The lives of fringe players, those who inhabit the subplots in the grand narratives of history’s greats, have always fascinated. No man is an island and all that, and family members, friends and lovers can act as walking archives, a stash of memories and anecdotes that were never committed to paper or celluloid. Particularly in the case of literary giants, whose works are raked over repeatedly by fans and legions of first year university students, whose letters and journals are scavenged and picked clean – particularly in this case, acquaintances offer new frontiers of insight. What’s even more tantalising is when there are gaps in the story – missing documents or a lack of documentation that seem to point to an incomplete puzzle.
Lucia Joyce was the daughter of one of English literature’s greatest heroes, a man revered the world over and hailed as one of the fathers of modernism; the subject of an annual day of remembrance, who launched a thousand boaters on a tide of fried kidneys: James Joyce. This year’s Tiger Dublin Fringe festival will see the screening of a dance film titled Medicated Milk, a tribute to the daughter of this literary titan.
Dance maker Áine Stapleton came to Joyce three years ago through a collaboration with Irish band Fathers of Western Thought, who at the time were concocting a musical interpretation of some of his works. What began as an investigation into James’ writing quickly segued into a closer look at the life of Lucia, a life which culminated in a 47 year period in psychiatric care. As her research progressed, Áine’s contribution to the performance ultimately became all about the famous writer’s little-discussed daughter.
“I did sing on some of the songs, but ended up spending the majority of the performance holding up cards with information about [Lucia].”
Born in 1907 in Trieste, Italy, Lucia had a somewhat itinerant childhood, moving house and country several times as her father relocated for work. A dialect of Italian spoken in Trieste remained her first language and was the tongue she communicated primarily with Joyce in. At one time an aspiring contemporary dancer who trained briefly with Isadora Duncan’s brother, her life took a bleak turn when she was incarcerated in a psychiatric institution at the age of 28 by her brother Giorgio. An incident in which Lucia threw a chair at her mother is often cited as one of the deciding factors in this incarceration. Lucia remained in care until the end of her life in 1982.
In her research into Lucia’s story, Stapleton was frustrated by the lack of information originating from the voice of the individual herself. It seemed as though the designation ‘mentally ill’ had come to characterise her entire existence, the incident of the chair throwing writ large over everything.
“Everything I read online just seemed to repeat itself – she was crazy, she threw a chair at her mother, she threw herself at men, these kinds of things… So I was really interested in making the show as much as possible from her own words.”
The discovery that a great deal of Lucia’s correspondence was destroyed after her death by Joyce’s grandson and Lucia’s nephew Stephen Joyce, only served to increase the motivation to uncover something more about the woman than an account of her mental degradation. Stapleton purchased copies of some of Lucia’s still existing letters from the University of Texas and began visiting various sites from her life – her childhood home in France, the seaside town of Bray where she visited cousins, even the hospital in Northampton where she spent the significant remaining portion of her years. Footage taken in these locations and scenes shot in areas around Áine’s own childhood home of Wicklow town, along with material from Lucia’s letters, form the basis for the film, developed in collaboration with film and theatre maker José Miguel Jimenez.
Lucia’s biographer Carol Loeb Shloss, the target of a copyright misuse lawsuit by Stephen Joyce for her work Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, theorises that Joyce’s daughter was his muse for Finnegans Wake. In the biography, she recounts a famous scene wherein Lucia danced while Joyce wrote. In her attempt to get to the heart of the shrouded figure of Lucia, Stapleton has worked references to Joyce’s famously opaque tome into the film, along with an original electronic score by Neil O’Connor (Somadrone) based on songs and music that would have been performed by Lucia herself, or played regularly in the family home. As a piece of art, Medicated Milk seems to aim to pay tribute to a life clouded by tragedy – by examining the few available facts and assembling emotional fragments from Lucia’s past, Stapleton tries to give her a voice.
“The scenes in the film may seem like they don’t carry a distinct narrative, but all of the imagery is created by layering various aspects of Lucia’s life, from her dreams to her autobiography. Mostly, I feel she suffered neglect and abuse throughout her life, and I’d like people to understand that. To me, her story seems like a case of the victim being punished. I think it deserves further insight and her memory deserves to be honoured properly.”
Medicated Milk is screened on Tuesday 8th to Thursday 10th September at 6.45pm in Smock Alley Theatres, Boys’ School, with an extra screening taking place on Wednesday 9th September at 4.45pm. Tickets cost €14 / €12 (concession)
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Image: José Miguel Jimenez