Interview with Féilim James on the 2024 Production of Sole Flower, Spidered Soul

Interview with Féilim James on the 2024 Production of Sole Flower, Spidered Soul

Michael McCabe (left) with Fiona Bawn-Thompson and Daniel Mahon, performing in Sole Flower Spidered Soul, a performance in The Pumphouse, Dublin Port as part of the Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival 2023. Photo: Robbie Reynolds

Q: Who were Lucia and James Joyce?

A: Lucia Joyce was born in 1907 in Trieste, Italy. Early on in her life, she showed great promise as a professional dancer, developing an individual style within the new movement of anti-balletic, aesthetic dance. In spite of this, she stopped dancing at the age of 22. Around seven years later, her family had her confined to mental asylums, where she spent the remaining 46 years of her life. The specifics of her mental illness remain shrouded in mystery.

Lucia’s father James Joyce remains one of the world’s most influential and celebrated writers. His most famous work is Ulysses (1922), which follows the movements of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus throughout Dublin on a single day: 16 June, 1904. Joyce’s other major works include the short story collection Dubliners (1914) and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939).

Q: What inspired you to write about Lucia and James Joyce?

A: I was one of the artists on Smashing Times’ States of Independence project, which celebrated ten visionaries, changemakers, and leaders from the period 1912–22, linking them to the work of ten changemakers today, and culminating in a number of artworks produced for the 2023 edition of the annual Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival. As part of the project, Smashing Times commissioned me to write a one-act play on the relationship between the dancer Lucia Joyce and her renowned writer father, James. I was drawn to this relationship for a number of reasons. James Joyce has been a major influence on me as a writer – perhaps even the biggest – so I already had a useful grasp on his life and work. Lucia’s story, on the other hand, fascinated me due to its mystery, its tragedy and pathos. It kind of serves as a dark, sinister counterpoint to the heady success of her father’s career.

The juxtaposition of their respective fates is interesting too as James is someone who transcended difficult circumstances to achieve so much, while Lucia, whose formative years were also marked by hardship, seemed destined for greatness too, until it all prematurely crumbled, in one of the most catastrophic and heart-wrenching ways possible. And, of course, there’s the extremely close and complex relationship between father and daughter, one charged with deep affection, jealousy, possessiveness, and even competition.

Lastly, through the prism of the play’s setting in the afterlife, I hoped to offer Lucia the chance to express the emotional impact of all she had been through, of all she had been subjected to, to give her a chance to be said, however fictional that saying may be. I also wanted to hold James accountable for whatever role he may have played in his daughter’s mistreatment, but also to hear his defence.

Q: Why should people come to see this play?

A: I think one of the most complicated and enigmatic relationships in literary history is of interest to many people, as are the questions still hanging over it. Why was Lucia really incarcerated? And what was the exact nature of her mental illness: did she really have schizophrenia, as she was eventually diagnosed with, or was she just struggling with violent, anti-social impulses as she raged against an oppressive and hostile family? And how much of a role did James really play in this hostility? Either way, Lucia’s story is one I believe a lot of people can relate to, especially those who have experienced marginalisation, mistreatment, or mental illness. I think most people can also relate in some way to her feelings of inadequacy, unimportance, failure, and regret, all coupled with a burning desire to overcome and do something special in life.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about your creative process with this play?

A: As touched upon, in May 2023 I was commissioned to write the play, which would form part of the States of Independence Multidisciplinary Performance during the annual Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival later in the year. I conducted research and brainstorming in May and June, before writing the first two drafts in the latter half of June. From July to September, I worked with the writer Caitríona Daly in her capacity as a dramaturg, and produced eight further drafts of the play. In late September, I liaised with the play’s Audiovisual Artist, Scott Robinson; its Dance Choreographer, John Scott; and its director, Patrick Joseph Byrnes. During the Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival (13–22 October 2023), the play was performed six times.

As for the specifics of my writing process, my initial research ranged from Carol Loeb Schloss’ landmark biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, to Deirdre Mulrooney’s radio documentary Lucia, Sweet Dancer, and even portions of James’ Finnegans Wake, for which Lucia is said to have served as an inspiration.

The brainstorming I executed at this phase saw me draw up character sketches for the play’s three characters: Lucia, James, and Clown. I also decided upon which themes to dramatise in the play; these included mental illness, the conflict between personal ambition and familial love, and unsettling questionable, patriarchal historical narratives.

