Munira H. Mutran, ‘The Mysterious Dimension of the Human Spirit’: Sebastian Barry’s Whistling Psyche’, in From English Literature to Literatures in English: Vol. V - International Perspectives, ed., Michael Kenneally & Rhona Richmann Kenneally (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag [Winter] 2005), pp.183-93.

[Source: Offprint supplied by the author.]


Because the sequence of monologues reveals the past lives of real people, might we describe Whistling Psyche as biographical drama? The hypothesis could be supported by Sebastian Barry’s acknowledgement of the books that contributed to the making of the play, including The Perfect Gentleman: The Remarkable Life of Dr. James Miranda Barry, the woman who served as an officer in the British Army from 1813 to 1859 (1977), by June Rose; Florence Nightingale: 1820-2910 (195o), by Cecil Woodham-Smith and the chapter on Miss Nightingale in Eminent Victorians (1966), by Lytton Strachey. To discuss these sources and their achievements seems relevant if we want to understand the process of transposition from biography to drama. (p.184.)


While a whole lifetime unfolds in the biography, their encounter takes place one night in 1910 (the year Miss Nightingale died) from two to three o’clock The Perfect Gentleman’s subtitle [1950; by June Rose], eliminates suspense because it informs us that Dr. Barry was a woman, whereas the playwright is able to maintain ambiguity and, therefore, suspense, by referring to the doctor as a figure or person, and by avoiding the pronoun: “Takes off the hat and sits, the chair emphasising how small the person is” (10). When the doctor finally refers to the pathetic change in his childhood, when “the garb of a girl was taken from me, item by item, and my wardrobe of dresses, stockings and privy garments, scant though it was, was discarded forever” (32), Miss Nightingale has drifted asleep and cannot hear his confession. Only much later is the suspense broken. [185]

Confessing reinforces the impression that Whistling Psyche is not made up of two biographies on the stage but two narratives following closely the conventions of the autobiographical mode [...] In Whistling Psyche the characters insist on “my true story,” “my story,” “the spectacle of my private story,” from infancy to old age and death. Their monologues are autobiographies transposed from the biographies and hence to the play. Sebastian Barry imagines an encounter between two ghosts, gives them voice and allows them to re-live their past lives through their memories. It is extremely interesting to hear what the author has to say about the process of creation:

I had great excitement here in this small room writing both Barry and Nightingale, because they seemed to me to speak so urgently, talking fiercely in my ear. That’s when I trust a play, when it seems to be given, or lent maybe, when you lend an ear to some vanished creature and find they are still capable, livingly and urgently, of speaking, of representing themselves in the strange Victorian courts of forgetfulness and eternities. [Letter to author.]

Three topics present in Rose’s biography are emphasised, and acquire additional significance in the play: the doctor’s isolation, his fondness for pets and his bitterness towards Miss Nightingale. [186 ...]


The doctor’s “unimaginable loneliness” can ony be endured because of his love of Psyche. [...] Worse than his loneliness is his inability to rest. As a Catholic Irish woman dressed as a man, his life had been hell. Having done so much for the poor, the sick, the outcasts before Miss Nightingale he became notorious for the scandalous revelation after death. His bitterness that “a life of some seventy years can register so lightly in the annals of humankind” (WP, 12) does not allow his soul to rest until a human being can understand his torment:

I linger because I cannot leave while my only legacy is whispered spite and scandal. I wish I were a person in an age when my achievements might be seen as mighty things, that would not reduce my remnant life to a miserable scurry of turnout and disgust ... And so, though I long to go, I cannot go, for there is no approbation, no love of monarch or mortal, to release me. Here I abide the mourner of myself, as the rememberer of my own heart, waiting in the waiting-room, even the desperate celebrator of an imprisoned soul. (WP, 56, 57)

[187; ...]

[of Nightingale:] Whistling Psyche’s focus is her awareness that she had had her moment and the rest of her life had been regret and a “bleak eternity of waiting”:

I would not marry ... I could not embrace him, I could not lie, one to one, like those knights and their ladies on the ancient tombs, my feet could not go forward to that ... a woman that could climb the Matterhorn on a Sunday, but could not be a visitor to the bosky hills of human love. (WP, 52)

[Mutran here compares the copious account in Woodham-Smith’s Florence Nightingale with the condensed version in Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.] What Sebastian Bury is interested in is the self – after Crimea and her many triumphs, her heart had nothing else to do but wait:

No, all my will was bent on - fame? Forgive me do if I speak of the filth of fame but there is nothing in it that can improve the heart or appease the general derelictions of being alive ... Fame is proper to the dead, let them warm themselves with it in the frigid graves, with the iron ivy and the leaden leaves. Let it be something to ease the wait of eternity. (WP, 33.)

