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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C

There are moments in our lives where the world changes and you go 'was I on the right road all the time?'

Irish artist and writer Christina Reihill explores alcoholism and addiction in her new work about the writer Dorothy Parker.

WHEN CHRISTINA REIHILL visits London – about three or four times a year – she sees how different her life now is from when she lived there decades ago.

Back then, she had the quintessential high-octane 1980s London life. She worked for Vogue (her step-mother owned half of the Irish magazine Image), and she had access to all the good parties and interesting people.

But the drug and alcohol use that was part of her life over there became too much. By 30, she was addicted to cocaine. The death of her step-brother Hugo in the early 1990s triggered another descent for her. She eventually had to go through addiction treatment.

When Reihill speaks to, she’s on one of those infrequent trips to London. ”I had a ball until it ended,” she says of the heady time there. ”I can only tolerate it for max three days. No wonder I drank and drugged.”

Since that time, Reihill has studied psychotherapy and spent a lot of time working on her own writing and art. She told her own recovery story with the work Listen, and now she’s taking another, more unusual, approach to exploring what she went through.

PA-8695672 AP / Press Association Images Dorothy Parker at her typewriter in 1941. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The life of Dorothy Parker

In Wit’s End, her new installation which opens at Smock Alley Theatre on Monday, Reihill is telling the story of Dorothy Parker, the erudite American author who died an alcoholic at the age of 73, but re-writing the ending somewhat.

They obviously never met, but Parker – who had a seat the famed Algonquin round table – has had a major effect on Reihill’s life.

Both she and Parker lost their mothers at a young age; went to finishing schools; came from privileged backgrounds; and wanted to be writers. This meant that they had to go against what was expected of them as young women in their respective social sets.

Parker was an incredible funny and witty writer, and very sharp of tongue. She grew up in New York, wrote for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, and penned volumes of poetry and fiction. No doubt you’ve read some of her famed one-liners:

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.
You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her drink.
The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘cheque enclosed’
One more drink and I’ll be under the host.

Parker’s life was filled with tragic events. She despised her stepmother, who her father married two years after her mother’s death. She accused her father of abuse. Later in life, after her divorce she became pregnant by playwright Charles MacArthur and had an abortion. She later experienced depression and attempted suicide.

But though the story of Parker can get lost in the mire of tragedy, she was also a fascinating and strong-minded woman at a time when that was not always easy.

In the 1930s and 1940s, she became involved in civil rights and civil liberties issues, reporting on subjects for the Communist magazine The New Masses. She was also chair of the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee. Due to this type of work, the FBI compiled a 1,000-page dossier on her.

Dorothyparkerlandmark Wikimedia Wikimedia

‘I put on the mask’

Reihill credits Parker with helping bring her to recovery. “It’s a combination of moments, profound moments – where you can no longer lie to yourself. One of them was reading Dorothy Parker and the hell she had been in at the end of her life.”

Parker realised she was alienated, unwell, and alone, emotions that Reihill felt also.

“I in my own way was the same at 32. I came back to Dublin on the way to divorce, no job, unemployable, and suicidal. I had a choice: I could get up again and I started working for Irish Tatler magazine. I put on the mask, put on the fashion gear and I went out. And I went out and I thought ‘you are a fraud’. You are just a complete mask; you are just hollow inside.”

Reihill was tangled, desperate and confused.

“You really don’t believe that there’s a way back from all the shit you created, all the damage. And you know you’re also still wounded behind the childhood history,” she says. For her, that was the death of her mother, something she now feels at peace with.

Reihill also shared some of Parker’s gift for devil-may-care one-liners, which could be cutting for those they landed on.

“You didn’t care whether someone was destroyed in the comment as long as it was a funny comment. But you grow a conscious when you come into sobriety. When I came into treatment one of the things they said was my issue was reckless honesty.”

Remember her in all her defiance

In death, Dorothy Parker was able to create more controversy – her cremated remains were left in a filing cabinet due to a rift created posthumously with her literary agent Lillian Hellman.

Hellman was furious that Parker left her copyright to Martin Luther King, and not to her. The ashes were later interred in a memorial garden in Baltimore by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“This installation is remembering Parker in all her defiance – she lived till the age of 73 – and had five suicide attempts. She had a fantastic defiance which I had too in my drinking – just fuck you all,” says Reihill.

“This installation says she rises from the ashes to give her response to Hellman for insulting her. For me the greatest revenge that any individual can wreak on another is be well. This is Parker getting well to meet her heart’s desire to sit and write the book she started writing and never finished.”

Getting clean helped Reihill to follow her own desire to write. “You can’t write properly when you’re fucked up with alcohol and drugs,” she says.

While Reihill feels that she and Parker have much in common, she also feels sad that Parker never did do what she set out to do (be a critically acclaimed serious writer) and instead was consumed by alcoholism.

Wit’s End (the name a nod, in part, to what a great wit Parker was) helps to reimagine what could have been for Parker, with Reihill re-writing some of Parker’s work.

In turn, it is supposed to prompt the visitor into examining their own life.

The installation, says Reihill, is “an experience”.

I am stimulating all the senses – there’s something that meets your eyes, your ears, nose, feet, everything. So that when you step into it you get taken almost, I want you taken and then allowed to let the work impress on you and imprint on you in whatever way you want.

‘I didn’t want another self-help book’

final image for Wits End cmky

The installation is also inspired by Reihill’s book SoulBurgers, which she spent 10 years writing. She describes it as an “odyssey in verse”, which explores how she felt when dealing with her alcoholism.

“When I came into recovery and hit rock bottom I said don’t want another self-help book,” she recalls.

It’s not a book that will sell in droves (Reihill says that it is “not very sexy”) but it’s a book she felt was necessary.

“I did all the sexy in London – I worked at Vogue, glossy magazines, I did the vodka, I did the cocaine,” she says. But she didn’t want the book to be all about that.

What I wanted to know is how do you describe, how do you articulate, despair in a way that is palatable, that actually meets someone when you are in the despair… and ultimately to know that you are not alone.

It’s life’s “profound moments” that she hopes people will be driven to explore when they visit Wit’s End.

“These are the poignant moments in our lives where suddenly the world changes for us and you go Jesus, was I on the right road all the time? Is this the person I want to be married to? Is this the job I want to be doing?”

“My installation is prompting you to ask yourself that question, it’s an invitation – it’s not a slap across the face.”

Reflecting on how life has changed since becoming sober, Reihill says it has made her happier than she has been before.

“I know who I am and I know who I’m not… and I am as close as I could be. I have never been so content, I have never felt freer to be the person I left behind.”

Her emotions no longer dulled, she’s embracing what the world has for her. “I want to understand what does it mean to hold the experience of grief in a really empathic way but I also want to know the absolute heights of what joy is,” she says.

Though she can’t change how things went for Dorothy Parker, with her new installation she’s imagining a new life for the writer – and will hopefully introduce her work to new fans along the way.

Wit’s End opens at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin on Monday 13 March.

Read: ‘When there is somewhere safe for people to go and inject they will use it – I will use it’>

Read: ‘The morning my father was buried in Dublin, I was doing drugs down an alley in London’>

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