Ireland has a way with playwrights. Many of the most important theatre artists of modernism escaped their impoverished homeland only to reap enormous success elsewhere. Expatriated Irish playwrights include Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. An equally impressive list of playwrights stayed home, including Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, and John Millington Synge. Per capita, a case can be made that no country in the world matches Ireland’s capacity for birthing luminous writers of the stage. Acclaimed playwright Brian Friel (1954–2015) inherited and continued the prodigious legacy of Irish drama. Dancing at Lughnasa stands out as his most acclaimed play.
In the tradition of his forbearers, Friel has mastered two important conventions of Irish drama. First, he infused his common-folk characters with the grand poetry of the oral tradition. His lovable protagonists percolate with the lyricism of everyday speech regardless of their station, education, or class. Second, Friel gifted his beloved creations with the ability to find humor in life’s direst circumstances. The term “laughing through tears” comes to mind. A former seminarian, Friel never sugarcoated the harsh economic, cultural, and social struggles of his people. Although plagued by poor choices, his characters seek meaning; they crave respite; they attend mass; they intuitively know that more must exist beyond this temporal plane. Most importantly, they keep themselves vigilant to observe and receive the brief flashes of joy that surround yet too often evade us.
Simply put, the strong and fierce women of Ballybeg choose to dance rather than submit to the ravages of despair. We would be wise to learn from their example.