In 'Joyce's Women,' two great Irish writers square up

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In 'Joyce's Women,' two great Irish writers square up
Sabine Dargent’s set design of “Joyce’s Women,” under construction at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, Sept. 9, 2022. Edna O’Brien’s latest stage work imagines the inner lives of important female figures around James Joyce. Ellius Grace/The New York Times.

by Roisin Kiberd

DUBLIN.- Toward the end of “Joyce’s Women,” Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s ninth work for the stage, handwritten letters rain down from the ceiling and the scene is interrupted by anonymous voices. One calls James Joyce’s writing “beyond human comprehension.” Another labels it “ejaculatory smut.” Finally, a man’s voice, unseen, disembodied, asks a question: “Who owns James Joyce?”

Running through Oct. 15 at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, the play addresses the personal life of an author banned in his time but celebrated today, whose works are synonymous with Dublin but who fled the city as a young man. It’s the product of O’Brien’s lifelong fascination with Joyce, her “ultimate hero” and the subject of her 1999 biography, “James Joyce.”

In “Joyce’s Women,” we see the author through the eyes of the women who were his inspiration and his support network, including his lifelong partner, Nora Barnacle; his daughter, Lucia; and his patron, Harriet Weaver. They wait for news of Joyce from a hospital in Zurich; with the writer on his deathbed, the play weaves together scenes from a life marked by ambition and poverty, creativity and madness, attempting to capture what O’Brien called “the enormity of James Joyce’s personal and imaginative life.”

Regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Joyce’s works continue to be widely read (“Dubliners,” his 1914 short story collection), widely attempted (“Ulysses,” his 700-plus-page epic of Dublin life) and widely speculated-upon (“Finnegans Wake,” the cryptic behemoth that was his final novel). The play brings Joycean language to life with music as well as the spoken word.

“What I felt with Joyce, as I had never felt with another writer,” O’Brien said in an interview, was that “for all the boundaries he has broken, through language, he also speaks very truly, at least to me. There is always, without it being too demonstrative, an emotional pulse, an emotional engine behind what he says.”

This year is the centennial of “Ulysses,” and many events, in Ireland and abroad, were clustered around Bloomsday, June 16, the date on which the novel unfolds. Nearing the end of this Joyce year, O’Brien’s dreamlike, reflective play is like a theatrical wake after the festivities. “This is one great writer squaring up to another,” said Conall Morrison, director of “Joyce’s Women,” after a day of rehearsals at the Abbey Theater. “It is also, to a lesser extent, self-referential. It’s Edna’s meditation on the creative process, and the cost involved — the cost to the writer, and everyone around the writer.”

Like Joyce, O’Brien has lived in literary exile. Her debut novel, “The Country Girls,” was the subject of a national scandal when it was published in 1960. It was banned in Ireland for its depictions of sex and female sexuality, as were its sequels, “The Lonely Girl” and “Girls in Their Married Bliss.” In 2015, President Michael Higgins issued a formal apology to O’Brien on behalf of the nation, and O’Brien was made a Saoi of Aosdana, the highest honor for an Irish artist.

“I think the fact that Edna O’Brien has chosen to write this, and that she’s someone whose genius has cost her throughout her life, makes for a fascinating prism to view this play through,” said Ali White, who plays Harriet Weaver. “What has been her own experience with success, failure, fame, notoriety and being banned?”

In recent decades, plays, films, fiction and graphic novels have explored the lives of Joyce’s female family members, occasionally positioning them as each other’s rivals. Annabel Abbs’ novel “The Joyce Girl” (2016) is a fictionalized account of the life of Lucia, in which she is cast as Joyce’s muse and Nora’s adversary; Nuala O’Connor’s novel “Nora” (2021) is more sympathetic to its hero.

“There is this cottage industry of plays and novels and so on about Joyce’s family members,” said Sam Slote, a professor of Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin who has edited five books on Joyce. “What’s interesting is that the works are sacrosanct, but the contemporary imagination of artists is on the life of Joyce and his family members.”

