a bittersweet reflection of rural Ireland in the thirties on the brink of industrialisation, returns to London for the first major revival since its premiere nearly 20 years ago.This vital, life affirming play is a passionate portrait of the five Mundy sisters following their loss of love and opportunity played out against the echoes of the twentieth century with a dark humour, raw energy and tenderness.The play has the form of a "memory play", and is narrated by Michael, the illegitimate son of the youngest of the five sisters, as he looks back to the summer of 1936. At one level, it is a portrayal of the situation of the five sisters at that time, and of attitudes that now appear alien to us and would probably be labelled as prejudiced. As spinsters, for example, the sisters experience a sense of being "outsiders" to the ordinary family structures of the Ireland of the1930's (they do not feel able to go to the dance, for example). That Father Jack has lost his Catholic faith in favour of the religion of the African people he spent 25 years among is also a cause of shame, and leads to Kate losing her job as a teacher in the local school. There are also representations of the history of the time - references to the Spanish Civil War, to De Valera, to the coming of industrialisation and the loss of home working cottage industries, to emigration to England, to the arrival of the wireless. This page gives some idea of themes that can be seen in the play. It is also a play that lacks an immediate plot.
There is reflected very strongly, and in some ways as a theme that gives the play a purpose other than just a historical/memory, a theme of pagan imagery. This is part of Brian Friel's exploration of the nature of Irish culture. This has two parts to it: the paganism of the African religions represented by Fr Jack's reminiscences of his time in Africa, and the pagan religion of pre-Christian Ireland, represented by the harvest celebration in honour of the God Lugh, from which the play gets its title Lughnasa. In this context, it is interesting to see the representation of Catholicism. Kate criticises the pagan expressions of others in the play, but one does not gain an impression of a Catholic faith being lived out at anything more than a cultural level, a level which has a social expression rather than a truly religious one, and which is expressed in certain prejudices. The sisters are not shown, for example, going to Mass on Sunday. One comes away, rightly or wrongly, with a sense of Catholicism as having been portrayed as just another form of paganism or superstition.
Those who know Ireland and Brian Friel better than I do may well feel differently!
I found it interesting to compare the situation of the five sisters in the play to my Mother's generation in my own family. With the exception of my Mother (in some ways the "rebel" amongst them), they all stayed their whole lives in, or very near, the Lancashire town in which they were born and grew up. When three of them died, they were living less than a mile from the house in which they had been born. The circumstances which led to this were akin to those portrayed in Dancing at Lughnasa, and the outcomes in the every day tensions between them were also similar.