The little-known Connemara interlude in Ted Hughes’s life

A play about the poet’s escape to Ireland with his new partner after the death of Sylvia Plath isn’t particularly kind to Hughes

 

Think of the poet Ted Hughes, and what images come to mind? The English countryside and its wildlife, perhaps. The death from suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath, almost certainly. What probably won’t flash into your head is a picture of the wild and wonderful coastline of Connemara.

But the Yorkshire-born poet had a substantial Connemara connection, and it’s the subject of a short play, Doonreagan.

Three years after Plath’s death, Hughes and his new partner, Assia Wevill, rented a house near Cashel, Co Galway, with their three children. The plan was to build a new life together, far from the expectations – and condemnations – of the London literary scene.

Hughes’s response to the open spaces of Connemara was ecstatic. It was at Doonreagan that he began work on his epic series Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, the first poetry he had written following Plath’s death.

For Daniel Simpson, who created the role of Hughes in London last year and now reprises it for an Irish tour, the landscape plays a central role in the drama.

“There were all kinds of complicating factors and pressures going on in his life,” says the actor. “Not least the persecution that he was suffering from the ever- strengthening feminist movement at the time. They blamed him for Sylvia’s suicide.

“After an extraordinary period of writer’s block, he more or less fled, really; not just to Ireland, but to Connemara, and then to Doonreagan within Connemara.

“As a Yorkshireman, the natural world was so important to him when he was growing up and fed into just about everything he did in terms of his work. And I think the natural world, being so raw here, just allowed him to reconnect and emerge again.”

Wevill, a city girl of Middle Eastern origins who had built a successful career in the advertising business, wasn’t so sure. “It’s awfully unsheltered,” her character says of the house early in the play; a reaction that will strike a chord with anybody who has attempted to unpack a picnic on a windy day in the west.

 

Another suicide

The beauty and tranquillity of Cashel Bay eventually won her around. But there was to be no happy ending for Wevill, played in this production by Tara Breathnach. Three years after the events depicted in Doonreagan,

Wevill would take her own life, exactly as Plath had done.

And unlike Plath, who went to extraordinary lengths to protect her children, Wevill also killed her daughter Shura.

For author and director Ann Henning Jocelyn, the tragedies that swirl at the centre of this story come very close to home. With her husband, the 10th earl of Roden, the Swedish author and playwright is the owner of Doonreagan House.

When Jocelyn discovered, quite by chance, that the poet had rented the property in the 1960s, she began to read everything she could find about the little-known interlude in Hughes’s tempestuous life.

 

Can’t completely condemn

Doonreagan isn’t particularly kind to Hughes, a notorious womaniser who had left Plath to live with Wevill. Within a year of Wevill’s death he was married again, to a nurse 20 years his junior; and there were many affairs along the way.

Such behaviour makes Hughes easy to dislike. Still, after an in-depth study of the poet’s life and work, Simpson is reluctant to condemn the poet out of hand.

“There’s no shying away from the fact that women played a hugely important part in Ted’s life,” he says. “He needed women, and he made sure that women were always available to him. For whatever reason, that was a big part of who he was.

“You often hear examples of great creative figures who have quite troubled domestic lives or private lives – something just has to give. Ted was a huge and complex character.

“After Sylvia died, Ted came in for this great collective condemnation,” he says. “But what people didn’t realise was that Sylvia had made a number of attempts on her life. Way before she even met Ted, she had these terrible mental health problems that unfortunately ran in her family. So it’s just too easy, too neat to say that Ted had this extramarital affair and that caused her suicide.

“With Assia’s death, it’s much more difficult because Ted never spoke about what happened. So to get at the truth of what he felt about it is really tricky.

“We can never quite know what goes on within people’s private lives, though we can get some sense of it from what both of them wrote at the time, and that’s what the play explores. Their time in Connemara was one of their happiest periods, and Ted was desperate to stay.”

Hughes hoped to buy Doonreagan when the lease expired. But the house was sold suddenly, and he and Wevill had to return to London.

“He really wanted to settle in Ireland,” Simpson says. “So if circumstances had been different they would have stayed. And history would have been very, very different for them both.”

 

Doonreagan is at the Station House Theatre, Clifden, on January 21st; the Taibhdhearc, Galway, on January 22nd and 24th; and the Samuel Beckett Theatre, TCD, from January 28th-31st. The author will lecture on Ted Hughes in Connemara on January 28th and 30th. annhenningjocelyn.com

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