets her hopes up and then Gerry tells her that he's going off to fight for the Popular Front, a Spanish government. He's a man who is looking for a cause and explains to Chris:
And there's bound to be something right about the cause, isn't there? And it's somewhere to go - isn't it? Maybe that's the important thing for a man: a named destination - democracy, Ballybeg, heaven. Women's illusions aren't so easily satisfied - they make better drifters.
What he really needs is some order, a sense of structure in his life. No doubt he'll find that in a war.

Many more things happen to the sisters over the course of the play that are subtle and moving. I love what Friel has done with the narrator - grown up Michael. He speaks with a beautifully poetic tone that is of course Friel's .. in his closing speech he speaks about dancing in a way that spoke right to my soul.
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 ...
That's exactly how it feels to me when I dance. It's a fuller form of expression. So often I feel that words alone cannot fully convey the meaning in my heart or in my head. It's a shame that if I broke out into choreography on the street or in a bar people would think I was loony.. because I'm really just feeling on a different level.

Tomorrow's Play: Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck

Ps. Um, what? There's a movie with Meryl Streep? Netflix!

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