One central takeaway from my research – which shaped the writing of the play – was the enigma and complexity of Lucia’s character, and the fact that no one in the present day really knew who she was as a person – at least not in the way we know her father. (Lucia’s nephew, Stephen James Joyce, the now-deceased sole surviving heir of James Joyce, regrettably played a significant role in this, through his destruction of most of Lucia’s letters.) I recognised that this lacuna in our understanding of Lucia, the mystery of her fate and illness, had attracted many artists to fill the void at their own creative discretion. The version of Lucia I have crafted therefore represents my attempt to marry the historical accounts of her personality with my own creative re-imagining of this personality.

Q: What have you learned about Lucia Joyce as an artist?

A: As mentioned, Lucia Joyce, a tall and graceful dancer, cultivated an individual style within the new movement of anti-balletic, aesthetic dance. She gave several performances between 1926 and 1929; the Paris Times wrote about her, ‘Lucia Joyce is her father’s daughter – she has James Joyce’s enthusiasm, energy, and a not yet determined amount of his genius. When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.’

At the age of 22, Lucia suddenly stopped dancing. Some claim this was her own choice, that she declared herself not physically strong enough to be successful. Others say she was convinced by her father, who believed the intense physical training was causing her undue stress which led to incessant arguments at home with her mother (in turn preventing his progress with Finnegans Wake.)

Q: What was it like to write James Joyce – one of your biggest influences, as you say?

A: Both daunting and exhilarating, really. Initially, when I had broached the idea to Smashing Times, I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready to write my biggest influence. But I believe – hope – that I was reasonably well equipped to do so. Now, I just hope I did justice to him, although I’m not sure his ghost will be too pleased me with me airing out probably his dirtiest laundry. That said, it’s Lucia I hope I did the most justice to, because ultimately, despite her undoubted flaws and occasionally cruel and violent behaviour, she was a victim. A victim of mental illness, of her family’s oppression, and a victim of the times. And yet, at the same time, I strove to capture her defiance, her resilience and strength, of which she had plenty. But yes, to go back to the original question, there was a lot of pressure to at least somewhat adequately give voice to one of the most eloquent and creative voices of all time. A pressure which likely helped, in the end.

Q: What makes James and Lucia Joyce changemakers?

A: James Joyce was a changemaker in that he was one of the most original writers in the English language, ever. He was a central figure of literary modernism, pioneering the stream of consciousness technique which became one of the movement’s core elements. Stream of consciousness can be defined as a narrative mode or method that attempts to portray the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind of a character. One could also argue that Joyce mastered a greater array of styles than any other writer in history. He was also a changemaker in how he resisted a number of challenges to his own independence: British Rule in Ireland, the Catholic Church, ignorance, hatred, conventionality and conservative mores, and the physical violence occurring on an unprecedented level during his lifetime, both in his home country and the world at large (he was a known pacifist who detested the use of force). So he was a changemaker in that he changed the course of literary history, and indeed the history of art itself.

As for Lucia Joyce, in her short, abortive career as a dance artist, commentators had already noted how she was developing an individual style within the new movement of anti-balletic, aesthetic dance. She was in the process of contributing her own unique vision to an avant-garde, changemaking movement, when her career was cut short. So she was a changemaker in the making, if you will. Additionally, the tale of Lucia’s misfortune, her abuse and neglect, and the efforts by her family and its heirs to suppress and destroy her story, have actually inspired change in recent years in that society is re-examining how it views mental illness and the ‘mad’ (usually female) loved ones of historical figures. Her story has brought about change in how we treat the troublesome.

To book Sole Flower, Spidered Soul, which runs in The New Theatre from 11–15 June in The New Theatre, Dublin, please click here.

Féilim James

Féilim James is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. He has been funded by the Arts Council of Ireland on three occasions, including for his debut novel, Flower of Ash. Dublin City Arts Office granted him an Arts Bursary in 2021 to finish his first poetry collection, I was a river, lost. He has had four plays and two short films produced, and has appeared in the Irish Independent’s New Irish Writing, Acumen, Abridged, The Fiction Pool, Icarus, and elsewhere. His Irish language writing, under Féilim Ó Brádaigh, has won seven Oireachtas na Gaeilge awards. Visit his website here.