Fionnula Flanagan: Memory And Space

During the brief period during when I worked at Symphony Space in New York City, I was fortunate to spend a small window of time in the presence of Fionnula Flanagan. Ms. Flanagan was taking part--a mighty, extraordinary part--in the annual Bloomsday celebration, and late in the evening, she concluded the event with her invocation of Molly, James Joyce's great female character,  whom Tenn called our "mother, sister, friend, and id."

At the conclusion of Ms. Flanagan's performance--in which she reads Joyce's words from fragile pages of parchment covered with exquisite calligraphy, and then gingerly drops them  on either side of her gleaming, reclining figure--I helped to pick them up from the Symphony Space stage. Perhaps I was prone to believe such a thing because of what Tenn had felt for Ms. Flanagan, but the pages seemed to glow and throb with the energy she had expended in the performance.

Here is Tenn on memory and on Ms. Flanagan, during our time together in New Orleans in 1982.

It is easy to convey to you that our memories define us, track us, know us so well. It is terribly difficult to convey this through words or music or acting. It is, I think, one of the hallmarks of a great artist. You are so young, but you are probably capable of having a remarkable and at times frightening experience of leaving the present time, the present cares, the present weights of the present world when a particular song wafts across the air. Suddenly, you are four years in the past. Suddenly, you are at the funeral of a friend, at a time when that song was popular, or was liked by him, or played as you kissed and held him and believed that there would be nights like that forever, that youth would stretch forward like the arm of your mother, calling you home. Memory is our mistress. Memory is my mistress. What I want you to know is that for all that you think you love of your mother or your lover or a friend, you will not fully realize the loss you've sustained until they have left the earth and the first thing--the first thing--you see when you return to your home is a vase they gave you or a book they loved. You will be stabbed by the loss, and you will then find ways to contain the memories they create and to fill the space their absence creates. Memory and space. The things we fill. I am an old man and I still marvel that someone can be alive and present and part of my biology and, in a second, an instant, be removed from the earth, taking up a higher residence in my heart, which is to say my memory.

There is a residual memory in the acting of Fionnula Flanagan. Do you know her? She placed her hand on the shoulder of a young man in something on television, and I felt all the hands of my life in that gesture. [I have since learned that this gesture was seen by Tenn in the 1976 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, for which Ms. Flanagan received an Emmy award.] It was a gesture of sexual and emotional maturity and experience, but it was also genuine. It was a true gesture, and suddenly you were touched all over again by all the people who had ever shared time and skin and air with you. I remember nothing else. Lovely skin; kindness; that gesture. On stage she is defiant--in the best sense. I think she takes her direction, and I think she loves and honors her writer, but I think she is unafraid to then take a longer, rougher journey--unescorted--where her heart and her mind want her to be. She's dangerous. I think she could be subdued in her beauty and be a brilliant Alma, and I hope for the day she ages to be an Amanda--an Amanda who pushed away the beaux and who believed that memories would always be gentle and full of triumph, who believed that youth was indeed a long river on which she would float with all of her dreams. Dreams, when one is young, are lovely and rampant and welcomed. As we age, they aren't really dreams anymore, but recriminations, edits and elisions and emendations of what we briefly held or stupidly dropped or arrogantly abandoned. I think that as people and as artists we are here to fill memory and space. Our own and others. We seek examples. She is one.

COMING SOON: Tenn on the Irish Soul


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