This is a "memory play," a drama whose events are presented to us as the recollections of an on-stage narrator, in this case the adult Michael Mundy, who looks back from the early 1960s to the summer of 1936, when he was seven years old. Thus, the setting is, on one level, the mind of the narrator. What Michael remembers, and what we see on stage, is "the home of the Mundy family, two miles outside the village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland." Half the stage is taken up by the family kitchen, and half by the garden next to the house.
Ireland has always been one of the poorer countries of Western Europe, but in 1936, in the midst of the world-wide Great Depression, that chronic economic hardship is even worse. We see this reflected in the "austerity" of the country kitchen and in the dress of its inhabitants, various members of the Mundy family. Their costumes, like the furnishings of the house, "reflect their lean circumstances."
The village of Ballybeg (Gaelic for "small town") is Friel's creation, and is the fictional location of many of his plays. Donegal, on the other hand, is a real place, one of the counties that make up the Republic of Ireland. Friel has deep personal connections with Donegal. As a child he spent considerable time there, summering with his mother's sisters, and he has since settled in Donegal himself.
In addition to its personal significance to the playwright, Donegal occupies a distinctive place in the Irish national imagination. Like the State of Maine, and for some of the same reasons, the county is shrouded in a kind of romantic mystique. Well to the north of the major cities of Dublin, Cork, and Galway, mountainous in its interior, little-developed along its rugged coastline, and lacking in fertile farmland, Donegal has always lagged behind the rest of Ireland in economic and social development.
Indeed, since the turn of the century, Donegal has undergone a significant loss of population, falling from about 173 thousand inhabitants in 1901 to about 127 thousand in 1990. However, because of this economic backwardness, many of the customs, beliefs, and cultural practices of traditional Irish life have been preserved in Donegal. Many of the communities along the Atlantic coast, for example, still speak Gaelic, the original language of Ireland. And it is in Donegal where the ancient festival of La Lughnasa (pronounced "loo'-na-sa'") is perhaps most vividly celebrated.
La Lughnasa honors the Celtic harvest god, Lugh (pronounced "Loo"). Once worshipped by Celtic peoples throughout western Europe and the British Isles (the cities of Loudon in France, Leiden in Holland, and London in England are all named after him), Lugh is now remembered only in remote places like Donegal. The title of the play, then, refers to the celebratory dancing associated with this pagan festival. The setting is thus a kind of mythical location, a "small-town" (Ballybeg) sanctuary of authentic Irish life that modernity has yet to reach. Or is it? As the narrator, Michael, tells us in the opening monologue, his memories of Ballybeg in the summer of 1936 are full of "a sense of . . . things changing too quickly before my eyes." He recalls a "widening breach between what seemed to be and what was, of things . . . becoming what they ought not to be." It is the experience of change played out against the deeply traditional Donegal setting that provides much of the play's conflict and pathos.
The play is divided into two acts, the first of which takes place in early August, just after the beginning of the festival of La Lughnasa, the second of which occurs three weeks later, at the end of the festival in early September. Each act shows the events that occur during the afternoon and early evening of a single day. The narrator, Michael, introduces each act, and comments periodically on what is happening, or what will happen in the future.
Michael, as noted above, is looking back on these events from an adult vantage point. As a narrator, he is both closely connected to the people whose lives he is describing and also somewhat distant from them: close enough to know the intimate details, far enough away to be able to recount them objectively. The ambivalence of that narrative stance is perhaps derived from his personal relationship to the other characters in the play. Michael is the illegitimate son of Christina (Chris) Mundy, one of the six Mundy siblings whose lives are the focus of the action. As an illegitimate child living in the intensely religious, small-town environment of Ballybeg, Michael is the object of both love and shame in the household, a joy as well as a stigma, someone who is simultaneously part of and apart from the family. That divided feeling is suggested by the convention established by Friel for dealing with Michael's participation in the action on-stage. No child actor appears to play his role. Instead, when the adults talk to the boy-Michael they address an imaginary, invisible presence which answers them in the voice of the adult-Michael standing outside the frame of the action.
