On this day…17 June

On 17 June 1918 Nora Barnacle performed in Synge’s Riders to the Sea.

Synge’s play was one of three one-act plays performed by the English Players at the Pfauen Theater in Zurich on 17 June 1918. Nora played the role of Cathleen and was later photographed in the costume she wore.

To follow the success of the English Players’ first production, Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, Claude Sykes planned a production of GK Chesterton’s play Magic. However, two of his actors withdrew, apparently under pressure from the British Consulate which did not approve of the English Players.

Instead, Sykes decided to put on three one-act plays: Synge’s Riders to the Sea, GB Shaw’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, and JM Barrie’s The Twelve Pound Look. Joyce persuaded Nora to play the part of Cathleen. Her Galway accent would have given a flavour of authenticity to Synge’s play, and Joyce got the other actors to imitate Nora’s speech.

All the Joyces had some input into the performance. Joyce wrote a note for the programme, and Giorgio and Lucia appeared as children in a crowd scene. The production was another success for the English Players, despite the Consulate’s boycott of the performance.

Nora was photographed in the costume she wore for the production and Joyce sent a copy of the photograph to Forest Reid in August 1918, saying that as Nora was born within sight of Aran, she was able to speak Synge’s words in a genuine accent. He also told Reid that Riders to the Sea held a special interest for him: he claimed he was the first person to read it when he met Synge in Paris in 1903.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.

Maddox, Brenda: Nora – A Biography of Nora Joyce, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.