May 2012        

Friel, Brecht, and the Leaving Cert!

Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa is an important text for many pupils studying for the Leaving Certificate in English. This month Socialist Voice offers an insight into the way Friel stages the play.
     Friel uses Brechtian techniques to achieve a certain purpose. But what are Brechtian techniques?
     Bertolt Brecht was a German communist playwright who lived in the first half of the twentieth century. He revolutionised the way plays were put on stage. He broke completely with the tradition whereby the audience identifies very much with what is happening on stage, almost as we do with most films that we watch.
     Brecht didn’t want that. He wanted to show things on stage in a way that made people think. To achieve this distance between stage and audience he used different distancing techniques, including a chorus or commentator, non-realist costume, masks, songs, etc.
     Brian Friel does just this. In Dancing at Lughnasa he creates a distance by using Michael as a narrator, who is an adult at the time he narrates the events of “that summer.” He speaks his own lines—the lines that take place in the play at the time when he was a seven-year-old boy.
     So we have several layers of distancing. The audience accept Michael as a commentator on past events. They accept that Michael shows that all this is in the past—not the present—because Michael now has adult insights into the family members that he could not have had as a child. Michael, the narrator, is the most powerful distancing tool.
     But Friel uses other Brechtian techniques too. For example, the “formal, motionless tableau” or freezing of the characters at the beginning and end of the play underlines the fact that what the audience is presented with is not happening in reality: it has been drawn from Michael’s memory.
     Finally, the dance scene uses non-verbal language to express insights into the sisters that go beyond the immediate and comment in a significant way on the nature especially of Kate, the strict enforcer of crippling Catholic morals in the household. The stage directions show that there is a repressed other side to her: “a movement that is simultaneously controlled and frantic . . . a pattern of action that is out of character and at the same time ominous of some deep and true emotion.”
     All these techniques encourage the audience to think about what they are being shown. Thinking and realising that the past has lessons for us is the key here. If we, the audience, see that things might have been different if the characters had behaved differently, it means that inhuman aspects of society can be challenged and changed, that nothing has to stay the way it is if people only realise their power.
     Brecht’s theatre, and Friel’s, set out to empower people, not to entertain them at any superficial level.

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