This week marks the 30th anniversary of the 1990 premiere of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel's most successful play and a cornerstone of modern Irish theatre. It was produced by the Abbey Theatre, directed by Patrick Mason and designed by Joe Vanek, with his iconic fields of golden wheat creating an enduring visual imprint. The play won an Olivier Award and a Tony Award. It was adapted by Frank McGuinness into a film which starred Meryl Streep, directed by Pat O'Connor.
There are two stories of Dancing at Lughnasa. Firstly, there is the play itself, a tragic story about Irish womanhood in the formative years of the Irish Republic. And secondly, there is the story of the production of the play, a galloping international hit that combined Irish dancing and Irish mammies (five of them) into a massive global cultural phenomenon. It has been produced all over the world.
But for those of us old enough to have lived through the 1980s, this play was clearly born out of a grim era for Irish women. There were the convulsions of the 1982 amendment to the constitution giving equal status to the unborn, and the ugly misogynistic debate that surrounded this. There was the tragedy of the Kerry Babies case. Marital rape was only then being made illegal; the status of illegitimacy was only recently abolished. Single mothers were still publicly scorned, and often made to surrender their babies under duress. Magdalene Laundries were still in operation. Mary Robinson had not yet been elected President - the idea of a female president would have seemed fanciful. And Ireland was still in the grip of the terrible recession of the 1980s; hope and optimism were in short supply.
Four years after its premiere, I was invited to direct a production of Lughnasa by Punchbag Theatre Company for the Galway Arts Festival. Directing is a bit like performing a forensic examination - you sift the text detail by detail to find its hidden meaning. Dancing at Lughnasa has many of the characteristics of what is termed a snuff movie; it is like watching women being killed. Friel is one of those playwrights who understands the dramatic power of cruelty - younger writers like Martin McDonagh and Marina Carr understand this, too, in somewhat different ways. Dancing at Lughnasa unfolds with an almost sadistic control. These beautiful, lively women are slowly being suffocated, the screw turning on them bit by bit, as the summer of 1936 draws to a close. Proud Kate, the eldest, her future contains the humiliation of tutoring the children of the man she loved; Chrissie, abandoned by her lover, "spent the rest of her life in the knitting factory and hated every day of it"; Maggie subsumes all troubles into comical denial - a very Irish response to trauma. Most heartbreakingly, and this is the tragic core of the play, Agnes and Rose go to London and eventually become Irish vagrants living under the Thames Embankment; they die from drink and exposure. Friel himself had aunts who disappeared into London's underworld in this manner. "In the selfish way of young men, I was happy to escape," says Michael, Chrissie's son and the narrator of the play. Vibrant lives, all snuffed out.
Thirty years on, it is difficult to see this harsh play without the shimmering nostalgia that formed around it. We are light years away from the misogynistic cruelties of the middle and late 20th century. The blighted Irish women's lives depicted have become obscured by the success story of the play. Tony Awards, Olivier Awards, Oscar-winning actresses in the lead role. But for all the razzmatazz surrounding the show's happy life on the stage, the play remains ultimately a scar. It is brushed over and healed somewhat, but Dancing at Lughnasa marks the space of a deep national wound.