The Music of Dancing at Lughnasa

By Leah Flowers
24 March 2024

In Chekhovian theatre, everything, every small word or reference, can have layers of meaning. As a dramaturg, I cannot know for certain what Friel meant with each word he wrote, but here are my thoughts as to the deeper meanings of the songs that were specifically included by the playwright.

 “Acis and Galatea, HWV 49a. O ruddier than the cherry”

  • Sample https://youtu.be/K9SlEKZPZFw
  • Original Artist – Georg Friedrich Händel (score)
  • Original Release – 1718
  • Notes – “O ruddier than the cherry” is a masque from the 1718 opera Acis and Galatea by German Classical composer Georg Friedrich Händel (Vickers and Gardner). The song’s opening lyrics are “I rage, I melt, I burn” (“Recitative”) and are sung by the giant Polyphemus who lusts after Galatea, a nymph who is in love with the shepard Acis (“An Introduction”). This work was based on Book XIII of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It enjoyed great popularity with over 70 stagings during Handel’s life and was his first opera in English (Pearlman). The story unfolds such that Polyphemus kills Acis with a boulder and Galatea uses her magic powers to change Acis into a stream that will flow forever, in essence granting him immortality (“Synopsis”). The way I interpret the placement of these lyrics here is that Friel is drawing a parallel between Jack and Polyphemus. Jack comes back to Glenties and smashes apart their happy home because he has forsaken the church and thus, the small amount of protection that his position offered his sisters is gone. Kate loses her job and the family separates, but the memories of that happy summer live on forever through Michael.

 “Anything Goes”

  • Sample https://youtu.be/tN2KHeEWqZM
  • Original Artist – Cole Porter (music and lyrics), Ethel Merman (original recording)
  • Original Release – 1934
  • Notes – “Anything Goes” is a song that shares the title of the musical it is from, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter; the first recording was of Ethel Merman who originated Sweeney, the character that sings the song (Honigmann). What’s interesting about this song is that “[t]he ostensible condemnation of moral laxity in the words is undermined by exuberant delight” and brightness of the music (Honigmann). Gerry, a man with morals that are ambiguous at best, is the one singing the lyrics to Agnes, who is not even the mother of any of his children. Lyrics like, “If Mae West you like, / Or me undressed you like, / Why nobody will oppose” highlight how this character approaches life, with a devil-may-care attitude, wooing whomever and doing whatever he likes as long as it pleases him.

“British Grenadiers, The”

  • Sample https://youtu.be/r8n2GY23z4E
  • Original Artist – unknown
  • Original Release – ca 1700
  • Notes – The exact origins of this song are unknown, but theories postulate that this song is based on a Dutch martial song from the early 1700s “March of the Young Prince of Friesland” (Henderson) or possibly from a song called “Sir Edward Noel’s Delight” (Pelliccioni and Kuntz). Regardless of its true origins, it has been in use by the British as a military march since the reign of William III. The fact that our “character” Marconi blasts this war song randomly as the women want to dance is perhaps a reflection by Friel of how Britain’s colonial oppression stamps out the culture of those countries on whose necks they rest their boots. The people just want to dance and celebrate their uniqueness but the English colonizers won’t have it. See page 26 for more

“Dancing in the Dark” / [Unspecified Song]

  • Sample https://youtu.be/Dp9ubfjKZn0
  • Original Artist – Arthur Schwartz (music), Howard Dietz (lyrics), John Baker (recording)
  • Original Release – 1931
  • Notes – During the scene with Gerry’s arrival the stage directions say, “An appropriate song of the period plays softly from the radio” (Friel), but does not list a specific song. However, multiple sources I found say that the song is “Dancing in the Dark” (Barbour; Billington) which I assume is the John Baker version. This song is from the 1931 Broadway musical The Band Wagon to which the composer Arthur Schwartz wanted to add a song that was “somewhat mystical” with a slow and even rhythm, a song that author Alec Wilder said had “stepwise, sinuous phrases” (Burlingame). It’s easy to see why a song like this would be included at this moment as it is quite romantic and easy to slow dance to.

“Everybody’s Doing It Now”

  • Sample https://youtu.be/ZYJV4C_Dbm4
  • Original Artist – Irving Berlin (writer), Collins and Harlan with Orchestra (recording)
  • Original Release – 1912
  • Notes – The 1912 Irving Berlin ragtime song could be the origin (Rodders, “Everybody’s”) of Maggie’s ditty, as she is known to like to play with lyrics. But I am not certain because it doesn’t sound the same. It could be just a colloquial song that people sing.

 “Isle of Capri, The”

  • Sample https://youtu.be/wHZwawOCWWA
  • Original Artist – Hugh Williams and Jimmy Kennedy (writers), Lew Stone (recording)
  • Original Release – 1934
  • Notes – This song was extremely popular in its time, with many artists and bands recording versions of it (Murray), perhaps the most popular version is the one by Frank Sinatra. It is about love that is not meant to be. The sound is romantic and wistful, and the lyrics portray a man who meets a woman on the Isle of Capri, Italy, who tells him not to linger. Maggie sings this song, changing the gender of the singer to match her wishes because as she says in the play, she longs for a man.

 “It’s Time to Say Goodnight”

  • Sample https://youtu.be/9LTKo8KDdwo
  • Original Artist – Henry Hall (music), Kate Gibson (lyrics), BBC Dance Orchestra (recording)
  • Original Release – 1934
  • Notes – This song was originally recorded by the BBC Dance Orchestra in 1934 (Rodders, “It’s Time”). It’s a soothing lullaby that comes at the end of the play, as Michael is describing how the feeling of memory is more real that actual events. It bolsters the idea in the text that “everybody seems to be floating on those sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete isolation; responding more to the mood of the music than to its beat” (Friel).

