The terrible trouble with Hopkins


Newman House on St Stephen’s Green, where the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins spent his final years as a Jesuit and descended into a bottomless depression, is the setting for a new site-specific theatre piece

GETTING into the mind of Gerard Manley Hopkins is not for the faint-hearted. This, after all, is the poet who wrote that the mind has mountains: “cliffs of fall . . . frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed”. But a new production for the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival by the young Irish company The Stomach Box aims to bring its audience up close and personal with the tormented poet.

The site-specific show will wend its way around Newman House on St Stephen’s Green, where Hopkins – an English convert to Catholicism – spent his final years, teaching Greek literature at UCD. During this time he wrote the poems known as “the terrible sonnets”; terrible, not because they’re no good, but because they’re full of physical and metaphysical terrors. The years he spent in Dublin saw Hopkins descend into an apparently bottomless depression, and the poems express the anguish of mental illness in a way few people have ever managed to articulate – including Sonnet 49, No Worst, There Is None, from which the play takes its title.

On a bright autumn morning, with sunlight streaming in from the garden at the back, Newman House seems like an unlikely spot for a dark night of the soul. And the three young men who comprise The Stomach Box – director Dylan Tighe, composer Seán Óg and designer Phil MacMahon – come across as upbeat and cheerful rather than obsessive and unhappy. They are, however, unanimous in their admiration for Hopkins, whose poetry they first encountered at Leaving Cert level; and they insist that his story is part of Dublin’s literary history and deserves to be told.

The Newman House in which we’re sitting is very different to the house Hopkins would have known. Having recently undergone extensive renovation, it is gracious and elegant – but in the 1880s, the building was in pretty bad repair. The library was so over-stuffed that there were books piled all the way up the staircases. As for the plumbing, the less said the better. “Hopkins died of typhoid, basically from bad sanitation,” says Tighe. “Either the Jesuits didn’t have the money to spend at that time, or they wouldn’t invest it in modernising the facilities.”

The image of Hopkins living and working in Newman House was the inspiration for No Worst, There is None, so for Tighe and his co-creators the obvious way to proceed was to stage the show in the building itself as a site-specific piece. Mounting a piece of theatre in such a carefully controlled environment is a complex business – but, says Tighe, they’ve had a great deal of help and support. An early champion was Poetry Ireland, followed by the Arts Council, which approved a grant application. Then Dublin City Council came on board, offering incubation space in The Lab as well as a bursary for Tighe and Seán Óg to work on the score at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co Monaghan.

Last but certainly not least, UCD gave permission for the show to take place in Newman House, as long as the company didn’t interfere with the building or its contents. In any case, as Tighe explains, ripping up the rugs or building a set on the staircase was never an option: the trio had a different kind of show in mind. “Hopkins wrote in one of his letters that these particular poems demanded to be almost sung,” says Tighe. “That set me thinking about how we could set them to music – because they’re very, very dense and often quite hard to understand.

“What we’re interested in, as a company, is the idea of using music to convey meaning: in some respects, to bypass the intellect. If you try to explain them, it can all get quite academic. Setting them to music allows us to convey the feeling in a more immediate way.”

ONE OF THE most striking aspects of the sonnets, he adds, is the fragility of the poet’s voice. “Hopkins was so vulnerable when he was in Dublin – so lonely, so isolated – that for some reason we kept coming back to this image of a child trapped in an adult’s body in this very large house.” Thus Seán Óg’s score uses boy choristers to convey the very particular rhythms of Hopkins’s verse. “The abstract nature of his poetry was a real draw for me in putting it to music,” he says. “You get these sudden twists, which was a really new way of writing. And for me, it was quite easy to translate some of that energy into music.”

The idea is to merge theatre and exhibition space: as the audience moves through the house, led by John Henry Newman himself, doors will open into various rooms, revealing installations inside. Sculptures will be illuminated with lines of poetry. And the boys of St Patrick’s Cathedral choir will do the singing, which will add a liturgical element since, although they’re aged between 11 and 13, they’re professional choristers.

