|CHARLOTTE J. HEADRICK
"INVISIBILITY IS NOT AT ALL TO MY LIKING:" GEMMA O'CONNOR'S SIGNORA JOYCE, A PLAY ABOUT THE LIFE OF NORA BARNACLE JOYCE
"It's me the artists want to paint. Bella Nora. Bellisima. Me. Nora Barnacle from Galway. I could be a princess for all they know! Pogue mo htoin! I can be what I like."1 These are lines that the character of Nora proclaims in Gemma O'Connor's 1992 play SigNora Joyce, a one woman celebration and evocation of the life of Nora Barnacle Joyce. While Anne Devlin in her Ourselves Alone depicts the lives of contemporary women of Ireland, O'Connor chooses to examine the historic figure of Nora. Like Devlin's fierce heroines, O'Connor's Nora is a fighter, a person who claims her place, demands her due of the audience.
While SigNora Joyce is not on the surface a political play, the historic Nora's life certainly has "political" implications. The facts are clear; she left her home, her family, her country, giving her all to James Joyce. At the age of nineteen, this Irish Catholic girl from Galway abandoned her religion and the prevalent morality of her day to live without benefit of "marriage lines" to make a home for James Joyce, bear his children, and to stand by him through thick and thin, rich and poor, obscurity and fame.
In Caroline Heilbrun's Writing a Woman's Life, she explores the treatment of women in contemporary biography:
The concept of biography itself has changed profoundly in the last two decades, biographies of women especially so. But while biographers of men have been challenged on the "objectivity" of their interpretation, biographers of women have had not only to choose one interpretation over another but, far more difficult, actually to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories of these women. (Heilbrun, 31)
This is certainly the task that Gemma O'Connor faced in fleshing out Nora's life for the stage. When I met her in the spring of 1992, after seeing the London production, I asked her about source material and she very quickly verified that she had been very careful in developing her Nora along specific historic lines, that there was solid source material for every moment of the play (conversation with playwright, May, 1992, London). In a recent letter, she described her process:
When I started, Brenda Maddox's book had not come out and indeed I did not allow myself to read it until well after I had completed the first draft of SigNora Joyce. What conclusions I came to about her were gleaned from my own reading and principally from Joyce's work . . . because the clues are laid out very nicely once you start looking for them. . . . picking my way randomly through it (Finnegan's Wake) led me to the conclusion that he (Joyce) may have intended it to be dipped into in that way. Who knows? It certainly opened the book for me.
If I had not received the letter for O'Connor, dated April 14, 1994, I would reported to this group that she had not only relied on Joyce's works, his poetry, the novels, letters, but also the Maddox' 1988 biography Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom. It is amazing how the two found similar parallels which Maddox turned into biography and O'Connor turned into dramatic art.
O'Connor was born in Dublin and educated in Ireland and France and she now lives in Oxford. She worked internationally as a designer bookbinder and restorer of rare books before becoming a full time editor and writer in 1984. She is the list editor for Pandora Press London/Harper Collins for their biographical series on Irish women including Maud Gonne and Kitty O'Shea. Although SigNora Joyce is her first play, she developed a number of entertainments which have toured all over England and Scotland and played in Ireland: Wakes and Beddings, Ferocious Chastity, Too Modest Proposals. She broadcasts regularly with the BBC. She continues to go "home" to Ireland four or five times a year. SigNora Joyce was written for what O'Connor refers to as "the late lamented 92 Siol Phadraig Festival (then in a brief heyday, it did not last) in London." It opened for a one night stand at the Tricycle in Kilburn, site of many new Irish works and revivals. To quote O'Connor, the play then "rambled around ultra fringe venues for the following couple of weeks (about which the less said the better.) It fetched up at the King's Head also for one night. " It finally settled in for a decent run May 4-16, 1992 at the New End Theatre in Hampstead. For those of you unfamiliar with the London Fringe, the Tricycle, the King's Head, and the New End are considered in the "A list" of the fringe.
