Brian Friel got his wives dancing: There’s the five unmarried Mundy sisters of Dancing at Lughnasa and there’s the clinically blind Molly of Molly Sweeney. None of these women had any dancing to do; they were neither eligible young girls nor a great cause to celebrate, but they were dancing.
It has the five women of 1936 Ireland dancing off the beat on their untrustworthy Marconi radio, moving in a circle, part headlock, part rugby scrimmage. The legs fly, the breath is rapid, there is “challenge” and there is “aggressiveness”.
There are dabbing wellington boots and flour-dusted hands – all the women had been ‘in work’ before their shared moment of abandonment. And there are screams with heads thrown back. And when it’s all over, when the radio gives out without notice, there is self-awareness.
Of course, why should these women dance? Her dance sorority of sisters “avoid looking at each other” comes to an abrupt end. Where there was once connection and release, now there is shame. To dance is to show oneself, to be seen for who one is.
In Molly Sweeney, he flies blind Molly around a neighbor’s house the night before her failed eye surgery. She demands that a man present at the rally play “crazy, fast bagpipes”. She too “screamed” and “screamed”, and she too revealed “anger” and “challenge”.
“Crazy and wild and frenetic” is how Molly describes herself, until the music stops. Her husband, Frank, unplugged, asking Tom the musician to stop playing. Molly worries she’s terrified people when she finds the room “silent” and she bursts into anxious tears.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin also broke down in tears after her private dance was made public this week. Only her tears came to a public lectern, where she stood to defend the movement of her body in sync with the melody and rhythm.
“I am human. And I, too, sometimes yearn for joy, light and fun,” the 36-year-old said.
It’s private, it’s joy and it’s life.
Our master playwright Friel knew this and he also knew the dangers of dance for women, that publicly embodying fun and joy, regardless of the decade, came with one’s judgments, of self and others.
Just look at the slack that Irish TV channel Laura Whitmore received as host of Love Island in the UK, a gig she pulled out of this week after three sets. Everything from her salary (she receives no public money) to her clothes have been placed under the public microscope of social media.
You wonder if British Prime Minister Boris Johnson received so much attention when he was on a state-funded salary and in charge of an entire nation’s affairs. But this woman danced and she smiled and strutted around, and she too was defiant in the face of judgment. There’s something about being a woman in the public eye that so often throws them into the eye of a storm.
Whitmore described the review as “exhausting”. It was exhausting to witness; you can’t imagine how exhausting it must have been on the pitch.
Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, Mary Beard, who is no stranger to Twitter abuse herself, wrote in Women and Power: “You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as masculine; the structure needs to be changed.
Professor Beard’s little book takes a 3,000-year look back at the public voice of women. And you can also trade that voice for power.
Its little story is that the pen, the microphone, the seat, the floor and the stage must be held by men and when they are not, it is shocking, it is as subversive as it is transgressive. If you hold any of these forms of public power, you’ve violated a social boundary, and if you’re headed in the wrong direction, the scrutiny of the expectant barking crowd will come thick and fast.
Actress, writer, producer and mother Sharon Horgan has taken on both pen, stage and seat, even running her own business. And this week, its latest offering, Bad Sisters, hit our screens. The show is home to a constellation of stars and their on-screen harmony has won rave reviews and numerous five stars, from hard-hitting critics on both sides of the Atlantic.
The five Irish sisters don’t exactly dance, but they move, in the form of swimming in the sea. But one sister, the one in the abusive and controlling marriage, is excluded from the shared act of connection and abandonment. The same woman takes her daughter dancing to a Lizzo concert, and when the dominant husband finds out, he is, of course, far from happy.
But the two are an aside: what matters here is that Horgan rose to power and then some, creating hit show after show, bringing together so much creative talent, making deal after deal, winning friends and influencing us all. She’s been on camera, behind the camera, and funded their roll.
She succeeded in overturning our predilection for the public voice coming from the male voice, the gaze, the chair and the pen.
The Guardian described Bad Sisters as “wonderful”, declaring Horgan “in top form, both writer and director”.
“It’s a fine addition to the growing collection of stories unabashedly told for, by and about women on mainstream television. Sisterhood takes many forms,” reads The Guardian’s Bad Sisters review.
It’s this take from The Guardian that stands out in all the reviews, making the show’s audience and subject matter clear.
The story centers on brotherhood in the menacing shadow of domestic violence and coercive control.
It’s not exactly dancing, or something to dance to, but its success, its reception, shows how many people there are who are more than happy to see women holding the pen, the power , the mic, the stage and the spoken word – and they not only enjoy it, they reward it and they pay for it.
Whether it’s young, dancing premieres, high-profile, well-paid broadcasters, or prolific producers of top-notch entertainment, some of us are comfortable with women and power, and some between us are not. .