‘Life as it might have been…’ for Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill

  Daniel Simpson as Ted Hughes in Ann Henning Jocelyn's  Doonreagan

 Daniel Simpson as Ted Hughes in Ann Henning Jocelyn's Doonreagan

Doonreagan was first performed at Jermyn Street Theatre London in 2013 and explores the passionate but doomed relationship between Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill during their spell in Connemara; their efforts to establish a common ground free from the towering shadow of Sylvia Plath; their longing for peace and contentment; and their discovery that, close to nature, away from the judgments, pressures, demands and expectations of the world at large, they came closer not only to each other, but also to themselves. The play explores how the spirit of an environment can bring you so close to your true self that the essence of your entire life - past, present and future - emerges as crystal clear and inevitable.

After obtaining a degree in Drama and an early debut as a playwright in her native Sweden, Ann Henning Jocelyn spent two years at Studio 68 in London, and then worked as assistant to director Charles Marowitz at his Open Space Theatre. Since the mid-1980s, she has been based in the West of Ireland writing books and plays. Her Connemara Whirlwind Trilogy is a long-term bestseller and the inspirational Keylines for Living has been published world-wide. Her stage plays have been performed throughout Ireland and in London’s West End, and her translations of Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse have won much acclaim. www.annhenningjocelyn.com 

Dr. Gillian Groszewski teaches English literature in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin. She is Editor of The Ted Hughes Society Journal.

GG: What did you know about Ted Hughes before you wrote the play Doonreagan?

AHJ: Well, I obviously knew his work but the closest I came to him personally was in the late 1970s when I had a visit from a woman called Jill Barber. She had heard through a friend we had in common that I was writing a book on astrology. While I didn’t know her, she asked if I could look at her horoscope and tell her what it would suggest to a person interested in astrology. She didn’t really want to have her chart read. She just wanted to know what another person might have read out of it. She explained that she was in a relationship – in a difficult situation – with a man who was married to someone else. He practised astrology and had asked all the details of her birth-date and time and place. So she realised that he was doing a chart for her and she wanted to know what he might have seen in it. I did look at her chart for her and she told me during the course of conversation that her partner was Ted Hughes. That’s the only personal – one step removed personal – contact I had that made me interested in the man, Ted Hughes, at the time.

GG: But you never met Hughes and you just knew his work after that, so it was a complete coincidence that you found out that Hughes had rented your house, ‘Doonregan House’, in Ireland in the 1960s?

AHJ: Yes.

GG: Were you interested in reading about Hughes’s life as well as his poetry and fiction?

AHJ: Only when I discovered the connection with our house. I started to read everything that has been written about Sylvia Plath and Hughes. Also, of course, Assia Wevill’s biography, A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev (Robson Books), which is the book that put its authors on the track of ‘Doonreagan House’. 

GG: To my mind, Assia Wevill, the lover that Hughes left Sylvia Plath to be with, is the centre of your play, so that, although the play was prompted by Hughes, Assia is its central character. 

AHJ: Yes. I think the deepest insight I got into Assia’s life was not through anything written. It was from a long conversation I had with the late Barrie Cooke who had been with Hughes and Assia and seen a fair amount of her during the time that they were in Ireland. Cooke seemed to have observed and understood her vulnerability and her insecurities better than most. 

GG: Why do you think that was? She seemed to be quite a popular woman who wasn’t obviously insecure.

AHJ: I think she was probably very good at putting up a façade of a very sophisticated woman of the world. Very often, when people do that, it is to cover a vulnerable core. Only people very close to her would be aware of it. I’m not even sure that Hughes was. 

GG: Or didn’t want to be, perhaps?

AHJ: It was not what he loved her for. That’s one thing that I hope comes across in the play. That, without really meaning to, he is, bit by bit, adding to her tragic fate which she is perhaps always destined for. The danger is always there because she has this very vulnerable part of herself. 

GG: Much like Sylvia Plath?

AHJ: Yes – for different reasons though. I think that Assia really lost her identity as the pampered princess of a high-society doctor in Berlin at the age of six and was then thrown out into a very hostile world, as they had to flee the Nazis. There was never a place for her anywhere after that. She had to construct this new persona that people would accept and appreciate. But it was all on the surface and, deep down, she was still that frightened little girl. 

GG: Along with exploring those vulnerabilities of Assia Wevill and the relationship that she had with Ted Hughes, the play also explores a lot of her interests in music, translation, drawing and even writing. 

AHJ: Again, I think she was a very talented woman and what I wanted to show in the play was that, if she had been given more of a chance to just develop on her own terms and not have to worry about what other people expected from her, she would have flourished much more and might have overcome her insecurities. She might have found an identity for herself that was really based on her talents and nothing else. But, the world treated her very badly and, because she was dependent on other people’s opinions of her for her own identity, that eventually led to her demise. 