That action has many of the apparently haphazard qualities of ordinary life outside the theater. During Act I, for example, we watch as Maggie, Chris, Agnes, and Rose, four of the five Mundy sisters, wait for the return of Kate, the fifth sister and the eldest, from marketing in town. They perform routine household tasks: Agnes knitting gloves to be sold for family income, Chris ironing clothes, Maggie making mash for the hens, Rose carrying in turf for the fire. The conversation is casual, moving from talk about a broken mirror, to a discussion of lipstick, to complaints about the erratic behavior of the wireless radio, nicknamed "Marconi."
What are we to make of this loosely structured, seemingly random flow of speech and action? Does it embody the tedium of a life of dull routine, the boredom of a provincial and limited existence? Or does it evoke the comforting and sustaining structures of family intimacy and cultural continuity? Or both? Whatever the answer, this is clearly a world of established rhythms and relationships, shaped by time and custom, where people have come to expect that their lives will continue into the future as they have gone on in the past.
But as the action develops, we see disturbing forces beginning to disrupt the Mundy sisters' settled existence. For one, their brother, Jack, has just returned to Ireland after twenty-five years of missionary work as a priest in Africa. "Father Jack" as he is now known is a strange presence in the house, a man who has been away from home so long that he can no longer tell his sisters apart or remember the simplest English words, and who describes strange African experiences: "That's what we do in Ryanga when we want to please the spirits . . . we kill a rooster or a young goat. . . . You have a ritual killing. You offer up a sacrifice. You have dancing and incantations." Is Father Jack an Irishman or an African, Catholic or pagan, an alien or a native son in Ballybeg? He seems uncertain himself about the answers to these questions, wandering through his family home as both the first-born child and a stranger.
This ambiguity shocks Kate, a schoolteacher and devout Catholic, who does not want to imagine her brother, celebrated in the Donegal Enquirer as "our own leper priest", participating in alien ceremonies or embracing alien beliefs. And yet her own neighbors seem bent on similarly pagan practices. La Lughnasa, long commemorated with a harmless local dance, has begun to be celebrated in more robustly heathen form, with bonfires and wild dancing in the hills beyond town. "Savages," Kate calls the dancers, and forbids any talk of their outlandish behavior in her "Christian home."
But the wild spirit of Lughnasa has already invaded the Mundy household, as we see when the sisters begin their own riotous dance while listening to the radio they have recently acquired: "With this too loud music," the playwright says, "this pounding beat, this shouting . . .singing . . . there is a sense of order being consciously subverted . . . indeed of near-hysteria being induced." Through their uninhibited dancing the sisters seem to be telling us, without coming out and saying it in words, that, much as they may cherish their lives in Ballybeg, they also chafe against its routines and limitations.
We see further hints of subverted order when Rose, the "simple" sister, announces her intention of heading into the back hills with Danny Bradley, a married man, thus hinting at sexual trouble to come.
Sexual troubles from the past arrive with the appearance of Gerry Evans, Michael's natural father, whose visit, his first in over a year, provides his son "a chance to observe him." Gerry is met with a combination of exhilaration and resentment, the former mostly from Michael's mother Chris, the latter from Kate. He turns out to be a charming, good-natured, but unreliable young man, full of promises but short on follow-through. A magnificent dancer, he sweeps Chris across the garden in a silent, elegant waltz. But he also brings with him troubling tidings from the outside world when he announces his intention of joining the International Brigade to fight on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War, defending "Godless Communism."
By the end of the first act, then, the seeds of wrenching change in the Mundy family are planted. During the second act, three weeks later, we watch them germinate.
We learn that Father Jack has indeed "gone native" in Africa, completely embracing the culture and religion of Ryanga. He has been sent home in disgrace, and is now a pariah to the local authorities, civil and religious; an outsider in his own village.