Little has survived of Lucia’s own voice; her nephew, Stephen Joyce, announced in 1988 that he had destroyed the letters she wrote to her family. Joyce’s famously pornographic “dirty letters” to Nora were published in 1975, but her side of the correspondence has never surfaced. Faced with these blank patches, “Joyce’s Women” imagines each character’s point of view, and allows them to narrate different sides of the same story. Nora is embattled but resolute. Lucia drifts between fact and fiction. Later, they are joined by Miss Weaver, a tireless activist and financial backer who funded Joyce’s lifestyle and helped secure his legacy.

“While their allegiances, claims and counter claims differed,” O’Brien said, “I did not want to write a wrangling, bitter play, a relentless toll of enmity, accusation and intrigue. These women were crucial both in his life and in his work.”

One scene, incorporating dance, captures the rapport between Joyce (Stephen Hogan) and Lucia (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman). Then a screen unfurls across the stage, and a film is projected onto it that shows Lucia’s descent into psychosis. “She crept into her father’s work and her father’s psyche,” O’Brien said. “She adopted some of his more idiosyncratic words and, though doctors warned of alarming schisms in her behavior, Joyce believed that she was a genius, both of them being only a transparent leaf away from madness.”

Another scene features May Joyce, the writer’s mother. An early supporter of his writing, May is believed to have had 15 pregnancies — 10 children survived — before her early death at the age of 44. Summoned home from Paris by telegram as she was dying, Joyce refused to pray at her bedside alongside other family members and wrote, in a letter to Nora, that when he saw her in her coffin, “I understood that I was looking on the face of a victim and I cursed the system which had made her a victim.”

Joyce abandoned the Catholic church as a teenager; he wrote to Nora that his aim was to “make open war on it in what I write and say and do,” and they eloped in defiance of Ireland’s religious culture. Yet, his work is haunted by a distinctly Catholic sense of guilt. “Catholic religion was embedded in Joyce’s thinking, not only by the church but by the long-suffering May,” O’Brien said. “His mother’s effect on him was deep but remained unfinished.” This early bond inspired a lifelong relationship to women split between reverence and torment: Joyce visited brothels from age 14, but he found in Nora a partner who was as much a mother figure as a free spirit. “It was carnal love,” O’Brien said, “but also he saw within her a melancholy and an ancient knowledge that answered his deeper needs.”

In a rehearsal this month, White (as Weaver) and Hogan (as Joyce) ran through a scene depicting the writer’s final hours. Joyce, wearing his familiar waistcoat and circular glasses, lay on a hospital bed and drifted in and out of lucidity. He sang an Irish rebel song, “The Sean-Bhean Bhocht,” then raged at Weaver, his patron, who had told him that he was wasting his genius on “Finnegans Wake,” the enigmatic dream-novel that took Joyce 17 years to complete. Weaver knelt at his bedside and asked for forgiveness.

Weaver, who was raised a Quaker and who later joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, bankrolled Joyce with an estimated equivalent of more than $1.7 million today. “It became almost like her religion to support these people,” White said later of Weaver, who also quietly funded writers including T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. Joyce’s charisma was “such that he entranced people, even if they weren’t getting much in return,” she added.

“Joyce’s Women” dismisses present-day debate about separating art from the artist, arguing that to draw a line between Joyce’s life and his works would be impossible. Slote, the professor, quoted a line from “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” in which Joyce says a writer is “a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” Slote said this was “a good capsule description; the artist takes their experience and refracts it, and turns it into something else.”

The play explores that process in all its complexity. “He loved these women, not as muses but as beings who answered to the longings and anguish of his inner life,” O’Brien said. Yet, Joyce’s greatest loyalty was to his work. “That’s where the writer really lives, and belongs,” O’Brien said. “With their words.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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