GG: Of all the talents of Assia that you explore in the play, you don’t mention her success in advertising, which could be interpreted as an aspect of her life in which she was very successful, creatively. Perhaps this is a form of creativity that is not adequate in the Romantic sense of poetry?

AHJ: Well, it’s commercial, it’s responding to expectations. But, she was the first person to use video in UK advertisements which was hugely successful. She was always responding to what people wanted from her and that is also what made her so vulnerable. You can’t become confident if you are only responding to what other people want.

GG: Yes, but it might make you very successful in advertising!

AHJ: Well, this is the key to it. People think, ‘She was so successful, how could she have given up on life?’ 

GG: In the play, you bring together those two aspects you’ve just spoken about – astrology and Ted Hughes’s relationship with Assia Wevill. How would you describe astrology as you portray it in the play? It seems to be used as a way to understand what Hughes might be thinking or what he might be mistakenly thinking?

AHJ: Yes. I understood, from my meeting with Jill Barber, that Ted Hughes was not very mystical about astrology. He just saw it as a way of understanding himself and people that surrounded him. I had been commissioned at the time to write an academic, definitive book on astrology explaining what it is and how it works and how it has been used by mankind over the millennia. I had formed a similar opinion from the research I was doing. In our time, there’s no room for the superstitious side of astrology. I understood the way Ted Hughes approached it, because it’s the way most modern astrologers and modern people use it. Also, I could see that that it must have helped his symbolic thinking. Being a poet, he would have viewed the world and also himself symbolically. He would have seen Sylvia Plath as a symbol as well and, really, they set out their life together in quite a symbolic way. Astrology helps with that approach to life because it gives ready-made symbols making it easier to define yourself. Astrology helped me get deeper into Hughes’s mind. For example, we know that he must have been aware that his own horoscope and that of Sylvia Plath clashed dramatically and that the combination was unlikely to have a happy ending. Anyone in the astrology world could have told him that. So one wonders why he would have let himself in for that. I think it was the challenge that attracted him. 

GG: What about Assia’s horoscope and Hughes’s?

AHJ: Again, not great as combinations go. The most interesting thing about Assia’s horoscope is that her daughter Shura’s horoscope is almost an exact replica of hers, which is statistically very unlikely to happen. However, astrological traits do appear in families, as if they were inherited - just as genes are inherited. 

GG: In your play, though, the children – Hughes’s children with Sylvia Plath, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, and his child with Assia Wevill, Shura – are not present.

AHJ: No. The play is, at times, about Hughes’s attitude to the children, which is important, but the children themselves don’t have a role to play.

GG: In London, Flora Montgomery played the role of Assia and Daniel Simpson played Ted. In Ireland, Tara Breathnach will appear as Assia. Why do you think the roles of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill are so appealing to actors? 

AHJ: I think it’s because these are very charismatic characters and interesting people. I’d hoped to capture as many different aspects of their characters as I could in the play. I really wanted to show that, if you place a person in an environment where they are free from the insidious influence of outside, as Doonreagan in Connemara is, their character and their personality has a chance to come through in all its complexity. They have no choice but to simply be themselves. That, of course, comes back to my own experience of having lived in Connemara for at least thirty years. You can’t really be anything but yourself when you’re alone in this landscape. Even if there are two of you, you are together in an environment that simply does not allow for any kind of role-play or pretence. 

GG: Of course, this is also a play about a place – Doonreagan in Connemara, where your home ‘Doonreagan House’ is and where Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill once stayed. 

AHJ: Yes, the set of the play portrays an almost claustrophobic room beyond which can be seen, through the window, the beautiful open landscape of Connemara. What is seen through the window symbolises the freedom that the characters in the play strive towards but can’t quite reach. That was what Doonreagan symbolised for Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill, whose relationship ultimately ended in tragedy: life as it might have been.

Doonreagan, starring Daniel Simpson and Tara Breathnach, has its Irish preview in The Station House Theatre in Clifden January 21st 2015 (tickets €12/€10 conc. info@stationhousetheatre.com), moving on to An Taibhdhearc Theatre in Galway city from January 22nd- 24th (tickets €16.50/€12.50 conc. http://antaibhdhearc.com/)  and then coming to the Samuel Beckett Theatre at Trinity College Dublin from January 28th-31st (tickets €20/€15 conc. https://www.tcd.ie/beckett-theatre/theatre-events/). In Dublin, each performance will be followed by a talk from the playwright Ann Henning Jocelyn on ‘Ted Hughes: A Little-Known Irish Connection’ or ‘Confessions of a Transnational Playwright’ (alternate nights).