Memory and Reality: Two Sides of the Same Coin? | Quotidian Theatre Company

David Dubov

Prior to the opening of Quotidian Theatre Company’s next play, Brian Friel’s Irish drama Dancing at Lughnasa, several actors in the cast are writing here about various experiences they have during the rehearsal process.

Last week, Steve LaRocque wrote about Irish dialect and detailed questions. Next week, Laura Russell will discuss how a character’s shoes reveal personality. Here, David Dubov continues examining his role as active narrator.


So, in my last blog post, I wrote about how excited I was to begin the rehearsal process for Dancing at Lughnasa. Now, with a few more rehearsals under my belt, I’m building on that excitement by grappling with the concept I touched on of being not just a passive narrator, but an active participant in the piece.

Friel writes this play “looking back” on the Mundy sisters’ cottage, a fictional house contained within the fictional village of Ballybeg to provide a setting for the unspooling of Michael’s memory. Sitting in the audience, however, we take this place as real, and the natural actions, dialogue, and through lines of the characters (doing laundry, cooking, washing dishes, etc.) further ground us in that reality.

And then here comes my character, Michael, to puncture that reality, not only by setting the scene and telling us what happens offstage in future times, but also by weaving himself into the action of the play. So, as an actor making Michael a real person, I have to ask: why?

Why does Friel employ this particular device, instead of just having Michael an off-stage, disembodied voice narrating as if it were a film? What is Friel conveying to the audience through Michael?

Craig Mummey and I continue to collaborate as director and actor to bring the character of Michael to full, 3D reality. And, like building an armature for a piece of sculpture, here are the underlying thoughts that allow me to put flesh on the skeleton:

Indivisible participation: History and memory, two sides of reality for all of us, are exquisitely mixed — there is no separating them. Michael, while recalling his aunts and the specific summer of his 7th year, can’t tease these realities apart any more than you or I can. So, in telling this particular story to us, he is unable to simply stand apart as an impartial observer.

Triggered involvement: Memory comes in many forms — music and physicality are two of the strongest. Think back on one of your best memories and it will probably be accompanied by some sort of movement and a piece of music, almost like a miniature movie in your mind. These sensations beyond words reinforce our memories and allow us to recall them at a moment’s notice, sometimes even unbidden. Michael’s memories of these times float on a sea of music and dance and he is transported back to a time and place that is just as real as his present existence.

Emotional catharsis: The non-verbal elements are foremost in Michael’s recall, but the words of his narration are concrete, real, sometimes nearly cold. Referring back to my sculpture reference above, these narrative passages are the framework on which he can drape soft, warm fabric of memory and release.

I’ll leave you with what Frank Rich, former theatre critic of The New York Times had to say in his review of the Broadway production:

Dancing at Lughnasa does not dilute that sadness — the mean, cold facts of reality, finally, are what its words are for. But first this play does exactly what theatre was born to do, carrying both its characters and audience aloft on those waves of distant music and ecstatic release that, in defiance of all language and logic, let us dance and dream just before night must fall.”

Next time: acting alone with other people.

~David Dubov


Brian Friel’s masterpiece Dancing at Lughnasa is a drama about five unmarried sisters eking out their lives in a small Irish village in 1936. It won the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play, and Time Magazine called it “the most elegant and rueful memory play since The Glass Menagerie.” Our production opens April 20. Tickets and further information are available here.

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