Dancing at Lunghnasa is one of Friel’s most popular plays. The play is based on the memoirs of Michael Munday as reflected on a summer when he was seven years old. The play depicts the five Munday sisters, Maggie, Kate, Chris, Agnes, and Rose. The five sisters are coping with loneliness, unemployment, as well as the idiosyncrasies of their brother Jack, who has returned from Uganda where he went as a missionary (Roche, 2006). He is suffering from malaria, but the worst is that he has been converted to pagan ways. This essay examines the tension and chaos in the family that follow the return of Jack finally causing its fragmentation.
As the play opens, the Munday family is depicted as a close one with the five sisters and their two brothers all living in the same house. However, this happiness, as Michael hints, does not last long. In order to understand one of the underlying causes of chaos and tension in the family, it is important to appreciate the historical setting of the play. Dancing at Lughnasa is set in Friel’s popular fictional village of Ballybeg, in 20th century Ireland. This is a time when religion, Catholicism, to be specific, is very instrumental in society. The church and state imposed a moral code on the conduct of the community (McGrath, 1999).
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Kate is depicted as the macrocosm of the church as she provides guidance to her other sisters. In the 1930's Irish society, any behavior that contradicted the church was met with suspicion and contempt. The characters that depart from the religious code of conduct that was to be followed every time cause the conflicts that arise in the play. The conflict between religion and paganisms always gives rise to tensions and conflicts that follow the Mundays, leading to the fragmentation of the family at the end of the play (Boltwood, 2007).
In Dancing at Lughnasa, tension is created through various forms, which cause disharmony in the family. One of the ways is through the Marconi set the family acquires at the beginning of the play. However, the set had battery problems and overheating that caused it to go off on its own. Maggie, one of the Mundy sisters wanted the radio to be named Lugh, but her sister Kate rejected the name arguing that it would be unreligious to name a nonliving thing with any sort of name, leave along the pagan name she was proposing (Friel, 1993). The set enchanted the sisters with music and dances. As such, through the Marconi set, one witnesses the tensions brought by the set as it evokes conflicts between paganism and Christianity as Maggie wants the set to be named after the pagan god named Lugh, while Kate does not want the set to be called any name, leave alone the pagan one (McGrath, 1999).
Another cause of tension is dance. Indeed, dancing is the main metaphor of the play, as its title suggests. Three of the Mundy sisters, Agnes, Christina, and Rose all want to go to the harvest dance. The title of the play refers to the yearly Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasa. As Michael informs the audience at the start of the play, Lugh was the ancient Celtic god of the harvest and his festival was celebrated on the first day of August and was followed by weeks of the festival known as the Festival of Lughnasa (Roche, 2006). The three sisters wanted to dance because it was the Festival of Lughnasa.
However, Kate objects to the idea arguing that the dance is meant for young people without duties and responsibilities, but only pleasure to care for in their lives (Friel, 1993). Despite the determination or the three sisters to go to the festival, Kate succeeds in interdicting their moves. However, the Marconi set is there to fill in the vacuum left by failure to attend the dance. As Irish dance plays on the set in the kitchen, Maggie smears her face with flour and starts dancing wildly. All the other sisters join her, including Kate (Boltwood, 2007).
Another event that causes tension in the Munday family is the return of Jack from a leper colony Mission in Uganda, where he has been for 25 years. Since Jack was a missionary priest, the Munday sisters maintained their dignity, even after Christina begot Michael out of wedlock. However, when Jack returns, things become more complicated. At first, it is not clear what might have caused his return as her sisters blame it on malaria (McGrath, 1999). Nevertheless, as time goes by, it becomes apparent that Jack has abandoned Christianity and has been converted to pagan ways. This is evident as he talks more of ancestral spirits, medicine men, as well as animal sacrifices. When he describes life in the leper colony, he does not focus on his Christian mission, but dwells on his houseboy, who he characterizes, as being his mentor and friend (Roche, 2006).
Jack also describes the ritual ceremonies that he took part in, which entailed animal sacrifices, wine, music, and dancing. He admires how the Ryangan culture had no difference between religion and the secular world. Jack marvels at the similarity between the Ryangan and Irish culture. These sentiments are appalling to Kate, as she longs for the day when Jack will take part in mass again (Friel, 1993). In the mind of the Michael, the narrator, the return of Jack and the Marconi set are inextricably related. This is because the two events caused the disintegration of the Mundy sisters and family. Michel narrates that, although he was only seven years old when Jack returned, and the family acquired the radio, the two events caused tension in the family and things started changing too fast (Boltwood, 2007).
The return of Jack has far-reaching implications for the Mundy sisters. After it has been discovered that Jack has left Christianity and engages in pagan ways, Kate is laid-off from the school that is managed by the church where she works as a schoolteacher. This affects all the other sisters because she is the sole breadwinner of the family. Rose and Agnes spend their time knitting in order to raise some money for the family (McGrath, 1999). However, the opening of a knitting factory in the village, a move that renders their work redundant and the family in poverty thwarts their efforts. As such, industrialization and modernization also have played an important role in the tension that leads to the fragmentation of the family. The two sisters are forced to emigrate to England, where, as Agnes dies years later, and Rose is admitted in a hospital for the destitute (Friel, 1993).
Just as the return of Jack signals tension between the Mundy sisters, the return of Gerry, the father of Michael also causes chaos in the family. Gerry is full of broken promises. He is in love with Christina, but Maggie and Agnes also give in to his charms. When Gerry arrives, all the sisters are thrown into a state of tension with each of them except Kate and Rose tries to impress her (Boltwood, 2007). The fact that the three sisters admire Gerry results to jealousy among them. At one point while he was dancing with Maggie, Chris angrily turns of the Marconi. This depicts the sort of disorder that Gerry brings to the Mundy sisters. The family is also surprised to find out that Gerry has another family. His irresponsible character makes Chris reject his proposal, despite the two having a long sexual relationship (McGrath, 1999).
Despite her staunch inclination to religion, the dancing nonetheless influences Kate. Although she does not take part in the shouting and dancing, she participates in the wild dance. The stage directions inform that she dances alone. She is also at one point in a relationship with Austin Morgan, but the latter eventually marries someone else. After Kate loses her teaching job, she tutors the children of Morgan to support the family. Nevertheless, unlike her sisters, Kate’s Dionysian proclivities are controlled by her conventional catholic morals (Dean, 2003). In the play, Kate’s conventional morality serves as the conscience that represses the libido of her other sisters. She interdicts the sisters from attending the Lughnasa dance and admonishes Maggie for singing pagan songs. She realizes that in spite of how firm she holds to her duties and responsibilities in the house, she is finally giving in to the pressure. The final blow comes in when she loses her job because of her brother who has left Christianity (McGrath, 1999).
In conclusion, different factors come into play to cause tension between the Mundy family. All these factors arise from the conflict between the conventional moral code dictated by Catholicism depicted by Kate and the Dionysian interruptions epitomized by the return of Jack and Gerry Evans. Jack’s pagan way of life causes Kate to lose his job as a schoolteacher. This then causes Rose and Agnes to immigrate to London to stop being a burden to the family. Gerry’s secret affairs and polygamy cause suffering to Michael. The radio and the opening up of a new knitting factory, epitomes of modernity also cause tension and fragmentation because the radio causes conflict among the sisters, while the factory leads to the loss of employment to the two sisters.
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