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Dancing at Lughnasa. Driven by memories, influenced by gender.

Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa can, like any piece of literature, be read and interpreted in many different ways depending on which theme is the focus of the analysis. Gender issues and Memory have both been used as a theme for interpreting the play
The alliance between church and state produced legislation and cultural expectations that were particularly oppressive to women’. As a result, the female characters would had fewer opportunities than men and faced discrimination despite the promise in the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic that ‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all is citizens’. As the five main characters on the stage are all female, these restrictions inevitably impact significantly on their circumstances and Lojek is right to place them in this context.
The play is primarily set in the kitchen of the home of the Mundy sisters. This places the sisters in a stereotypical setting where they carry out the domestic duties that society expects them to carry out. By setting the play in a domestic environment, the characters are sheltered from direct discrimination but even in this sanctuary the impact of the external environment still encroaches on their lives. At the same time, the women are able to engage in activities that they would not undertake outside their home. Kate sees it as inappropriate for them to go to the harvest dance, yet they all dance wildly in the kitchen.
The lack of economic opportunities for women is highlighted and poverty is clearly a factor in the play. However, it is unclear whether the wider gender issues are the cause of their poverty or whether it is related to other factors. There are five women, an infirm man and a child in the house but only Kate has a job with the family relying on her income. Whilst women were paid less than men, this does not explain why the other four women did not have jobs.
 Rose is ‘simple’ and Agnes looks after her. They knit gloves at home for some extra money. When the opportunity arises to work in the glove factory, Agnes runs away with Rose instead and Michael says that ‘Perhaps Agnes made the decision for both of them because she knew Rose wouldn’t have got work there anyway’. This suggests that Agnes did not work because of Rose and Rose was unable to work rather than this being a gender issue. It is noticeable also that Chris, who doesn’t work throughout the play, goes to work in the factory after Agnes and Rose leave.  
The only males in the household are the returning and infirm Father Jack and a seven year old child so the domestic arrangements have not been forced upon the women directly. In the absence of a male head of the household, the role is taken up by Kate as she is the only person who goes out to work and leaves the domestic chores to her sisters without valuing the work they do. She gives her sisters orders and berates them when they veer from the religious morals she upholds.
By the time the play was written in 1990, the situation for women had improved and Ireland was on the verge of electing its first female President. However, moral assumptions about women such as the need to punish unwed mothers remained in place to prevent women achieving true equality.
The lack of a male adult family member in the same position makes it more difficult to assess whether gender is the driving force for any differences. Father Jack is ill and has only just returned from Uganda so he cannot be used for this purpose.
Modernisation and emigration are both social issues that weighed heavily on Ireland during the twentieth century and feature in Dancing at Lughnasa. They could both be used as the central theme for an analysis. Whilst it is Agnes and Rose who are most obviously affected by modernisation when their knitted gloves are no longer required, the same issue also affects Gerry’s ability to sell gramophones and the influence of the radio as a driver for social change can also be seen. Both men and women emigrate albeit for different reasons and with differing degrees of success. In the same way that the narrator offers a male gaze, he himself emigrated to England and is from a more modern period.
The structure of Dancing at Lughnasa is provided by the childhood memories of Michael, the narrator. The play begins with him saying ‘When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936 different kinds of memories offer themselves to me’ and he goes on to set the scene by recounting those memories. The adult Michael narrates from a position outside the main set so his child self does not appear in the action and speaks the lines of his child self while the other characters pretend that he is there. This reinforces that these are his memories as he would be present but not visible to himself and demonstrates the importance Friel gives to memory in the play.
By using memories to structure the play, Friel is introducing an element of selection into what is covered as the lives of the characters can only feature when Michael is present and what appears in the play is what would be significant enough to be remembered by him. Memories are also subjective and unreliable. People will always remember events in different ways and as time passes those memories become less reliable. There are scenes where what is happening cannot be an accurate representation of events because Michael is not present. When Gerry talks to Chris in the garden, he notices that ‘he’s watching us from behind that bush’ but the dialogue also includes comments from the women in the kitchen which Michael could not have heard. Michael admits as much at the end of the play when he says ‘what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident’.
The theme of memory goes beyond the narration of Michael. Throughout the play, the other characters often refer to past events. Memories of Ballybeg for Jack are a reminder of how long he has been away. His memories of Uganda are his way of showing how much he misses being there. For the women, they are often reminders of happier times such as when they discuss whether they should go dancing ‘Just like we used to. As well as being a theme of the play, memory also provides the structure. The subjective and unreliable nature of memory means that every issue in the play is affected by it.



This post first appeared on REALITY MISSPELLED, please read the originial post: here

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Dancing at Lughnasa. Driven by memories, influenced by gender.

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