As a result of her brother's ignominy, Kate loses her teaching job, and will spend several years unemployed until she is finally hired as a private tutor.
In the second act Gerry visits again to say farewell before leaving for Spain. There, Michael tells us, a wound will put an end to his dancing days, wiping out a vital part of his life.
Rose keeps her date with Danny Bradley, but does not stay in Ballybeg long enough to confront the consequences. Instead, she and her sister Agnes leave home together when their glove-knitting business is wiped out with the opening of a woolen factory in Ballybeg. The Industrial Revolution, Michael informs us, finally arrives in Donegal. Eventually Chris takes a job in this factory, and spends the rest of her life working there, and hating it. In a narrative overview of the family's future, Michael informs us that Rose and Agnes end up in London, where, twenty-five years later, he finally tracks them down, "Agnes . . . dead and Rose . . . dying in a hospice for the destitute." By the time Michael returns to school, the family he had known at the beginning of the summer has changed profoundly: "the heart seemed to go out of the house," he tells us, as its members drift away to the outside world.
The final image on stage at the end of the play shows the Mundys and Gerry Evans standing silently, swaying almost imperceptibly to faintly heard music. Standing among them are two kites that the boy-Michael has been building throughout the course of the two acts. Now completed, they face "boldly out front," exhibiting the images Michael has applied to their surfaces: "On each . . . is painted a crude, cruel, grinning face. . . ." In some ways, the kites suggest the exhilaration of flight, the longing for release from the mundane rhythms of Ballybeg that each of these characters has expressed. But those "primitive" and "garish" faces with their "cruel" grins warn that escape from traditional life, and the loss of connection that goes with it, can also bring terror and pain.
Much of the discussion thus far has addressed questions of character, so this section will only deal with matters that need further development.
Kate, the oldest of the Mundy women, is the only member of the family who holds a paying job. She is the most conscientious, responsible, and conservative of the sisters, the one who enforces the rules of traditional conduct. Early in the play, Chris says, "I think I just might start wearing lipstick," to which Agnes responds, "As long as Kate's not around." And later on, when the younger sisters propose attending the harvest dance, Kate vetoes the idea, saying "Dancing at our time of day? That's for young people with no duties and no responsibilities."
But beneath this conventional social identity, there lurk other impulses and energies. When the sisters begin their wild dance to the wireless, Kate engages in "a pattern of action that is out of character and at the same time ominous of some deep and true emotion", suggesting that the woman who seems most deeply attached to the sequestered life of Ballybeg nurses a secret desire of her own for escape.
Maggie is the joker of the group, constantly teasing the young Michael and challenging him to solve the endless riddles she proposes. For all her high spirits, however, it is Maggie who works hardest to keep up the sense of family continuity after the departure of her sisters. "[She] took on the tasks Rose and Agnes had done and pretended to believe that nothing had changed."
Agnes and Rose have a special relationship. Rose, Friel tells us, is "simple," meaning that she is somewhat mentally retarded. Agnes acts as her protector, a relationship we see vividly portrayed in the second act, when Rose, out berry-picking with her sister, slips away for her rendezvous with Danny Bradley. Agnes imagines that her sister has returned home, and when she discovers that Rose is missing, hers is the most fearful and grief-stricken response of the sisters. At the end of the play, it is Rose and Agnes who go off together on a life of hand-to-mouth survival that will end with their pathetic deaths in London.
Chris, the youngest of the sisters, is the only one who has borne a child and who has a long-standing relationship with a man. Thus, she has real emotional connections outside the Mundy family. Although Gerry Evans is ultimately a failure as a father to Michael and a partner to Chris, he still inspires a kind of excitement in her that may be unknown to the other sisters. When she comes back to the house after Gerry's Act I visit she is hugging herself, thrilled and eager, insisting to Michael that his father is "handsome," and confiding that he "has a great new job! And he's wonderful at it!" As it turns out, there is no great job, and Gerry eventually disappears entirely from her life, leaving Chris to her hated work in the factory. Her illusory hopes, like Gerry's expectations of commercial success and battlefield glory, come to nothing. Romantics both, Gerry and Chris may be well, if unhappily, matched.
