Following on from the overview of Silence is Requested last week, we go into more detail this time.
The then Drama Subject Librarian, Clíona Ní Shúilleabháin, has written the below to give a flavour of how one person might experience the production. Over to you Clíona:
The ‘audience’ gathers in the Berkeley Foyer, (the audience numbers around six people in total for each performance).
Once the performance begins, the audience members are quickly separated into two groups. I’m one of those who start up the Berkeley stairs towards the first floor, escorted by LIR ‘helpers’, while we listen to a pre-downloaded soundtrack on the earpieces connected to our mobile phones. This is a mixture of sound and music, with voiced narration and instructions.
As suggested by the Narrator, we note the tiles on the walls and stare at the light coming through the slanted, frosted-glass, semi-skylights at the top of the first flight. The Narrator encourages us to think of all the other lives which have moved across this spot. The steps are unperturbed by the passage of time. What’s it like when it rains?
Three creatures, dressed in black plastic rain capes ascend the stairs silently, only noticed as they approach the ledge under the windows, where they sit, rigidly, staring ahead.
They shed the rain capes with a flounce. The three are revealed as being a man and two women.
The silent figures move off up the next flight of stairs, to the first floor. We follow them, and are directed to stand by the tins of cat food stacked on the desk at the corner of the Morrison Room, beside the old electric button. Don’t press the button…yet.
The Narrator is replaced by another, who says the gay issue was not on the cards, on the radar, back then. So much has changed. ‘My proudest moment was seeing the Pride flag over the Front Gate.’
Now, which one of you will press the button? One of us does. The Pride flag unfurls before us.
There are jars of sweets on the shelves behind the former staff counter and drawers of catalogue cards. Our earpieces instruct us to sit.
A woman pushing a trolley approaches, comes up the ramp and goes into the glass-sided room beside us. She shuts the door. She can be seen stretching and bending. She gyrates around her trolley, dancing a mad, solo, introverted dance, clearly seen through the glass door by the sitters at the catalogue drawers.
A reader, with a tablet, is working quietly in the Morrison Room, unaware of this activity. We listen as the voice tells us about the Cat Lady who observed the students’ love lives from this vantage point.
We are urged to look in the drawers and we find extra cards, dispersed amongst the standard author-title-date cards. These cards list individual students’ characteristics and hold keyword summaries of their adventures.
At one point the spinning woman behind the glass door sees that we have looked up from the catalogue drawers and are observing her and she stops and glares at us. Then she carefully and deliberately tears up books, one page at a time, as she fixes us with a malevolent eye.
Moving briskly on into the Morrison Room, (it’s a bit unsettling for librarians to see books being torn to shreds, after all) we’re guided to sit at two desks with lights on and we are each sitting opposite a different actor. The actor I’m opposite, a young man, makes eyes at me (a bit creepily – he’s too good at this) and moves himself around the desk space, standing, sitting, moving, dancing, in time to the music only we, the audience, can hear, on our private soundtrack. ‘Why won’t you let me go now …’. At one point he shows me something written in red biro on the palm of his hand. It reads: ‘13th day’.
Next, the Architect. We saw him at the beginning, in the Berkeley Foyer, moving in an agonised dance against the concrete wall of the space, holding his roll of architect’s drawings at his side. The Architect comes to the edge of the Morrison Room and beckons us to follow. We hear his voice in our heads: ‘Walk towards me. Be smart about it. I know the quickest way out.’ So we do. We walk with him, up the back stairs towards the Research Floor.
On the way, we are told to crouch down, are told to get ready. ‘End of term. Leaving the Library’. Laughing.’ A bomb explodes. Sirens. Background track, the Hollies ‘If I could make a wish I think I’d pass’. The Northern accented voice overlays the music, with his staccato, brief account, of the immediate aftermath of the bomb on Nassau Street. ‘Can’t think of anything I need, No cigarettes, no sleep, no light, no sound, Nothing to eat, no books …’
The music fades and we continue on up.
On the Research Floor, we go to Alcove 16. There’s a young female student standing there, ‘girl with kaleidoscope eyes’ sing the Beatles in our ears. The actor has also mastered the glassy stare and holds mine for an uncomfortably long time. Desk D44, ‘her desk’. ‘They told me, ‘No’, until 1970’. ‘Go home and mother her’. There are sounds of a baby crying.
Leaving her, we go over to the balcony, beside the red shield. ‘Look down.’ Another girl, carrying an old-fashioned suitcase, runs noisily past us as we stand there. But she’s part of a different thread, some of the other audience members are following her story. On the floor below us, framed by the opening, we lean over and observe two male students from above. They are consulting the book shelves, their backs to one another. The voice of one young man is in our heads, recounting his experience. ‘I was in love, with a fellow from school … he was the first person I told I loved … I don’t regret it, though he’s now married…’ An intricate ballet is now being performed in the space below us, between the rows of book shelves. Two men, tentatively reaching for one another, hands briefly touching and then separating.
