Performing the Aging Self in Hugh Leonard's "Da" and Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa


Situated at the intersection of age studies and modern drama, this article examines the performance of age in the contemporary Irish plays Da by Hugh Leonard and Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel. Plays such as these are particularly suited to examining the construction of a sense of self over the life course, as textual choices regarding the onstage embodiment of memory reveal attitudes toward age and aging. These works are typical memory plays in that at least one character portrays a different age in the space of a moment without a change of costume, makeup, or props. A sense of essential, unchanging self arises from such portrayals, but each play introduces twists in the performance of age that complicate that concept. Da (first published in 1973) revolves around Charlie, who is in his early forties, as he recalls events from the times when he was seven and seventeen. While the same actors portray his parents in all the scenes, teenaged Charlie and middle-aged Charlie are performed by different actors; in fact, the two Charlies interact. The main character also is fragmented in Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) as the adult Michael narrates his memories while standing outside the realistic action and delivering the child Michael’s lines in his normal adult voice. Working from Kathleen Woodward’s theory of the mirror stage of old age, this article argues that both plays assert a sense of essential, ageless self, then undercut the illusion of essentialism with a bodily separation, pointing to a tension in the contemporary construction of the aging self.

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