On Stage: portrait of the artist's daughter | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: portrait of the artist's daughter 

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"In high school, Stephen Dedalus was my Holden Caulfield," says Lookingglass Theatre cofounder Joy Gregory, explaining why she wrote Dreaming Lucia, a play about James Joyce's troubled daughter. "I wanted to be just like Stephen Dedalus: this suffering, tortured, melodramatic, melancholy, little, tweedy, Irish poet boy.

"Later when I read Joyce's letters to his wife Nora I really fell in love with his voice. And his ability to articulate irrational struggles within the heart."

And what attracted Gregory to Lucia Joyce? "She's so mythic. The daughter of Joyce. Lost her mind. Schizophrenic. Spent her life in an asylum. It's a feminine experience: the daughter, silenced daughter."

The only daughter of one of the great writers of the 20th century, Lucia Joyce early on showed an artistic bent of her own. She danced, painted, and did a little writing. "Some theorize that the broken-down language of Finnegans Wake was an attempt to mirror Lucia's highly individual style of writing," Gregory says. But Lucia's artistic yearnings were unfulfilled, and she died alone and mad, having spent most of her adult life in an insane asylum in Northampton, England.

"There was a great deal of secrecy in Joyce's family about Lucia," Gregory says. Always close to his daughter, Joyce was nevertheless ashamed of Lucia's mental illness and deeply worried by her eccentric behavior. She was sexually promiscuous yet was never able to establish a steady relationship. She was a pyromaniac and set fire to an aunt's house. She was once observed at dawn trying to capture goldfish in a pond with a safety pin.

"She was shepherded through countless cures," Gregory says. "She was given seawater injections. Then she was given a series of 50 bovine serum injections, which were all very painful. For a time there was the suspicion that this was all caused by tooth decay. Joyce was in a tremendous amount of denial about his daughter's condition and willing to accept any other diagnosis than schizophrenia."

Even when the Joyces finally sought psychological help, Lucia's status as the daughter of a great man got in the way. After seeing her only a few times, C.G. Jung pronounced, perhaps with an eye toward posterity, that Joyce and Lucia were like two people going to the bottom of a river--one diving, the other falling. Lucia's impression of Jung was no more flattering. She called the pastry-loving psychoanalyst "a big fat materialistic Swiss man trying to get hold of my soul."

Gregory's moody, dreamlike text traces Lucia's life from birth to her breakdown in her mid-20s. It follows the Joyce family from obscurity in Trieste and Zurich to Joyce's years of international fame in Paris in the 20s and 30s, following the publication of Ulysses and the teasing first sections of his "work in progress," Finnegans Wake. The play is essentially a collage of quotations from Joyce's writings, several prominent biographies (including Brenda Maddox's ground-breaking study of Joyce's wife, Nora Barnacle), and the few fragments of Lucia's writings that remain, including a diary she kept for biographer Richard Ellmann. (Most of Lucia's writings were destroyed, including the letters she wrote to the man who broke her heart, Samuel Beckett, who Gregory calls "the fascinating, beautiful, gull-eyed rake.") The word "collage" may be misleading since Gregory and director Laura Eason have worked hard to make this fragmentary work flow like a long, pleasant 90-minute dream. In addition to writing Dreaming Lucia, Gregory also plays the title role.

Eason says Dreaming Lucia "is about how women trying to find an artistic voice struggle against this huge amalgamated male-genius canon."

Gregory has a simpler, sadder synopsis: "Its the story of a woman who loses against silence."

In writing about a woman who lost her artistic voice, Gregory paradoxically feels she has found her own. "Its inexplicable why for so many years I felt that I couldn't sit down and type out my ideas. I shouldn't keep a journal. I can't write a song. That's for my boyfriends. By doing this piece I have conquered a silence I have felt overshadowed by for years and years and years."

A preview performance of Dreaming Lucia is offered this Friday, March 10, at 8 PM at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport; admission is $10. The play then opens with a benefit for the Lookingglass Theatre Company at 8 PM Saturday, March 11; tickets cost $35, which includes a postshow party. Dreaming Lucia will run through April 16 with performances at 8 PM Thursday through Saturday and at 2:30 PM on Sunday; regular admission is $16. For information or reservations, call 871-0671.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.

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