A Word from the Playwright: Donegal in the Thirties

By Leah Flowers
24 March 2024

Dancing at Lughnasa first opened in 1990 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (“Dancing… Abbey”), and with that success, a touring production launched the same year. Broadway welcomed the play in 1991 at the Plymouth Theatre (“Dancing… Playbill”). A film version was produced in 1998 starring Meryl Streep (Moran). The Abbey Theatre revived it in 1999, The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York produced it in 2012 (Rooney), and finally the National Theatre in London staged it in 2023 (Akbar). Of particular note is that a 2002 production in Donegal got the direct support of Brian Friel in the form of consultation and a special letter in their program (Nicola). Here is that letter:

DONEGAL IN THE THIRTIES

It is an accepted belief that Ireland in the Thirties – and counties like Donegal in particular – was a grim and depressed place, a land without hope. And indeed even a casual knowledge of what we call the ‘economic climate’ of that time offers us a dispiriting picture. Emigration was bleeding the country. Money was scarce. A very large portion of the population had a very difficult struggle to make ends meet.

And we have come to believe, too, that the economic climate so overshadowed, so blighted our lives that we became a craved, narrow-minded and deeply unhappy people. That we became passive and introspective. That poverty so crushed us that joy became altogether foreign to us. That families merely endured in a kind of dour sulk, silently waiting for the black clouds to break. When we consider the Thirties we think that the whole notion of what it is to be human has to be rethought, redefined.

It is not the function of a play to take issue with economic facts, but it is the function of the playwright to slip behind statistics and listen for the other existence, the inner life, the life of the spirit and to pick up its pulse even in the most depleted times. Although the Mundy girls were not destitute, they certainly weren’t affluent. An extra penny on the weekly grocery bill is a reason for anxiety. And Maggie’s task of conjuring an adequate meal for eight people out of three eggs doesn’t suggest wealth. And Rose and Aggie, who knitted day and night, still didn’t earn enough to clothe themselves. In economic conditions like these I believe that greater demands are made on the inner life and that it is the responsibility of the spirit – and indeed the imagination – to meet those demands. It is those demands and the responses of the spirit and the imagination to them that are the concerns of the playwright. The Mundy girls (they weren’t girls, of course; they were women; but girls was the language of the time) had no idea they lived in an economic climate of any kind. But they did experience deprivation and depression. And they experienced, too, happiness and great, great joy. And in their brief stage-life each is vibrantly alert to, and uncannily in sympathy with, every nuance of her sister’s thoughts and emotions. They engage with life, all of life. They want to dance, both in defiance and in delight. They give the lie to the belief – the cliche, really – that Ireland in the Thirties was populated only by a suppressed and sullen people. They offer us evidence that the ‘economic climate’ of that time is not the whole story. Another story, perhaps a truer story, certainly a more comprehensive story, resides in the inner life, the life of the spirit. And that life, whatever its difficulties, is unquenchable.

Brian Friel, 2002

Sources

  1. Akbar, Arifa. “Dancing at Lughnasa review – an exquisite staging of Brian Friel’s evocative drama.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Ltd., 19 April 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2023/apr/19/dancing-at-lughnasa-review-ardal-ohanlon-olivier-national.
  2. “Dancing at Lughnasa.” Abbey Theatre, Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, https://www.abbeytheatre.ie/archives/play_detail/10376/.
  3. “Dancing at Lughnasa.” Playbill, Playbill Inc, https://playbill.com/production/dancing-at-lughnasa-plymouth-theatre-vault-0000009559.
  4. Moran, Sarah. “Brian Friel (1929-2015).” The Friel Project, Irish Repertory Theatre, 20 July 2023, https://irishrep.org/explore/discover-brian-friel-1929-2015/.
  5. Nicola. “Dancing at Lughnasa, 2002.” An Grianán Theatre, 2002, https://angrianan.com/in-house-production/dancing-at-lughnasa-2002/.
  6. Rooney, David. “Rosy Nostalgia and Sharp Reality Entwine in a Potent Jig.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 1 November 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/theater/reviews/dancing-at-lughnasa-at-irish-repertory-theater-review.html.