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How it might have been

A new play challenges our understanding of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Heather Neill looks at the evidence

Does investigating a writer's biography throw light on his work? Purists might say no, that texts should speak for themselves, but Michael Hastings changed perceptions of TS Eliot with his play Tom and Viv and will at least raise new questions with his latest one, Calico. Set in James Joyce's Paris apartment in 1928, Calico focuses on the relationship between Joyce's daughter Lucia and her parents, and on the impact on their household of the young Samuel Beckett. At 22, Beckett was a teacher in Paris, earning extra cash as an assistant to the already revered author of Ulysses. Both had poor eyesight, but Joyce was severely handicapped by glaucoma and needed help in writing Finnegans Wake.

Lucia, who began to show signs of mental illness at this time (and later spent many years in an institution), worked closely with Joyce between the ages of 15 and 19. When Beckett arrived, she was 21 and declared that they were destined to be together. They played games of pretend marriage, but, after exhibiting considerable patience and understanding, Beckett withdrew from the relationship as her condition deteriorated.

Michael Hastings says that Lucia entered into her father's linguistic world: "He hated adjectival clauses and wanted to polish words until they were fresh. He was very keen on Scandinavian dictionaries. His research took him beyond Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the roots of words. There is a sensual clarity about Joyce's language and the puns are wonderful."

Beckett was in awe of the older man, but still a long way from being a writer himself. Hastings says that he is "trying to shift the image [of Beckett] from a merchant of doom or a lonely hermit" but hints at Waiting for Godot by giving him the line about his relationship with Lucia:

"Nothing happened that could have happened." Like Estragon in that play, he isn't sure what he is doing there.

There is a mystery at the heart of the piece which raises intriguing questions: why has Lucia been "wiped off the map"? Why was her correspondence with her father destroyed? At least half of Finnegans Wake is about incest. Given that there is very little concrete evidence, Hastings has invented scenes between Lucia, Beckett and her family while maintaining a necessary ambivalence.

Anyone studying Beckett could combine a visit to this unusual play at the Duke of York's Theatre with one to the classic Endgame, also in London, at the Albery Theatre.

Calico, directed by Edward Hall and starring Romola Garai. Tel: 020 7836 5122 Endgame, directed by Matthew Warchus, with Michael Gambon. Tel: 0870 0606621

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