Maddox' in her introduction to Nora says after reading Ellmann's biography of Joyce, she put the book down, "longing to know more about Nora." (Maddox, xvii) The questions Maddox asks and answers in her biography are the same questions that O'Connor depicts on stage. Maddox queries,
How had she managed the passage from Galway to Trieste, Zurich, and Paris? How had she survived Joyce, whose monomania destroyed many of his friendships and, as far as one can judge, blighted his children? Why was she always so funny? The Joyces' marriage also presented many unanswered questions. How did a convent-trained girl have the courage in 1904 to runaway with a man who refused to marry her? Why, after cohabitating for twenty-seven years, did the Joyces bother with a civil wedding in 1931? What did Nora feel when her young son took up with a Jewish-American divorcee eleven years his senior? And, as she did not give a damn for the printed word, what did she see in Joyce? (Maddox, xvii)
O'Connor's Nora is the Nora that Maddox discovered. Nora had a tremendous influence on Joyce and his writing style. According to Maddox, Nora was "spontaneous, direct, humorous, and when she chose, vulgar." (Maddox, xix) Often Molly Bloom's words are Nora's words in the play. ("I'd rather die 20 times over than marry another of their sex."). As Brenda Maddox points out "there is much of the radical feminist in Molly Bloom" (209) and that feminist streak is in O'Connor's vision of Nora. It is this Nora that lives in SigNora Joyce. As Maddox notes it is Nora's voice that is found in all of Joyce's female characters. Gemma O'Connor freely adapts the voices of Joyce's female characters and in an interesting twist on literary history, instead of Joyce's women speaking Nora's words, the character of Nora speaks sections of Joyce's words to reveal herself. Joyce may have mined Nora's life, lifting freely from her memories and his life with her, but O'Connor allows Nora's spirit to live on stage, reclaiming the words and memories Joyce borrowed from her. Unlike Maddox whose work is meticulously chronological and biographical in nature, O'Connor's work is not
intended to be exactly biographical. The loose and at times inaccurate bio structure is just my device for tackling the knotty problem of exile/emigration/loss of country/identity. This is what interests me. Since Nora's life touches my own at certain points, it would even be possible to say that there is just as many of my preoccupations as hers in this piece.2
Nora was married to a writer; O'Connor is married to an Oxford don, who like Nora's husband, has dragged her around the world. Having left her native Ireland, O'Connor has lived in France, the United States, Nigeria, and England. Nora had two children, O'Connor three. Of her own travelling, Gemma O'Connor writes, "We Irish seem to be born with wandering feet!" 3
In the introduction to The Portable James Joyce, Harry Levin writes that Joyce is
less concerned with the seeing eye than with the thinking mind. We may add that he is most directly concerned with the hearing ear. Doubtless the sonorities of Homer and Milton are intimately connected with their blindness. It is scarcely coincidental that Joyce, almost unique among modern prose-writers in this respect, must be read aloud to be fully appreciated. (The Portable James Joyce, 11)
Almost every moment of O'Connor's one hour and fifteen minute script has a basis in Nora's life with Joyce. There are references to Nora's furs and her love of clothes, Joyce's tennis shoes, the eye operations, Mrs. Weaver, Yeats, Joyce's singing, the children, Nora's family, and the Joyce clan. On several occasions, O'Connor freely adapts sequences from the work of James Joyce. The playwright never simply lifts lines, but she edits skilfully; she writes, "the seeming quotations are in fact pastiche."4 Parts of the play recall Finnegan's Wake, Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce's short stories, and his poetry. There is a nice symmetry that Nora has been given a one woman depiction; on June 17, 1918, Nora acted as Cathleen in a production of J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea. She was quite good and there is a wonderful picture of Nora in Aran costume: "She thoroughly enjoyed herself. . .and from then on always liked to talk about the theatre." (Maddox, 156-157.)
Here are a few examples of the Joyce original and how O'Connor has adapted. The following is from Finnegan's Wake and it is this passage Nora loved to hear Joyce read aloud and it is one of the few passages which he ever recorded; the passage captures the washerwomen gossiping and washing the dirty linen of life (Maddox, 252):
tell me all about
Anna Livia! I want to hear all
about Anna Livia. Well, you know Anna Livia? Yes, of course,
we all know Anna Livia. Tell me all. Tell me now. You'll die
when you hear. Well, you know, when the old cheb went futt
and did what you know. Yes, I know, go on. Wash quit and
don't be dabbling. Tuck up your sleeves and loosen your
talktapes. And don't butt me--hike!--when you bend. Or
whatever it was they threed to make out he thried to two in
Fiendish park. He's an awful old reppe. Look at the shirt of
him! Look at the dirt of it! He has all my water black on
me. And it steeping and stuping since this time last wik.
