Dancing At Lughnasa Summary

Brian Friel

Dancing At Lughnasa

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Dancing At Lughnasa Summary

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Dancing at Lughnasa is a 1990 play written by Irish playwright Brian Friel. The play, which contains two acts, is set in the fictional Irish town of Ballybeg in the summer of 1936. It is a memory play told from the point of view of Michael Evans as he recounts the events of his childhood. The play has earned many accolades on the stage, including several Tony Awards, and has been adapted into a 1998 feature film directed by Pat O’Connor and starring Meryl Streep.

At the beginning of the first act, an adult Michael narrates his memories of the summer of 1936, when he was seven years old. That summer, Michael lived in a cottage in the small, rural town of Ballybeg, Ireland, with his mother and four aunts. All five of the Mundy sisters – Kate, Maggie, Rose, Agnes, and Christina – are unmarried. Kate works outside the home as a schoolteacher, Maggie runs the house, and Rose and Agnes help the family’s finances by making and selling knit gloves to the local townspeople. Christina, Michael’s mother, does not have a job. His father, Gerry, is a traveling salesman who sells gramophones. He is charming but unreliable, and does not seem to want to commit to marrying Christina.

Michael explains that this was the summer the family got their first wireless radio, allowing them to receive music from Dublin, and which they nicknamed Marconi. That summer, the women’s brother, Jack, returned home from Uganda where he had been working as a missionary for the past twenty-five years. Michael believes Jack’s return is somehow related to the radio. Jack has contracted malaria and is extremely frail.He seems to have forgotten his sisters’ names and some words in the English language, since he is accustomed to speaking Swahili. He also appears to have foregone the family’s Catholic faith and adopted the beliefs of the native pagan tribes in Africa. Michael comments on how different his uncle looks in an old picture of him that was taken when he was serving in the British army.

Rose and Agnes want to go to the harvest dance at the annual Festival of Lughnasa, but Kate scolds them, telling them that they are too old and have too many responsibilities to go dancing like young women. Maggie helps Michael make a kite. Rose and Agnes talk about a local boy named Sweeney, who was badly burned in a bonfire on the first day of the Lughnasa festival, which took place in the back hills beyond the town. On the first day of the festival every year, a large group of men and women gather to build a large bonfire and perform a drunken ritual in which they drive their cattle through the fire to expel the devil from them. During the ritual, Sweeney’s pants caught on fire, and he was burned. Kate scolds the sisters for talking about the festival. She claims that the people who live in the back hills are “savages” and that their pagan rituals are an insult to Catholicism.

The sisters reminisce about their old suitors. Christina turns on Marconi, and the sisters all dance to the song “The Mason’s Apron.” Kate chides Rose and Agnes for splurging their glove money on a new radio. The sisters tell her that they do a lot of unpaid housework and just want to have some fun. Michael’s father, Gerry, arrives at the house and Christina goes out to the garden to meet him. Gerry tells Christina he hitched a ride to Ballybeg with a man he met in a bar who just happened to be going there. He also recounts a story of seeing a brown cow with a unicorn horn in the middle of the road on his way to the house. Gerry says he is mad about Christina and wants to come back to marry her in two weeks, but Christina does not trust him to not walk out on her and Michael again. The two dance passionately in the garden while the other sisters look on.

Kate criticizes Gerry and calls him irresponsible, saying that he would never actually marry Christina. She argues with the other sisters about her disdain for Gerry. Jack talks about some of the pagan traditions that he has picked up in Africa, including sacrificing roosters. He says that Ugandan households usually have a lot of illegitimate children, like Michael, and that bastard children are welcomed in African families. A present-day Michael wraps up the narration by saying that Kate lost her job at the local schoolhouse, supposedly because enrollment numbers were down, but actually because the parish priest who ran the school was suspicious of Jack’s paganism. Michael says that although Kate was right about a lot of things, she was wrong about Gerry not wanting to marry his mother. He reveals that the two never had a formal wedding but were married in spirit.

The second act begins in early September, three weeks after the events of the first act. Michael is about to start school. Jack talks to Kate more about his life in Africa, including his devoted house boy and mentor, Okawa, and the lighthearted religious ceremonies of the Ugandan people that included drinking palm wine and dancing. Gerry reveals that he has thought about his future and wants to join an international brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He will be fighting against Franco’s fascist army, which is supported by the Catholic church. He does not have any political allegiances but wants to do it for the adventure. Christina tells Kate that a new glove factory has opened in town, depriving Rose and Agnes of their livelihood. People are now buying cheap gloves directly from the factory instead of from local sellers.

Although they were urged to apply for work in the factory, Rose and Agnes decide to leave home instead, notifying the family of their departure in a letter left on the breakfast table. Michael finds out later that the sisters did marginal work in London before becoming homeless and destitute. When they were discovered twenty-five years later, Agnes had died, and Rose was dying of illness in a hospice for the poor. He also reveals the fate of the other family members. Gerry joined the Spanish army and was injured in Barcelona. He eventually stopped visiting Christina, married another woman, and had three other children. Jack died within a year of Rose and Agnes leaving home. Christina worked in the glove factory for the rest of her life, a job which she hated. Kate eventually found work as a tutor for a rich family. Michael says he left home as soon as he was old enough, and that the spirit of the house died after Rose, Agnes, and Jack were gone.

The play ends with a scene in which the family danced and enjoyed themselves in better times. The main themes of the play are poverty, religion, pleasure, duty, change, and uncertainty. The play is essentially about the tension between two opposing forces – the real world of duty, responsibility,and Christian morality, and the escapist world of music, dance, pagan hedonism, and fantasy. While Kate represents the former, the other family members all gravitate towards the latter as a source of relief in their unfulfilled, economically hardscrabble lives. The play is also a portrait of a changing world in which industrialization is playing a larger role and old ways of life are beginning to fade.