 “Mason’s Apron, The”

  • Sample https://youtu.be/JALYH61L3VM
  • Original Artist – unknown
  • Original Release – ca 1780
  • Notes – Music this old can have muddy origins, but there is agreement among scholars that this song is most likely Scottish in origin, even though it is popular as an Irish fiddle tune; it also goes by different names including “The Isla Reel,” “Braes of Glenorchy,” and “The Mason Laddies” (McGlashan). The script calls for a version “played by a ceili band” so I don’t think it is looking for a specific recording. I included the sample above from The Dubliners (Duval). I believe it was chosen because this is a common, traditional dance song; plus listening to it does make one want to kick up their heels.

“Play to Me, Gypsy”

  • Sample https://youtu.be/YGJ8asVZXRE
  • Original Artist – Karel Vacek (writer), R. A. Dvorský a jeho Melody Boys (recording)
  • Original Release – 1934
  • Notes – This was originally a 1931 Czech song written by Karel Vacek and recorded by R. A. Dvorský a jeho Melody Boys; Grace Fields released a 1934 version in English followed by a version from Layton & Jonstone released in 1936 (Dennis). At the top of Act Two, Maggie comes in from getting water singing this tune. The lyrics indicate a person who wants to have an alluring gypsy song that will linger with them and make their heart sigh. Even though most of the women in the play seem to want romance, Maggie is most vocal about it. The song illuminates her desire more deeply because she sings this while doing chores.

“Will You Come to Abyssinia” / “Roll Along Covered Wagon”

  • Sample https://youtu.be/GbxR0fDm9c0
  • Original Artist – Jimmy Kennedy (lyrics), Harry Roy and His Orchestra (recording)
  • Original Release – 1935
  • Notes – In BBC’s archive of WW2 stories, the following explains how the lyrics to “Roll Along Covered Wagon” got changed: “During school playtimes children would form a rough line and march around the playground singing “Will you come to Abyssinia, will you come, bring your own ammunition and your gun, Mussolini will be there shooting peanuts in the air, will you come to Abyssinia will you come?” This was sung to the tune of ‘Roll along covered wagon, roll along’” (Horton). When Rose sings it, she improvises her own lyrics as well. The first recording was in 1935 (“Roll Along…”) so it is likely that in 1936 it was a popular song that people liked to sing and playfully mix up its lyrics.

Sources

  1. “An introduction to Acis and Galatea.” English National Opera, https://www.eno.org/discover-opera/operas/introduction-acis-galatea/.
  2. Barbour, David. “Theatre in Review: Dancing at Lughnasa (Irish Repertory Theatre).”  Lighting & Sound America, 4 November 2011, http://www.lightingandsoundamerica.com/news/story.asp?ID=-DLKIIJ.
  3. Billington, Michael. “Pagan passions in an Irish kitchen.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Ltd., 16 October 1990, https://www.theguardian.com/news/1990/oct/17/mainsection.michaelbillington.
  4. Burlingame, Sandra. “Dancing in the Dark (1931).” Jazz Standards, https://www.jazzstandards.com/compositions-2/dancinginthedark.htm.
  5. Dennis, Carl. “Play to Me Gypsy.” Secondhand Songs, https://secondhandsongs.com/work/159274/versions#nav-entity.
  6. Friel, Brian. Dancing at Lughnasa. Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1991.
  7. Henderson, Robert. “How did Soldiers in the Seven Years War originally sing “The British Grenadiers”?” Access Heritage, https://www.militaryheritage.com/british-grenadiers.htm.
  8. Honigmann, David. “Anything Goes – countless singers have relished the memorable rhymes of Cole Porter’s song.” Financial Times, Nikkei Company, 1 October 2018, https://ig.ft.com/life-of-a-song/anything-goes.html.
  9. Horton, Stanley. “War Through a Child’s Eyes.” WW2 People’s War, BBC, 23 September 2005, https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/20/a5876120.
  10. McGlashan, Alexander. “Isla Reel (1), (The).” The Traditional Tune Archive, MediaWiki, 6 June 2019, https://tunearch.org/wiki/Isla_Reel_(1)_(The).
  11. Murray, D. “The Isle of Capri.” Secondhand Songs, https://secondhandsongs.com/performance/271454/originals#nav-entity.
  12. Pearlman, Martin. “George Frideric Handel: Acis and Galatea.” Boston Baroque, 6 November 1987, https://baroque.boston/handel-acis-and-galatea.
  13. Pelliccioni, Valerio M., Kuntz, Andrew. “The British Grenadiers [1].” Tune Archive, 10 November 2022, https://tunearch.org/wiki/Annotation:British_Grenadiers_(1)_(The).
  14. “Recitative, I rage, I melt, I burn : air, O ruddier than the cherry : from Acis and Galatea, 1720.” Ball State University Digital Media Repository,  https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/ShtMus/id/5608/.
  15. Rodders, Paul. “Everybody’s Doing It Now.” Secondhand Songs,  https://secondhandsongs.com/work/168802/versions#nav-entity.
  16. Rodders, Paul. “It’s Time to Say Goodnight.” Secondhand Songs, https://secondhandsongs.com/work/263001/originals#nav-entity.
  17. “Roll Along, Covered Wagon.” Secondhand Songs, https://secondhandsongs.com/work/158553/.
  18. “Synopsis.” Acis and Galatea, https://www.acisandgalatea.org/synopsis.
  19. Vickers, David, Gardner, Matthew. “G. F. Handel’s Compositions HWV 43-100.” Handel Institute, 30 August 2020, http://gfhandel.org/handel/worklist/43to100.html.