How many goes is it I wonder I washed it? I know by heart the
places he likes to saale, duddurty devil! Scorching my hand
and starving my famine to make his private linen public. (FW 196)
In SigNora Joyce, a version of these lines become the malicious voices of the gossips of Dublin trying to convince Jim of Nora's loose reputation:
That score of agile faces lined up on the bar of some old shebeen...watching, listening, orchestrating, castrating, egging him on:
Oh stay with us accoshla aren't we the ones to understand the wrong she's done you...tuck up and loosen your talk tapes:
tell me all about
Anna Livia! I want to hear all
about Anna Livia. Well, you know Anna Livia? Yes, of course, we all know Anna Livia. Tell me all.tell me now, you'll die when you hear... The leavings of others...to be had for the asking....
Can't you hear them? Not a man among them...waiting to trap
him into intimacies they talked about for years...
(now she assumes the voice of Joyce and his listeners and sends him up):
The day she got me to propose to her...ah yes...and I drank amber wine from her mouth (section of O'Connor script omitted here)
. . . .I kissed her on the wet lush rolling heaving lambent...yes? ...grass! And she kissed and lap kissed me
yes and my pumping heart pounded pounded yes perfume releasing
temples throbbing yes oh yes...I will yes...yes yes
Scorching my hand and starving my famine to make his private linen public...he tried to in the Fiendish Park!
Glad to be out of it...woo me...win me...wed me? ...ah weary me!
I knew another boy long ago...in Galway...very fond...Michael Bodkin going to the university and he so handsome with his beautiful head of black wavy hair...a great admirer...I was too young...afraid to be seen with him...he died. I met Willie Mulvagh on the bridge soon after. . . . (O'Connor, p.38-39)
The spacing is O'Connor's. From working with the script the double spaces between sections often denote changes of mood, thought, character, or a shift of time. As you can see from this one section, O'Connor has used not only the ALP section but also part of Molly's "yes" speech from Ulysses.
In SigNora Joyce, Nora describes the birth of her children and her words are a paraphrase of Bertha's lines from Exiles.
Bertha, excitedly: Yes, Yes. What I say. Everyone saw it. Whenever I tried to correct him for the least thing you went on with your folly, speaking to him as if he were a grownup man. Ruining the poor child, or tying to. Then, of course, I was the cruel mother and only you loved him. With growing excitement. But you did not turn him against me--against his own mother. Because why? Because the child has too much nature in him. (Exiles, 566; The Portable James Joyce)
Everyone saw it. Whenever I tried to correct the child for the least thing he went on with his folly speaking to him as if he were a grown up man. Ruining the poor child or trying to. Then of course i was the cruel mother and only he loved the boy. Unnatural!
But he didn't turn him against me against his own mother.
Because why? Because the child has too much nature in him (SigNora Joyce, 33)
The Michael Furey sequence at the end of The Dead in which Gretta tells Gabriel her story becomes a combination of the Michael Bodkin/Michael Feeney sequence in SigNora Joyce, which is based on Nora Barnacle's girlhood (The Dead, 238-240, SigNora Joyce, 41-43.) Toward the end of the play as Nora describes her fears about Lucia, she describes her fears:
A small wild thing..and wilder she became..till we couldn't manage her. But Jim could never accept it, or admit that her poor head wasn't right. His little princess.
She wore a bow that day dancing in to sit on his knee. winding him around her finger...talking her own kind of nonsense to him. I will give a flower to my daughter he said.(35)
This passage leads directly into Joyce's "A Flower Given to My Daughter:"
Frail the white rose and frail are
Her hands that gave
Whose soul is sere and paler
Than time's wan wave.
Rosefrail and fair--yet frailest
A wonder wild
In gentle eyes thou veilest,
My blueveined child. (The Portable James Joyce, 650 and SigNora Joyce, 35)
Joyce's short story "Eveline" is almost entirely adapted into O'Connor's script, as Nora describes her life at Finn's hotel and Mrs. Finn and as Nora shares with the audience her fears about leaving Ireland, running away with James Joyce. Nora's story is Eveline's story with one well known twist: Evvy stays and Nora goes.
