“[I remember when my family got our first wireless radio in 1936] Because it arrived as August was about to begin, my Aunt Maggie- she was the joker of the family- she suggested we give it a name. She wanted to call it Lugh, after the old Celtic God of the Harvest. Because in the old days, August the First was La Lughnasa, the feast day of the pagan god, Lugh; and the days and weeks of harvesting that followed were called the Festival of Lughnasa. But Aunt Kate- she was a national schoolteacher and a very proper woman- she said it would be sinful to christen an inanimate object with any kind of name, not to talk of a pagan god. So we just called it Marconi because that was the name emblazoned on the set.”
Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa (which opened on Broadway in 1992, after playing in Ireland; the Irish Repertory Theater has revived it for the show’s first New York production since the Broadway run, performing it through Jan. 15, 2012) is perhaps the most important “Pagan” theater work of the twentieth century. Like a good play, Dancing is concerned on the surface with the very trivial in life- but ultimately is all about the tensions and exuberance of Life itself. In this case, life as it is lived by the five sisters of the Mundy family, outside of Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland, their Irish lives a pull between the strictures of Catholic piety and the wilder nature of their nation’s Celtic [Pagan] past. This sorority is led by elder sister Kate, who is something like the Mother Superior of the small “convent”: when Chris contemplates that she might start wearing lipstick, her sister Agnes cautions, “As long as Kate’s not around. ‘Do you want to make a pagan of yourself’?” “Pagan” in this work is everything banished by Catholic doctrine and decorum- specifically identified as dancing. When Maggie and Rose begin to jig in the kitchen, Agnes remarks dryly, “A right pair of pagans, the two of you.”
“Pagan” is also the wilder, more forbidden Festival of Lughnasa, celebrated in the back hills. “First they light a bonfire beside a spring well. Then they dance round it. Then they drive their cattle through the flames to banish the devil out of them.” However, when Agnes and Rose want to go to the dances of Lughnasa (“I want to dance, Kate. It’s the Festival of Lughnasa. I’m only thirty-five. I want to dance”), Kate will hear none of it. “They’re savages! I know those people from the back hills! I’ve taught them! Savages- that’s what they are! And what pagan practices they have are no concern of ours- none whatever! It’s a sorry day to hear talk like that in a Christian home, a Catholic home! All I can say is that I’m shocked and disappointed to hear you speaking rubbish like that, Rose!”
Dancing is something potentially dangerous; the play’s narrator is the out-of-wedlock child of Chris, who fell to passion with his father after they discovered that they danced well together, and there is talk of “the Sweeney boy,” who was so drunk at the Pagan revelry of Lughnasa that he fell into the fire and was badly burned. Yet dancing represents such primal passion, Maggie is compelled at one point to spread a white mask of flour over her face and break out into a defiantly exuberant Irish jig (I saw the Broadway production in ’92 and remember the startling effect of this vivid moment).
That the “Pagan” is something that goes beyond Celtic-Catholic Irish culture is shown by the sisters’ brother Jack, a missionary priest who has returned from working with the “Pagans” of Uganda. He has so much trouble re-assimilating, he finds himself grasping for English words he should know well, and gradually begins to reveal that perhaps he was returned home because he became a little too assimilated to the Indigenous practices of the Ugandans; he talks about the “ceremonies” they would perform, offering sacrifice to Obi, “our Great Goddess of the Earth, so that the crops will flourish.” He describes “getting in touch” with the departed ancestors, the spirits of the tribe, and the Festivals of the New Yam and the Sweet Casava, both dedicated to the Goddess Obi. “Then the incantation- a chant, really- that expresses our gratitude and that also acts as a rhythm or a percussion for the ritual dance. And then, when the thanksgiving is over, the dance continues. And the interesting thing is that it grows naturally into a secular celebration; so that almost imperceptibly the religious ceremony ends and the community celebration takes over. We light fires around the periphery of the circle; and we paint our faces with colored powders; and then we dance- and dance- and dance.”
However, because these are not “Christian ceremonies,” Kate is horrified by her brother. Although she comes to determine that he is on his “own distinctive spiritual search” (and are not we all each on our “own distinctive spiritual search”?), she demands that such talk never go beyond their home. “Leaping around a fire and offering a little hen to Oka or Ito or whoever is not religion as I was taught it or indeed know it.”
Yet the urge towards primal passion, towards dancing at Lughnasa, towards the Pagan- remains so strong that the narrator (looking back upon this Irish summer of 1936) recalls his family as dancing: “Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement- as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.”
If you lack opportunity to see this work on the stage, Dancing at Lughnasa was made into a movie in 1998 with Meryl Streep.