Father Jack. As a priest, Father Jack ought to embody all the orthodox values of traditional Ireland. It was to the clergy, after all, that the Irish peasantry looked for leadership during the centuries of English occupation and oppression. But paradoxically, the priest in this play has become the heretic, affirming the sacredness of "love children," the virtues of polygamy, and the transcendent wisdom of Ryangan religion. Worst of all, rather than celebrating Mass, he suggests performing a sacrifice to "Obi, [the] Great Goddess of the Earth, so that the crops will flourish." Like the hinterland worshippers of Lugh, he seems to have moved beyond his Irish-Catholic upbringing to reclaim his identity as an ancient Irish pagan
The Wireless. The radio, which broadcasts "all the way from Dublin," is a constant reminder of the outside world and its growing power to penetrate the protected life of Ballybeg. While it beams traditional Irish music into the Mundy home, it also carries disturbing reports of violence and upheaval, and it sends out the subversive strains of Cole Porter, who announces via Marconi that nowadays, "anything goes." However, the radio keeps breaking down, suggesting that the connection with that threatening and exciting outer world is as yet tentative and fragile
Dancing. In the last lines of the play, Michael tells us that when he remembers that summer of 1936 everybody seems to be "[d]ancing, as if language had surrendered to movement...as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way . . . to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in . . . those . . . movements. Dancing as if . . . words were no longer necessary." Each of the characters in the play dances at some crucial moment: Gerry and Chris when they meet after a long separation, Father Jack when he celebrates the power of the Goddess, all the sisters when the sounds of the wireless bring them into contact with the outside world.
But each of those moments contains elements of contradiction: although they are together for the moment, Gerry and Chris know they will ultimately live apart; although he is carried away by the worship of Obi in Africa, Father Jack knows that he is celebrating an alien deity and that one day he will return to Ireland; although the radio brings the romance of the outside world into their kitchen, the sisters realize that they can never fully escape Ballybeg. And while one part of them may want to, another part fears any change in their closely-knit lives. What Michael suggests is that people dance at such moments because dancing provides a way to transcend the painful contradictions, conflicts, and uncertainties of ordinary experience. Dancing takes us beyond the everyday world of language and its ambiguities to a place where our hopes can be painlessly, though fleetingly, fulfilled. If the kites imply the conflicting emotions associated with change, both exhilaration and terror, dancing promises a deliverance from such inner conflict, allowing an experience of undivided happiness.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why are all the sisters unmarried?
2. Why does Father Jack change so drastically in Africa?
3. How does Michael feel toward his father, Gerry?
4. Why do the kites have frightening faces painted on them?
5. Why does the radio keep breaking down?
6. Can you relate these characters and situations to your own lives? Do you know people who both long for and fear change?
7. What would the Mundys' lives be like if their radio were replaced by a television, VCR, and stereo? What if there were no radio?
8. Why do the people in the play suddenly start dancing? What are your reasons for dancing? How does it make you feel?
9. How would you describe the plot of the play? Does it tell a story? Or is it organized some other way? In responding, consider the following: Plot refers to the arrangement of the incidents that make up the play, and it includes both what events the playwright chooses to present on stage, and the order and relationship among those events. The most familiar form of plot is a "story," which is a sequence of events having something like a cause-effect relationship with one another. Event one happens, and as a result event two follows, and so on through the whole sequence. Plots could also be organized as character studies, or in the form of theme and variations.
10. Who is the main character in the play? In deciding this question, critics often identify the main character as the one who changes most from beginning to end.
11. If you cannot decide who is the main character, is it possible to consider the idea of a "group character", a social unit rather than an individual? Discuss.
12. Identify some of the major conflicts involving both individuals and larger groups.