SigNora Joyce closes with an O'Connor "pastiche" from Finnegan's Wake:
First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come. I done me best when I was let. Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights? All me life I have been lived among them but now they are becoming lothed to me. And I am lothing their little warm tricks. And lothing their mean cosy turns. And all the greedy gushes out through their small souls. And all the lazy leaks down over their brash bodies. How small it's all! And me letting on to meself always. And lilting on all the time. I thought you were all glittering with the noblest of carriage. You're only a bumpkin. I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You're but a puny. Home! My people were not their sort out beyond there so far as I can. No! Nor for all our wild dances in all their wild din. I can seen meself among them, allaniuvia pulchrabelled. How she was handsome, the wild Amazia, when she would seize to my other breast! And what is she weird, haughty Niluna, that she will snatch from my ownest hair! For'tis they are the stormies. Ho hang! Hang ho! And the clash of our cries till we spring to be free. Auravoles, they says,never heed of your name! But I'm loothing them that's here and all I lothe. Loonely in me loneness. For all their faults. I am passing out. O bitter ending! I'll slip away before they're up. They'll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs! Two more. Onetwo moremens more. So. Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I'll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he'd come from Arkangels, I sink I'd die down dover his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There's where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlthee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved along the
First we feel. Then we fall. I done my best when I was let. Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights? All me life I have been lived among them but now they are becoming lothed to me. And I am lothing their little warm tricks. And lothing their mean cosy turns.
How small it's all! I thought you were all glittering with the noblest of carriage. You're only a bumpkin. I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You're but a puny.
I am passing out. O bitter ending! I'll slip away before they're up. They'll never see. Not know. Nor miss me. And it's old and old, it's sad and old, it's sad and weary I go back to you. ...seasilt saltsick and I rush... So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along taddy like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now.... Yes. Whish! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlthee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the
(SigNora Joyce, 55)
Joyce scholars can find many more references to other sections of Joyce's work in the O'Connor text. As a working director, my concern for my actress was that we understand each passage, have a rough idea what was adapted from Joyce, what was biography and get on with the work of staging the play.
Fortunately, my task was made simpler by sitting down with Oregon State's resident Joyce scholar, Willard (Bill) Potts. I only had to mention a section and Bill identified whether it was Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake, a section of Dubliners or whatever. We were also fortunate to have an Irish speaker Catherine Neary to translate the plamas, the acooslas and the pogue mo htoins of the text, not to mention the dialect work which Neary and a graduate student from Sligo provided.
The play itself is a major challenge for any actress and director to tackle. It is also a rich text and, cliche notwithstanding, the play is intensely poetical. Actress Barbara Ginsburg is a very intelligent woman and she found that the fifty-five pages of text were relatively easy to memorize. As any actress and director will tell you, memorization is only the first step.
I asked O'Connor what inspired her to write the play and why she wrote it. Sometimes playwrights don't want to talk about their process, in this case, she very graciously responded to my blunt questions:
Trying to decide why exactly one writes this or that is not easy. Sometimes it is clear; sometimes not. As far as I remember, the idea of writing a piece was first sparked by listening to Franchine Mulrooney's fine west of Ireland voice when she was acting in a previous piece of mine--Ferocious Chastity in about '86. I also thought at the time that she looked not unlike Nora Barnacle. It was a long time gestating. I had originally intended writing a comic two-hander . . .
The Oregon State University production differed from the New End Theatre production in several ways. In the London production, set in the 1920's, while Joyce is in the hospital for an eye operation, Nora busied herself packing trunks in order to make one of the their endless moves. In the Oregon State production, we set the play in 1929/1930 and Nora amuses herself talking to her English guests. In both productions, Franchine Mulrooney and Barbara Ginsburg both had lovely singing voices and the productions were accented by their singing. O'Connor's note in the text reads "The music/songs indicated in the script also refer to the first production and are not an integral part of the script." (foreword, SigNora Joyce) In a letter written November 9, 1993, O'Connor wrote "In London I was somewhat unhappy that it became rather overloaded with the music that I had envisaged as snatches, really a devise to change the tension from time to time." (O'Connor letter, November 9, 1993) The London production ran close to two hours without intermission. The Oregon State University production, depending on laughter, ran consistently between one hour and fifteen minutes and one hour and twenty minutes. Judging from O'Connor's letter to me and after the fact, music was used much more in the way she envisioned in the American version than in the London production. Since there is a reference to John McCormack and Joyce's concert in the Antient Concert Rooms in Dublin in the script, in Oregon, three John McCormack songs dubbed off the original recordings, complete with scratches, were used to set the mood of the piece. As Nora closes the show with O'Connor's adaptation of the last speech from Finnegan's Wake, I played a musical double entendre. Using the same poignant music used in the Abbey production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa and in a gesture of tribute to Nora, the playwright, and the theme of the western region ACIS conference (the theme was "From Maeve to Mary Robinson: the Changing Face of the Women of Ireland" with SigNora Joyce the Saturday night entertainment of the conference), I inserted an instrumental version of the haunting "Women of Ireland." Probably a handful of people caught what was going on, but in the theatre those are who we like to play to, the most intelligent members of the audience.
