Cheryl Julia Lee is a PhD candidate at Durham University. Under the supervision of Dr. Patricia Waugh, she is working on the intersection of aesthetics and ethics in contemporary British and Irish Fiction. She received her BA (Hons.) in English Literature from Nanyang Technological University in 2014 and her MPhil in Irish Writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2015. She is also a recipient of Nanyang Technological University’s HASS International PhD Scholarship. An early version of this essay was submitted for the Irish Society for Theatre Research’s New Scholars Prize 2017 and awarded second place.
The staging of remembrance in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa invites us to see the stage as a space for evocation rather than representation. Building on the premise of the lieu de mémoire, as elucidated by historian Pierre Nora, this essay examines the ways in which Friel rewrites the theatrical vocabulary of Irish memory plays in order that he might bring memory out from under the dust of history. In Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel’s interplay of visibility and invisibility frees the stage mechanism from its common use of representation and makes of it a symbolic expression of human feeling. In particular, I propose that, contrary to most critics’ straightforward reading of the Mundys’ dance in Act 1 as one of Michael’s memories, it is in fact an aesthetic gesture located at the intersection of the past and present, of reality and the imagination, of the self and the other. An aesthetic gesture, unlike a dramatic action, depends on a sense of ongoing-ness, of a relationship being formed, and is a key strategy of a theatre of evocation. In the play, Friel establishes conditions that allow for emotional resonance in order that memory might be salvaged from being mere ruins of the past. Meaning-making is brought back into the present, as the formal accordance of significance to experience through emotion and empathy is established as the purpose of memory.