The transposition of Sebastian Barry’s dense and beautiful play was admirably executed under Robert Delamere’s much praised direction [Almeida Th., London May-June 2004]; which made the best use of stage directions indicating movement, gestures, pitch of voice, physical descriptions of the protagonists and, above all, silences. The only significant shift from the printed text is in the concluding scene. In the text, the scene ends with subtle references to a compassionate feeling for each other, showing the two figures with ’a quality of daguerreotype about them – a strange marriage, an unaccepted couple. The owl calling softly. Their nearest hands just touching, perhaps by accident” (WP, 61). However, in the stage representation, Miss Nightingale, now very [188] close to Dr. Barry, sees him take his coat and waistcoat off, and asks if she can help with the shirt buttons. She then helps him to unswathe his chest from the bands that imprison it, slowly, silently, until they embrace. It was a very moving scene but, from the point of view of their Victorian selves, the touching of hands would be as moving, presupposing a harmony between them. On being asked about this issue of transposition, Sebastian Barry explained that “he wrote that scene [for the staging] on instinct and in some emergency”; he mentions, however, that “the French translator for instance is working on the play as it is published, which seems to me now the best text.”

The atmospheric staging is created by setting, lighting and sound. The tall glass doors looking out onto the platforms augment the space of the waiting-room. Dr. Barry goes out through them many times to check if Psyche is outside, or to smoke while looking at the stars. Through the doors, light and sound produce imaginary scenes referred to in the monologues: the sea and the breaking of huge waves, the smoke of battle, trains arriving at the station. Music in the background and the “tin music” of Miss Nightingale’s music-box enhance the strange atmosphere, as do the sad, nostalgic barking of a distant dog or the hooting of an owl. Lighting achieves other effects: for example, the blazing fight from the fireplace slowly dies down, casting shadows which are deepened by the dim light of the candles.

The tormented souls of the two protagonists were superbly realised by Katherine Hunter and Claire Bloom, performances that have attracted unanimous praise. “The main pleasure,” wrote Michael Billington for the Guardian, comes from watching the astonishing Kathryn Hunter as Dr. Barry. With her rasping, husky voice and straight-backed stance, she persuades you of the characters enforced maleness while periodically lapsing into a nostalgic femininity. Claire Bloom, meanwhile, brings out the bitterness, anger and solitude of the iconic Miss Nightingale.” [Guardian, 14 May 2004.]

The protagonists become alive; they recreate the beauty of the text with their bodies, faces, eyes, gestures and movement. Their pained and angry voices express their souls but also comment on the world that they, as reformers, tried to change and interpret. It is amazing how vivid the performance is and how immense its scope is, in time and space.

Though the encounter between the two characters is brief, their memories allow us a glimpse of a whole era from 1800 until 1910. In speaking about their [189] souls they define the world in which they lived, as well as their interpretation and shaping of that world. Sebastian Barry has often travelled towards the past: Our Lady of Sligo (1998) is set in 1953; The Steward of Christendom (1995), in 1932; The White Woman Street (1992), in 1916; The Only True History of Lizzie Finn (1995), in the 1900s, and Prayers for Sherkin (1990), in the 1890s. Each chosen period and place has been selected for specific reasons and aims. Hinterland (2002), however, is set in Dublin in the present day, and concentrates on the private and political life of Charles Haughey. In his latest play Sebastian Barry has once again plunged into the past, encompassing not only England and Ireland, but the British Empire as well, in a time span of almost a century. Why should the playwright revisit the Victorian Age at this very moment? Are issues that were of concern to the Victorians still relevant today? Or is the cultural, political and scientific significance of that period still resonating in our time? Sebastian Barry’s reply to these questions is as follows:

I don’t know exactly why I have dropped like a bird on these Victorian rocks, and something has veered me there (could it be the horror of an ’imperial’ war at the very start of a century we hoped might be the century of diplomacy?). Perhaps it is better for me not to know, so I can wander about in the fog, if not safely, at least blindly. It is something to do with that mid-Victorian sense that the idea of the British hero was being erased by the plain reporting of actual history, but also the effort of even a man like Dickens to keep the heroic alive, even when in his deep heart he must have known it was a lost idea. So he for instance turned the notion of the Gentle Savage into the Murdering savage. So there is Dr Barry/Irish Savage, Miss Nightingale/heroic ideal. But as I say, I am guessing and deep in ignorance about my own progress and purposes (a good thing again I am sure). Not so much for an understanding of the 20th Century but a deep alarm about the 21st (my children’s century.) [Letter to author].

Whistling Psyche is a wonderfully dense and beautiful play. Some reviewers acknowledged its beauty and its haunting poetry; others, surprisingly, while admitting that it is an “overpoweringly rich text,” complained that “it lacks theatricality.” Paul Taylor, in “Psyche’s leaden longeurs leave it whistling in the dark” (sic) sees the play as “dramatically inert” and “overwritten.” [Review, Independent, 13 May 2004.] Although play reviews are, generally written in haste, one could wish however, that they might have been a little more sensitive to the play’s dramatic conflict and poetic drama.

[Goes on to quote Fintan O’Toole’s positive response to Barry’s share in a “a hunger for the theatre on the part of poets, a reinvention of the theatre as the place where poetry happens” [in "Irish Theatre: The State of the Art", rep. in Theatre Stuff: Critical Essays on Contemporary Irish Theatres, ed. Eamonn Jordan (2000), pp.47-57.]


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