In the London production, Franchine Mulrooney was a more authentic Nora. A native of Galway with natural auburn hair, Franchine's Nora was warmer than Barbara Ginsburg's version of the character. On the other hand, the intimacy of the ninety seat Cortright Studio Theatre added an immediacy to the play. We felt as if we were in Nora's living room.
The May 16-13 edition of Time Out describes the play:
One woman show with Franchine Mulrooney. This is a beautifully written one-woman assumption of the life of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce's consort. Franchine Mulrooney as Nora warms to her role: by halfway the seamless stream of consciousness may as well be her own. Poetic.
Flyers on the production quote What's On: "A slick all-round production. . .a must." The Irish Times called it a "Compelling performance. . .powerful text." The Stage, which is to British theatre what Variety is to American theatre, gave the play a generally favorable review:
What is remarkable about Gemma O'Connor's script is that it really is about Nora. We are not simply fed the cliche that behind every great man is a good woman, this is Nora's own story. Whatever the reason for going to the play may have been, Nora's life becomes the focal point and as the action unfolds Joyce seems almost incidental.
Franchine Mulrooney plays the role with a sensitive mixture of love and melancholy. This balance is most moving when she sings and her surprisingly powerful voice easily fills the small theatre.
Despite the many strengths of the production it is never easy to retain an audience's interest with a monologue. The piece runs at an hour and three quarters with no interval and is about ten minutes too long. Towards the end Gemma O'Connor seems to struggle to maintain the pace and the audience struggle to concentrate.
Nevertheless, the play is a passionate evocation of fondness and despair and as Nora says "I don't find invisibility at all to my liking," this production bears witness to this.
(The Stage and Television Today, June 11, 1992, 15)
While no match to the critics of London, the only review at Oregon State came from the student newspaper The Barometer. It was a surprisingly literate review, the two students writers Jeanie Donnelly and Jeffrey Foster were familiar enough with Joyce's work to catch many of the references: "Being journalists that strive to be as concise as possible let us say this: this play was really wonderful. . ., everyone should go see this play. . .It's a performance that shouldn't be missed." They especially praise Barbara Ginsburg's performance:
From the moment Ginsburg sweeps onto the stage, she draws the audience into the struggles and the life of Nora Joyce, making them feel as if they are really in the apartment and a part of the conversation. From showing off her new hats, to describing what it is like raising her children while James is elsewhere, Ginsburg excellently portrays the frustrations, the humor, the pride, and, most importantly, the insecurities of Nora.
(The Daily Barometer, October 15, 1993)
We sent O'Connor a video tape of the Oregon State production. Playwrights seldom are completely happy with any production; while O'Connor liked elements of both productions, she had this to say
I have come to regret my earlier determination to place her so firmly, by accent and idiom, in the west of Ireland. I did not feel happy with the New End production because both director and actress became overburdened by this, less worried by what was said than how. My impression of your tape . . . is that there is an element of that in Miss Ginsburg trying too hard for an "authentic" Galway accent. So few people manage it and only some of them are natives of the county! I would suggest, and it is only a suggestion, that she eases off a bit. Nothing wrong with an American accent if the audience understands it better. In any event her Irishness is, I fondly imagine, indicated already by the cadence.5
(When I next direct Synge or O'Casey or Devlin, with just a hint of accent, I can point to O'Connor's advice!)
In closing, I would like to share the following; it is from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar:
I was taking one of those honors programs that teach you to think independently and except for a course in Tolstoy and Dostoevksy and a seminar in Advanced Poetry Composition, I would spend my whole time writing on some obscure theme in the works of James Joyce. I hadn't picked out my theme yet because I hadn't got round to reading Finnegan's Wake, but my professor was very excited about my thesis and had promised to give me some leads on images about twins.
As a working director, for me, Gemma O'Connor's SigNora Joyce became my honors course in James Joyce. To learn of Nora is to learn of Joyce. "Invisibility is not at all to my liking." Hopefully the American premiere of SigNora Joyce made the sometimes invisible life of Nora a bit more visible.
© Charlotte J. Headrick
|volume 4, issue 1, 2003|