Fergus Sheil, Artistic Director of Irish National Opera, writes for Culture about INO's latest production, Least like the Other, Searching for Rosemary Kennedy, which premieres at this year's Galway Arts Festival.
Five years ago, composer Brian Irvine drew my attention to the captivating story of Rosemary Kennedy. Here is a woman born into an family of wealth and opportunity at a time when life in the upper echelons of American society was brimming with confidence, ambition and chutzpah.
Rosemary's parents, Joe and Rose Kennedy, ran a tight operation. Joe’s many business interests included film production in a golden era. He was politically active and became the US ambassador to London in the late 1930s. Rose had nine children, and she later became a papal countess to honour her exemplary motherhood. Each of the children were relentlessly groomed for success. Rosemary, however, could not live up to those high expectations. After a difficult and delayed birth, she was born with what would today be called mild learning difficulties. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, she yearned for her father’s approval and love, but she never received it.
Embarrassed to have a child that didn’t fit the mold, the Kennedys originally hid Rosemary away, arranging for her to work as a Montessori teacher. But as she reached her early 20s, a new danger faced them: Rosemary was beautiful and engaging, and she was attracting male attention. How could they be sure that no sexual scandal would unfold?
Although the USA didn’t succumb to the rise of fascism that took hold in Europe, some of the same attitudes were at play. Joe Kennedy was not averse to the concept of eugenics, where the population should be genetically engineered to be more successful. Influential doctors proposed sterilising the "feeble minded" so only desirable people would reproduce. Children in schools were religiously given IQ tests that rated and categorised them for life. "Idiots", "retards" and "imbeciles" became medical terms. Rosemary was a "high-functioning moron". Those with lower IQs were demonised as the cause of all of society’s problems. They had to be dealt with.
As she reached her early 20s, a new danger faced them: Rosemary was beautiful and engaging, and she was attracting male attention.
Enter medical showmen Walter Freeman and James Watts, who developed the lobotomy as a cure-all procedure. Freeman was the celebrity frontman (himself not surgically trained) while Watts performed the actual operations. Lobotomies could cure everything; lack of initiative, dullness, euphoria, fluctuation of attention, slowness, laziness, amnesia, distractibility, impulsiveness, emotional instability and many more. The vast majority of lobotomies were performed on women – referred by husbands, fathers, brothers. Joe Kennedy signed up his daughter without consulting anyone else in the family.
The results of Rosemary's lobotomy were disastrous. She was 23 years old and from that moment on she needed institutional care until her death in 2005 at the age of 86. After the lobotomy, during her father’s lifetime Rosemary’s whereabouts were not known by the family. She simply disappeared.
The first thing that struck us was the tragedy of Rosemary’s story. The second thing was the impossibility of telling it. The third was that perhaps through the medium of opera it could be done. Maybe by bringing together text and music, singing, acting and dancing, scenery and video, live and pre-recorded sound – perhaps through this cacophony of elements we could chart a path of truthfulness.
The results of Rosemary's lobotomy were disastrous. She was 23 years old and from that moment on she needed institutional care until her death in 2005 at the age of 86.
We were delighted when British director, designer and video artist Netia Jones came on board to help create this work. Over years, Brian and Netia have obsessively researched source material from Rosemary’s life. Letters, diaries, medical reports, newspaper articles, radio and film material. With this material Brian wrote probably the equivalent of three or four operas. Together they began a process of distilling and refining and searching for the real essence of Rosemary’s story.
At the time of writing, we are still in the rehearsal room where we piece together bits of the opera, one scene at a time. The process is unlike anything else. By opening night we will know what we have on our hands. The outcome will offer a remarkable insight into a deeply unsettling story.
Least Like the Other, Searching for Rosemary Kennedy is at the Black Box, Galway from July 15th-20th - find out more here.