Rockaby, baby: digitising a recent addition to the Beckett Archive

The image of actor Billie Whitelaw, dressed almost like an Victorian widow, rocking back and forth silently in her chair, is one of the iconic visuals of the Beckett canon. The lone protagonist in the ‘spare, compact, provocative’ play Rockaby was modeled on Beckett’s maternal grandmother Annie Roe, a solitary woman in her later years, dressed head to toe in black , sitting in her room staring silently out the window.

Billie Whitelaw (1929-2014) palying the sole character in the premiere of Rockaby (MS 11592).

Continue reading “Rockaby, baby: digitising a recent addition to the Beckett Archive”

Berkeley and Byrne

Whilst the physical Library is closed, research on the collections continues apace. In our latest post Dr Clare Moriarty, IRC Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy, writes about her research into the intersection between maths and art and the early nineteenth-century Irish mathematician Oliver Byrne, the ‘Matisse of Mathematics’.

Clare will also be presenting at the The Art + Science Reading Group on 18 June at 6.30pm and registration is via this link. The group is now a virtual gathering of thinkers, researchers and the incurably curious. Organised by PhD candidates Amelia McConville (School of English and Institute of Neuroscience) and Autumn Brown (School of Education and Science Gallery Dublin) and supported by Science Gallery Dublin and the Trinity Long Room Hub, the series will explore the evolutionary and revolutionary kinship between two approaches to understanding the universe and our place within it.

Clare writes;

One is a name familiar to all who know the university: George Berkeley. Berkeley was an 18th century philosopher, Anglican bishop, mathematical malcontent, and Trinity student and tutor. The second, Oliver Byrne, is a different creature altogether. Born in 1810 near Avoca in Wicklow, Byrne mixed a life-long devotion to mathematics and mathematics education with: circulating tracts in America detailing close-combat styles (!) to be used in pursuit of Irish Independence, inventing something called the Byrnegraph, writing colourfully against phrenology, and basically living the hard life of an inventor-cum-educator with his wife Eleanor, who was herself a brilliant meteorologist. Byrne had a connection of sorts to Trinity. He claimed he learned his mathematics here. However, he is not recorded as ever having matriculated. So, we have two figures, a century apart, from very different worlds, but united by lifelong preoccupations with mathematics (regard Berkeley’s ‘Of Infinites’, an essay presented to the Dublin Philosophical Society in 1707).

Byrne—if he is known by people at all—is known for his majestic edition of Euclid’s Elements.

Here, Byrne uses coloured diagrams to present that Junior Cert syllabus treasure, the Pythagorean Theorem. This is not “art for art’s sake”; Byrne had a serious pedagogical insight into the difficulties of teaching maths and believed using colours could more judiciously represent the abstract properties of geometric objects.

Example: It’s a mistake to think of a geometric line as having any breadth. When concentrating on a line in its own right Byrne brings this into focus by using two colours bumping up against each other, to suggest a one dimensional boundary, rather than anything with suggested thickness.

Byrne shows a distinctive philosophy of education here: grappling with overcoming the problems of representing necessarily abstract geometric objects in a 3-dimensional learning scenario.

Byrne continued to use colour as a conceptual tool in his instruction. In the little-known work ‘The Young Geometrician’, which lives in Early Printed Books, Byrne expands his method to describe geometric constructions, or, how things need to move when setting up various geometric problems. This time colour is used to mark fixed versus moving parts. So, in these diagrams, Byrne conveys that the moving one of two set squares is the red one.

The process starts out simply, but we can see that it quickly develops into a procedure for fairly sophisticated direction.

TCD Manuscripts are the custodians of box of treasures given to the university by Byrne’s wife, Eleanor. It includes the beautiful manuscript of Byrne’s last book, The Trinal Calculus. The elaborate pictorial frontispiece suggests that Eleanor Byrne prepared the document.

