In New Joyce Musical, Nora Barnacle Comes First

Whitney Bashor and Matt Bogart as Nora Barnacle and James Joyce.

By Adam Farley, Deputy Editor
June / July 2016

A new Off-Broadway musical seeks to tell the story of the passionate, tumultuous, and prolific relationship between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle through Nora’s perspective of their nearly 40-year romance. We sat down with Whitney Bashor, who plays Nora, as well as some of the crew, to see how the show came together and how the story of Nora and Joyce might resonate with contemporary women.

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Nora Barnacle is one of the most famous women in the history of Irish literature, not least because her relationship with James Joyce was the genesis of Ulysses. The novel is set on June 16, 1904, supposedly the day that Joyce and Nora first went on a “date,” and now celebrated as Bloomsday, named for the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom. But Nora was anything but a passive muse to Joyce’s literary talent, as Himself and Nora makes clear.

The musical has been almost 20 years in the making, ever since Jonathan Brielle, the writer and composer, was invited to a play about Joyce in a small Hell’s Kitchen theater that someone was considering turning into a musical. But the more Brielle researched, the more convinced he became that the musical had to be about Nora.

“It became evident to me that he would not have been who he was without her. And the story became about balance between man and woman. I got completely seduced by him and Nora and their lives together,” he says.

“This was a very different woman who inspired Joyce, and our story’s really about achieving that balance.”

The first production of Himself and Nora was at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego in 2005, and from there it played in Dublin twice (both on Bloomsday) before finding a home in the 2012 New York Musical Theater Festival. Since then, it’s been a steady march to its current iteration, now at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village.

Writer and composer Jonathan Brielle.

Writer and composer Jonathan Brielle.

Like Ulysses, the play is impressionistic. It is ostensibly set in 1941, with flashbacks to earlier points in Nora and Joyce’s relationship. A few years ago, Brielle discovered that Nora arrived to the hospital where Joyce was dying 15 minutes too late, and came to the conclusion that this story “needed to be the missing 15 minutes that she wished she could have gotten. And that somehow it would give Nora the credit that she deserved.”

Part of that credit is implicit in the costuming of the production, as costume designer Amy Clarke explains. “Because she demanded such equality from Joyce, and their relationship was a partnership from the get go, I’m constantly juggling on stage a way for them to be in visual equilibrium,” she says.

“Joyce lives in blues, browns, and greys throughout the play, so it’s one of the reasons I ended up landing her in purple and use things like some navy blue sweaters and brown leather belts to help balance out the lightness of the lavender. It felt like the color that was the closest to him, so it wasn’t a masculine versus a feminine thing, they very much live in equilibrium throughout the whole play.”

This aspect of the show and characters, actress Whitney Bashor notes, is a unique one, as well as a contemporary issue women are still facing today.

“There aren’t very many roles this juicy for women in theater,” she says. “When you’re young you usually play the ingénue who is very naïve and innocent and dewy, and then you get a little bit older and you’re usually playing the mother or the grandmother. But Nora is a complex, complicated woman who is a mother and a lover and her own person, which I think modern women are grappling with – how to be all those things at once.”

The musical also grapples with Joyce and Nora’s famously physical relationship, albeit in a PG-13 atmosphere.

“One of the things that I really love about the way Jonathan has written the show is that there are certain moments where the language might be [sexually] overt, but the physicality is something different, or vice versa, and I think that’s where it becomes something that can be easily understood and accepted by an audience rather than having it be thrown down their throats,” executive producer Erin Craig says.

Indeed, when Brielle took the show to the Joyce Center in Dublin in 2008, producer Cherie King said the center’s director praised the work, saying Brielle had “accomplished something that had never been accomplished,” she said. “And that was to make Joyce accessible.” ♦

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Himself and Nora stars Matt Bogart as James Joyce and Whitney Bashor as Nora Barnacle. For more information visit himselfandnoramusical.com.

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