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Lucia Joyce: Why she was more than the 'mad daughter of a genius'

A new dance show looks at exploring another side to Lucia, daughter of James Joyce, who was herself a professional dancer.

Aine Stapleton (left) and the poster for her show.
Aine Stapleton (left) and the poster for her show.

THE FASCINATING – AND disturbing – life of literary legend James Joyce’s daughter Lucia Joyce is to be explored in a new show tomorrow night.

The life of Lucia Joyce, who was sent to a psychiatric institution by her brother Giorgio, is being examined by the critically-acclaimed Irish choreographer Áine Stapleton for a new work called Horrible Creature, which will be shown in Dublin.

Like Stapleton, Lucia was a professional dancer – but Joyce’s daughter’s career was cut short and she ended her life never having fulfilled her creative dreams. Her story has long captivated people, but as Stapleton began to research what happened to her she realised that there is more to Lucia than what many thought.

Stapleton has previously made a dance film called Medicated Milk (2016), which was created from letters written by Lucia at a psychiatric hospital in England between 1952 and 1982 (the year she died – she spent decades in institutions).

Horrible Creature will examine Lucia’s life between 1915 and 1950, and explore her time as a professional dance artist. It will also look at her romantic relationships – including her short romance with writer Samuel Beckett; the circumstances surrounding her incarceration by her brother, and her time under threat in an occupied zone at a psychiatric hospital during World War 2, shortly before her father’s death.

‘Mad daughter of a genius’

During her life, Lucia was treated for various health issues and was forced to undergo experimental treatments.

“Lucia was a professional dancer and a talented artist, but is generally regarded as the mad daughter of a genius,” says Áine. “Horrible Creature aims to give Lucia a voice and to provide her story with contemporary relevance.”

Stapleton believes that Lucia’s mental strain was the result of ill-treatment and neglect, which she believes the young woman may have experienced from a young age.

“It’s a difficult but fascinating project to undertake as so many of her letters – including a novel and letters of communication between her and her father – were destroyed by her nephew following her death,” she said.

Tomorrow night’s show – which is a work-in-progress – will draw on writings by Lucia which Stapleton has found in The National Archives in London and The University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

Stapleton told TheJournal.ie that when she first heard of Lucia, she had many questions about her.

“She is more popular now, but at the time I opened one of the newspapers and in her article about her family her name was in brackets,” she said. “She was written off as the crazy one who lost her mind and had a breakdown.” Stapleton questioned this story and wondered why there wasn’t more out there about her: “If she did have some kind of mental breakdown, what brought that on?”

“The more I looked into it, the time before she had the supposed breakdown she had a really thriving career in contemporary dance,” said Stapleton. “It didn’t make sense and it still doesn’t make sense what happened to her in the time period.”

Source: Finnegans Wake/YouTube

Because her nephew Stephen Joyce destroyed some of her writings, it is hard to find papers or letters written by Lucia, but Stapleton managed to get her hands on some of them which are kept in US archives.

They include dream diaries which she kept for therapy in her older years.

As well as the show, she has received funding to make a full-length film about Lucia, which will be made in Zurich where the Joyce family lived.

As Stapleton tries to make sense of who Lucia truly was as person, she has been led to believe there are a lot of misconceptions about her. She believes that it wasn’t just numerous failed relationships which led to the breakdown which Lucia had in the mid-1930s and which later saw her diagnosed with schizophrenia. Stapleton believes that Lucia’s early life may have contributed to the trauma.

She also queries whether Lucia was actually schizophrenic. “Even in her doctors’ reports they are really varied, some wouldn’t sign off on a definitive diagnosis,” she said.

Some of Lucia’s treatments included methods which are not used today, such as induced fever to treat psychosis.

‘She seemed to be really kind’

Stapleton said that reading Lucia’s letters has given her an insight into who Lucia was beyond the reports of her mental issues.

She was really kind and I feel like that’s missing [in the discussion of her life]. Everything seems to focus on her supposed insanity.  She was just so thankful for everything [in the letters]. If someone called her up she was so grateful for it.

“There was another occasion when her shoes didn’t fit her and then she had them sent from her psychiatric hospital in Northampton to a care home in another part of in England, so someone else could use them. This is after being locked up for up for approximately 35 years – she was still thinking of other people. She also commented to friends in some of her letters that they should try to not feel sad about their own life situations. ”

Lucia was a very creative dancer, and this made Stapleton reflect on what dancing may have meant to her.

“I think it would have been a really important way for her to process what she had been through in her life, including any possible traumatic experiences,” said Stapleton.

“Her medium was the body and I imagine that it meant a lot for her to express herself through her body.”

Because of the possibility she had difficult relationships with her family, Stapleton said that dancing may have been a way for Lucia to communicate.

Learning more about Lucia has made Stapleton think more about her feelings about James Joyce. “I think there’s a lot of resistance when it comes to accusing historical or current popular figures that people idolise,” said Stapleton. “No one really wants to think about the bad stuff or have their view of someone knocked. “Some people are good at making a division between an artistic work and its creator. I’m not, I don’t really have any interest. I can’t divide the feeling of the person and the work.”

Stapleton said that her new show Horrible Creature is “very open to interpretation” and that she doesn’t want to push ideas on people. What she wants is for people to watch the show and her exploration of Lucia’s life, and to be present and see where it takes them.

I’d like the work sharing to be an opportunity for both the performer and the audience to mutually experience a sense of increased aliveness in their bodies, which is something that Lucia may have felt during her dancing years. Also, to acknowledge how this sensation of freedom and creativity was taken away from her. image

Horrible Creature will be presented as a work-in-progress at DanceHouse tomorrow, 27 June at 7.30pm.To book your place, contact: info@danceireland.ie or ring 018558800. It is supported by the Arts Council’s Arts and Disability Connect scheme managed by Arts & Disability Ireland. Horrible Creature is created in partnership with Dance Ireland and The James Joyce Centre Dublin.

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