And again, we have fascinating mathematical connections to Berkeley whose infamous 1734 tract The Analyst criticised the foundations of calculus, and inflamed what became a near-century long search for more rigorous logical foundations. Byrne’s strange treatise is (1) dedicated to solving Berkeley’s problems:

And when we look to see what Byrne provided by way of an appendix, it’s just his copy of The Analyst.

The above shows the possibility of demonstrating significant links between two key thinkers with a few key resources. Distance from primary material during Covid-19 is challenging. Now that archive access is not a short-term option, I find myself reminded that the sources that first struck me as relevant—those that first caused me to photograph them for personal use—are very likely the ones that epitomise the project.

Dr Clare Moriarty

IRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Philosophy, TCD

Rough Magic: Tracing a creative female corporeality in the archive and the Irish theatre tradition

Photograph by Conor Horgan

As a feminist performance scholar, I am keenly aware of the challenges in uncovering women’s theatrical contributions and gathering a legacy of their traces. Without doubt this motivated me to find a way to assemble a tradition of women in modern Irish theatre in my book, Women and Embodied Mythmaking in Irish Theatre. My research is concerned with women’s disruption of the perpetuation of mythic narratives and myths of femininity through their own theatrical mythmaking. Rough Magic productions, including Paula Meehan’s Mrs Sweeney and Olwen Fouéré’s Sodome, my Love, shape the tradition proposed by my book. This is unsurprising given the statistics: The Gender Counts Report: An Analysis of Gender in Irish Theatre, 2006–2015, highlights Rough Magic’s strong track record in working with women theatre makers in contrast to the woeful underrepresentation of women artists in the theatre organisations in receipt of the most public subsidy. The company’s archive is a valuable resource for Irish theatre scholarship enabling us to further engage with the work and legacies of the independent theatre sector. Moreover, Rough Magic’s archive assists in the project of deconstructing the male-dominated literary canon of Irish theatre through analysis of the work of women theatre makers in a variety of roles.

The canon of Irish theatre has served to marginalise women’s contributions, a process of erasure that is perpetuated through its retelling. So how might we engage with performance archives in order to build an alternative framework to the canon? In Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment, Rebecca Schneider warns against the binary logic which opposes archive and performance, aligning the latter with ephemerality, and describes the archive as an embodied encounter: ‘a set of live practices of access, given to take place in a house (the literal archive) built for live encounter with privileged remains’ (108). Through the process of writing my book I am performing an archive; I am engaged in the act of retrieving and preserving performances in order to house their remains. I acknowledge, as Schneider describes, ‘the archive [as] a live performance space, and the performance space [as] an archive for the revenant’ (110), and thus the tradition of women’s theatre in Ireland which I interlace is one shaped by resurfacing and remains.

The role of the body in the transmission of memory is central to my argument and it is the female writing body which facilitates the reappearance and reassertion of the archive’s remains; fleshing out a rich and unmined vein of creativity and resistance in Irish theatre.

Shifting the emphasis from discursively documented history to focus on how history and memory are enacted on and remembered through the body, is an essential step in the process of addressing how women’s bodies bear the consequences of the imposition of myths of femininity. Moreover, the erasure of the realities and lived experiences of women’s bodies from public discourse in Ireland makes this all the more vital. Bodies expose the gaps and neglected spaces of official histories to form the connective tissue that assembles a body of women’s work in Irish theatre.

Photograph by Conor Horgan

The Rough Magic archive was a crucial resource in researching the final chapter of my book which focuses on the performer Olwen Fouéré. Through analysis of her work I propose a creative female corporeality, or writing body, and trace the connections back to the earliest performances discussed in my book: the tableaux vivants performed by the Inghinidhe na hÉireann in 1901. Fouéré’s Sodome, my Love (2010) was produced by Rough Magic and directed by the artistic director Lynne Parker.

Photograph by Conor Horgan

This poetic monologue written by Laurent Gaudé, translated and performed by Fouéré, details the experiences of the last surviving woman of Sodome who has been buried under salt. The salt marks the anxiety of this retelling: it both preserves and denies life, connoting the possibilities for, and limits placed on, female bodily expression. My initial encounter was as an audience member at the Project Arts Centre in 2010, and I later viewed a DVD recording held in Rough Magic’s archive.