They also happen to be Anglican choristers – a somewhat mischievous choice, since both Newman and Hopkins himself are numbered among the most famous of converts.

“Newman received Hopkins into the Catholic Church and was instrumental in bringing him to Dublin,” says Tighe. “They had a lot in common. They were both English. They were both converts. But ultimately, from reading Hopkins, it seems he didn’t really find the connection he sought with Newman.”

Nor, it would appear from these late poems, did he find much comfort in his religion. Hopkins was probably gay, and may well have chosen to join the Jesuit order because of its emphasis on discipline for body and mind. “That’s the other thing that attracted me as an image – the idea of this extremely sensitive artist trapped in this austere Jesuit lifestyle,” says Tighe.

“There is a sense, in the poems, of his closeness to Christ. But you also get a sense, given his extreme loneliness, that he’s looking within the very strict confines of his religion for something which he’s lacking in his life. The sense you get is that he’s constantly searching for comfort and is reluctant to admit that it’s not really there.”

“It seems that he had a very strong belief and was genuinely attracted to this way of life,” adds Seán Óg. “But perhaps the religion and the institution of it didn’t really accommodate his personality. Nowadays people can adopt religion in a way independent of church. That wouldn’t have been a choice back then.”

“We found one of his letters from this time, to his friend Bridges in England,” says MacMahon. “He’s just writing a letter, and in the middle of it he goes – in capital letters – AND WHAT DOES ANYTHING AT ALL MATTER. That really stuck in my head, that line. There was a constant battle between his role as a priest and his role as a poet. He talks about some of the poems being “forced” upon him; at times, you feel he almost wishes that he wasn’t writing anything.”

ALTHOUGH HOPKINS SENT many of his poems to Bridges to be published after his death, which suggests that at some level he did want them to be made public, he burned many of his early pieces and left a fistful of sonnets in a desk in his bedroom. In a way, then, it’s a kind of miracle that the “terrible sonnets” ever saw the light of day at all. When people talk about Hopkins as a religious poet, they usually quote from such early pieces as The Windhover, with its playful alliteration: “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon . . . he hung upon the rein of a wimpling wing . . . ”

The contrast between such uplifted exuberance and the horrifying downward spiral of No Worst, There Is Nonecould hardly be more stark and, says Tighe, this dramatic disparity is a major theme in the play. “Another layer to the sonnets is when you compare them to his amazing nature poems, where he develops this technique of inscape and this amazing use of language to describe the inner workings of nature, and the imagery of clouds and birds. When we get to the later poems, it’s as if that nature has disappeared, and it’s very much just the self which remains.”

THE PIECE WILL end with Hopkins’s funeral cortege making its way to the church. In truth, however, it’s hard to imagine anything being more poignant than a visit to the poet’s cramped top-floor bedroom, with its child-sized bed and oversized writing desk. To walk into the room is a heart-rending experience; desolation seems to lurk in the dusty air. On the other side of the hall the room where Hopkins taught Greek – and where James Joyce was, in due course, to study it – is reconstructed in such painstaking detail that it even smells the way a classics classroom should.

Historical detail, however, is absolutely not the aim of No Worst, There Is None. “It’s not a historical re-enactment, and it’s not a biographical presentation of his life in the house – it is a contemporary theatre piece,” says Tighe.

“I suppose we’re looking for an accumulation of different symbols and references from the whole Hopkins world; a picture of the nightmare world where his mind may have been at the time. I think that allows us a certain freedom, both in the music and in the imagery, to add things which aren’t necessarily realistic. To enter that mind-space is to open up many possibilities. Many vistas. Many strange things.”

No Worst, There Is Noneis at Newman House from Thursday until October 7th at 7pm. The show lasts for one hour, and audience numbers are restricted to 25 per performance