(Michael Seaver’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 5/14; Photos (top to bottom): Choreographer Áine Stapleton has spent eight years exploring Joyce’s artistry; Lucia Joyce: Whenever her name is mentioned, the words ‘daughter of James Joyce’ aren’t far away.)
Whenever the name of Lucia Joyce is mentioned, the words “daughter of James Joyce” are never far away. A talented dancer, writer and musician, Lucia’s career was cut short after she had a nervous breakdown and was – some say inaccurately – diagnosed with schizophrenia. She spent the rest of her life in institutions where she was subjected to experimental treatments.
According to dance historian Deirdre Mulrooney, many accounts of her life are Mills & Boon-style narratives, where the real protagonists are famous male writers, including her father and Samuel Beckett, with whom Lucia had a relationship. Writing in Joyce Studies Annual, Mulrooney claims: “This misunderstood artist has been reduced to a ‘mad girl’, synonymous with mental illness, considered primarily in relation to her father, and filed away under ‘miscellaneous’ in coveted James Joyce special collections around the world.”
This two-dimensional caricature would be different had she fulfilled her artistic potential. In 1928 the Paris Times stated that, “When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father”.
Choreographer Áine Stapleton has spent the past eight years forefronting Lucia Joyce’s artistry and will premiere a dance film installation, Somewhere in the Body, at this year’s Dublin Dance Festival. “In 2014 I was working with some friends in a band who had created musical interpretations of Joyce’s major works for Bloomsday,” she says. “During the rehearsals, they told me a bit about Lucia and her dance career. That same week, I managed to source some letters that were written by Lucia during her later years in psychiatric care. I could instantly see a clear divide between the clichéd accounts of Lucia in the press and media, compared to the kind, intelligent and loving person that came through in her letters. These writings inspired me to make my first work about Lucia and I’ve been immersed in her story ever since.” Stapleton would concur with Mulrooney’s disdain for the superficial accounts of Lucia’s life.
“I try to avoid the clichés that are so often associated with her story, so it’s always important for me to research as thoroughly as possible. But it’s very difficult to find information about Lucia, due in part to the fact that Stephen Joyce, James Joyce’s grandson and long-time estate administrator, is known to have had part of Lucia’s correspondence with her father and Samuel Beckett destroyed following her death.” Poems and an unpublished novel have also been lost or destroyed.
Stapleton has created two previous dance films. Medicated Milk was based on a period of time that Lucia spent in Bray, Co Wicklow (“close to where I grew up, which Lucia described as a magnificent place, full of flowers”), and Horrible Creature, based on her life in Switzerland between 1915 and the late 1930s.
“Somewhere in the Body takes a different approach to my previous work about Lucia, which relies heavily on her biographical details,” she says. “For this film installation, I examine the psychic spaces that Lucia inhabited in her father’s mind, and how she appears in his writings, with a particular focus on Finnegans Wake.”