When the dance finishes, the two characters part and we are told to seek out a woman looking at us. She’s sitting at a desk near the stairs and lifts. She waves brightly at us. Hair wrapped up in a high bun. Wearing a short skirt. She is introduced by name, ‘Assumpta’. We follow her down the stairs. The voice in our heads is now a woman’s voice, addressing ‘Assumpta’ this time. ‘You told me… about the thousands of students who had come and gone, about how your job was all about them.’ Assumpta’s stories mention the fog in the glass Fag Room, where she went, even though she didn’t smoke, to hear the latest news; the time she was told her skirt was an occasion of sin; about Congress, the Library cat; about laughter, late lunches and friendship. About Cyril Bedford: ‘Ask Cyril, he knows everything about everything’. Sit-in protests, naked stand-offs, (recognising the identities of the streakers), the terror of the windows blowing in (by a letter bomb). Dancing in the closed Library. The scandal that marred the opening reception, the diplomat demanding the return of his daughter (the girl who had dashed past with the suitcase?). Downstairs in the Banned Books room, where she has brought us, ‘Assumpta’ flings boxes on the floor and dances with Tony Carey, member of Library staff, in time to the soundtrack, although she (the actor) can’t actually hear it. Tony says later that he and (real) Assumpta often dance at the Library parties. Tony’s going to have to break it to that Assumpta that’s he’s been dancing with a version of her remembered self.
The North Training Room is in confessional darkness when we arrive, a few non-illuminating lamps as balls of light, but shedding none. In the gloom we dimly make out shapes of people sitting at a long table. We’ve been briefly reunited with other audience members, seated amongst other, unknown, figures. The real Assumpta’s head is recognisable at the top of the table. Mary Higgins is there too. The others form silent shapes. The Architect is loudly agonising and philosophising. He records his own choice phrases, as they occur to him, on his push-button, portable, cassette tape-recorder. He is attempting to persuade some of those present to record what they would say to their future selves. He takes the real Assumpta by surprise, pushing the tape-recorder towards her face, record and play buttons down: ‘What would your earlier self say to your future self’? She’s taken aback. Well, what would you say?
We leave the North Training Room, are separated from our colleagues once more, as we agree to help a bustling student carrying a crate of bottles and an armful of posters.
We help him bring them to, what turns out to be, a Helpline office, under the stairs. Inside, another student is manning the Helpline. He waves us a hello, hasn’t time to take us in hand yet. There’s a man from Leitrim on the other end of the phone. There’s talk of the Hirschfeld Centre. The student is busily trying to console and encourage the caller. He’s doing his best, but says the wrong thing time and time again. Meanwhile the student with the beer crate is preparing for the party, gathering bottles and getting us to cut up tickets for Flikkers night club. The phone conversation is getting tetchier, the student uses a crude term to describe the caller’s mother, because she can’t understand her son. That’s the tipping point. Even if the son is upset by her attitude to his sexuality, you don’t insult his mother. The hapless student apologies over and over and tries to keep the caller on the phone, ‘Don’t hang up. MARK. DON’T hang up. Don’t hang UP.’ Mark has hung up. The two students argue about who is the better at handling the phone calls. The party organiser takes over at the next ring of the phone, he’s a calmer, gentler character, better at dealing with the calls, his friend confides, and we are led out by the now redundant call-taker.
We pass the Architect, ruminating, in the Library Guards’ cupboard and we bump into the Auditor of the Hist, the College Historical Society, you know, as he self-importantly shoots out of a room (currently the office of the Readers Services’ Sub Librarians). Sam Somebody.
He’s a bit embarrassed; he didn’t expect us to be here. He’s preparing for a very important debate, to be chaired by Conor Cruise O’Brien that afternoon. A big day for History. ‘It’s big, bigger than us, bigger than ME, even’, Sam says. He can’t let me attend, however, as women aren’t allowed, but he’ll welcome me to ‘a spot of tea’ later. He’s had a bit of bother with some other women, in fact. They just don’t understand, or accept, their position. One of these young women is Kate Cruise O’Brien. Daughter of. Sam heads off. Two women are seen running towards us, across Fellows’ Square, black gowns streaming behind them. The fire door is opened for them by one us, one of the ‘audience’, or, as we are now, one of the participants.
We have participated in crashing the Men Only debate. We dash down the stairs with them to take refuge in an underground loo while they change out of their gowns and back into day clothes. Exiting, we run into Sam. He’s furious. He rages and fumes. ‘And there was even to have been a discussion of feminism at the debate.’ (Snorts of laughter from the women.) ‘That would have done more for feminism than this silly stunt’, Sam says. He crumbles. His life is ruined. What will his father say? This was to have been the height of his College career, the triumph of which he would have been remembered. One of the women tells him, ‘You will be remembered for nothing’. We leave Sam Nobody. He remains behind, crushed, in the corridor.
Finally, we are led outside and left alone. There are traces of the recent experiences in the air. In front of the Berkeley, the Architect is still to be seen, a little way off, consulting his rolls of paper plans, as oblivious to the groups of tourists as they are to him.
Thank you to all staff who had the opportunity to help in the preparation of this piece. Thank you for your reminiscences, practical help, generosity and good humour. Thank you also to colleagues not directly involved for their support and good wishes.
Thanks to the Berkeley50 committee and in particular Peter Dudley.
Clíona Ní Shúilleabháin, Subject Librarian, (Drama and Film), 2016-2017