GALWAY HAS been enriched with many artistic immigrants down the years and among their number is Swedish playwright and translator Ann Henning Jocelyn.
For many years Ann has lived in Doonreagan House in Connemara which has become the setting of her latest play Doonreagan, which focuses on the time the poet Ted Hughes and his partner Assia Wevill lived there.
Hughes took refuge in Connemara in 1966 after the death of his wife Sylvia Plath. With him were his two young children by Sylvia, as well as Assia Wevill and baby daughter Schura. Doonreagan explores the doomed relationship between Ted and Assia during their brief but intense spell in Connemara: an ultimate test of conjugality and family life, at which neither of them had excelled so far.
Based on years of personal research and experience, Doonreagan opens up new angles on this tragic triangle drama and the mystery of Sylvia Plath’s death.
Ann Henning Jocelyn was born in Gothenburg in 1948 and was an early lover of literature. Her initial forays into playwriting even helped her conquer school bullies, as she reveals over an afternoon chat.
“I lived in a part of Gothenburg that was bordering a rough part of town,” she tells me. “There were families that were violent and their kids were as well, I was brought up being taught good manners. I was also younger and because I was moved up a year, I was a couple years younger than everyone else and smaller and that made me an obvious target for bullies. I could also read and write better than they could and they didn’t like that. I was beaten and bullied a lot when I was eight or nine.”
“I started to write plays when I was nine at school. They were performed regularly. I discovered that if I wrote plays, the school bullies would leave me alone because I would threaten not to write any more plays. I saved myself from being bullied by entertaining them with the plays I wrote.
“I was ill for a long time once. There was a very bad flu going around and when I came back to school the worst bully, who I was most afraid of, was lying in wait for me. My knees were trembling as he approached me but all he wanted to know was if I had written any new plays. He said it had been so boring while I was sick. That’s when I realised that my plays could actually have something to offer even to people I considered my worst enemy.”
From architecture to Ingrid Bergman
In 1968, Anne enrolled at Gothenburg University for a degree in classical architecture and drama. Having received her honours degree, she was appointed junior lecturer in art history at Gothenburg University, a post she held for one term before deciding that it was too early for her to settle into an academic career.
She went to London to do theatre studies and spent two years at the drama school Studio 68 learning professional skills. On leaving, she was employed by the Open Space Theatre in London, working with the legendary director Charles Marowitz as his assistant and dramaturge. She also appeared in several productions at the Open Space.
“I took a degree in drama in Sweden then went to study theatre in London but it was difficult because Sweden was not part of EU,” she says. “I couldn’t get a permit and was restricted in roles by Equity, I could only do foreign parts. That is when I realised I had one way of justifying my existence in London and that was to start translating plays and novels.”
One of Anne’s notable publications was Ingrid Bergman’s life story.
“I spent a year of my life working on Ingrid Bergman’s book,” she reveals. “I worked very closely with her on her autobiography, I did all the Swedish research and the Swedish version of her book. Just two weeks ago I had an email from Swedish publishers, 35 years after book came out, telling me it is the centenary of her birth and they are going to celebrate it by re-publishing my translation.
“She was wonderful to work with. I was so favoured to have this time with her. She was the most gracious woman and she had a wonderful sense of humour. I remember how much we laughed together and what a good time we had.”
So how did she discover the story of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill in Connemara?
“It was only a few years ago I heard the story of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill being in Connemara,” she replies. “A car came up to our house one day and a couple stepped out and introduced themselves as authors and said they were writing a biography of a woman called Assia Wevill who I had never heard of.
“They told me she had lived here in the house with Ted Hughes in 1966. They had researched Ted Hughes’ papers in the university in Atlanta and they found that a lot of letters were addressed to Doonreagan House so they came here and found us and that was the first we knew about it.”
With a little help from my friends
Doonregan uncovers details previously little known about Hughes and Wevill’s relationship.
“There is hardly anything recorded about their time together here,” Anne reveals. “All the biographers ignored it and Ted never spoke much about it. I started to look for people who had known him and been close to him at that time in his life. I was very fortunate in having personal contact with three of the people who were his closest friends at the time, the poets Seamus Heaney, Richard Murphy, and the artist Barrie Cooke. I was able to speak to all three of them – at the eleventh hour because we have lost both Seamus and Barrie, and Richard now lives in Sri Lanka - and they told me a lot of stuff that was unrecorded and previously unknown.”
Tragically, in a macabre echo of Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill would go on to gas herself and her daughter. However her time in Connemara with Hughes was happy.
“This was a very happy time for them,” Anne states. “Their tragedy was that they could not stay. The owner of Doonreagan also owned Cashel House, Ted was trying to buy Doonreagan so that they could stay but the owner had just started the process of selling Cashel House as a hotel and he wanted to move into Doonreagan himself and that was why they could not stay.
“In Ted Hughes’ published letters he writes to his son Nicholas to say that, looking back, the period he spent in Doonreagan House was one of the most significant in his life and the greatest mistake he ever made was to leave Connemara.
"I can empathise with that because if I ever had to leave this place it would be a major tragedy in my life. I was fortunate in being able to stay. I came here in 1982 and was lent the house by my now-husband and I found the place so inspiring and decided this is where I wanted to be and I never went back to London.”
Doonreagan is at An Taibhdhearc from Friday January 22 to Sunday 24. For tickets contact 091 - 562024 or email [email protected]. Anne also has a play about the Irish Troubles, Only Our Own, which will be on in An Taibhdhearc in April.