Furthermore, the archive granted me access to a recording of a special performance of the play in Macedonia on 31 July 2010, staged on the ancient site of the Church of St Sophia. All of these embodied encounters shaped my close analysis of the performance, and persistently forced me to engage with the tangled relationship between performance, memory and history. This between space is where performance remains as we engage with embodied history and challenge conventional notions of the archive. It is through this challenge that women’s contributions to theatre history resist what Derrida describes as the ‘house arrest’ of the archive and, I would add, the canon of modern Irish theatre.

Shonagh Hill

Women and Embodied Mythmaking in Irish Theatre is now available from Cambridge University Press:

Rough Magic Memories

The third in our series of blog posts on the Rough Magic archive is by Nicholas Grene, Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Trinity College Dublin

In the summer of 1984, I ran into Lynne Parker and Declan Hughes in Front Square; they had just graduated.  ‘What are you up to?’ I asked.  ‘We’re setting up a theatre company’.   Hardly a surprise there: they had been mainstays of D.U. Players for the four years of their time as students of English.   ‘What are you calling it?’  ‘Rough Magic’.  I was immediately struck. It was simply the most brilliant name for a theatre company — at once ‘rough’ as in experimental, challenging, and at the same time magical, transformative, as all theatre should be.  But it also showed their time in English had not been wasted: they had picked out Prospero’s line from The Tempest, ‘this rough magic / I here abjure’.  The old magus might be abjuring rough magic, but the young Turks were about to create it.

For me the ‘living archive’ on display in the Long Room brings alive vivid memories of thirty-five years of Rough Magic.  There were the shows that Lynne and Declan had staged when still in Players, like a hugely ambitious production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties which Lynne both directed and designed.  It was an amazingly talented group which included Stanley Townsend and Darragh Kelly, Pauline McLynn and Anne Enright.  Anne, now of course an acclaimed novelist, at the time looked like becoming an actor and playwright; she played for Rough Magic in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1984) and Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon (1986).  Pauline McLynn, whose wonderfully infectious laugh I remember from first year tutorials, was to star opposite Owen Roe in the magnificent 2006 Taming of the Shrew transposed to a 1970s Irish Midlands pub.  (When she was playing Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, I had to reassure people I had actually taught her – she wasn’t really that old.)

Rough Magic transformed Irish theatre in the 1980s by staging edgy contemporary British and American plays.  I still recall the unfortunate Anne Byrne and Martin Murphy, in different scenes of Howard Barker’s No End of Blame (1985), having to stand stock still and stark naked in the tiny, old Project Arts Theatre, perishingly cold as it was in those days — you could count each goose pimple.  The company gave new currency to classic English plays as in their sleazy production of the Restoration comedy The Country Wife (1986), or Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1991) with most of the characters in drag.  But they also commissioned important new work from Irish playwrights: Gina Moxley’s Danti Dan (1995), Donal O’Kelly’s one-man show Bat the Father, Rabbit the Son (1988), and of course Declan Hughes’s own Digging for Fire (1991).  These productions fundamentally changed audiences’ expectations as to what an Irish play might be like.

Music was always a key part of Rough Magic’s work, and Helene Montague, one of the founding members of the group, was very important here, as was Arthur Riordan who wrote the astonishingly funny musical Improbable Frequency with Bell Helicopter (2004).   A part of the daring of their Phaedra (2011) was the collaboration of playwright Hilary Fanning and composer Ellen Cranitch in creating a drama that alternated between spoken dialogue and glorious singing.

When I look through this exhibit, with posters, programmes and scripts for so many shows of Rough Magic that I saw over the years, it serves to renew all the pleasure the company has given me, and as a living archive to enable me to live it through all over again.

Nicholas Grene

Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Trinity College Dublin