“His writing is not about something. It is the thing itself.” —Samuel Beckett
Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes: A Celebration of James Joyce, Ulysses, and 100 Years of Bloomsdayby Nola Tully
On the fictional morning of June 16, 1904—Bloomsday, as it has come to be known—Mr. Leopold Bloom set out from his home at 7 Eccles Street and began his day’s journey through Dublin life in the pages of James Joyce’s novel of the century, Ulysses. Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes offers a priceless gathering of what’s been said about Ulysses since the extravagant praise and withering condemnation that first greeted it upon its initial publication.
From the varied appraisals of such Joyce contemporaries as William Butler Yeats (“It is an entirely new thing. . . . He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time”) and Virginia Woolf (“Never did I read such tosh”), to excerpts from Tennessee Williams’ term paper “Why Ulysses is Boring” and assorted wit, praise, parody, caricature, photographs, anecdotes, bon mots, and reminiscence, this treasury of Bloomsiana is a lively and winning tribute to the most famous day in literature.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Foreword and Introduction
The title of the thesis I wrote at Brooklyn College in May 1964 was "Oliver St. John Gogarty: A Critical Study." Critical, my arse. I was no more qualified to write a critical study of Gogarty than I was to drive an eighteen-wheeler in a New York City rush hour. But the professors accepted it (some admired it) and here it is before me. Here, bristling with footnotes and backed up, not merely with one thirty-one-item bibliography, but also with a supplementary bibliography to show I knew my way around Catullus and Horace and Petronius and could show how indebted Gogarty was to them, how he often imitated them.
If you're holding this book in your hands you must know that Oliver St. John Gogarty was, for a while, a pal of James Joyce. You'll know how they knocked around together, Gogarty roistering, Joyce watching, watching, and making notes. The thesis opens with a quote from Gogarty's It Isn't This Time of Year at All:
It is with the unruly, the formless, the growing and illogical I love to deal. Even my gargoyles are merry and bright; my outer darkness by terror is unthronged. My thoughts are subjected to no rules. Behold the wings upon my helmet and my unfettered feet. I can fly backwards and forwards in time and space.
My comment on the above was, "The words are carefree, heroic and joyous. They come from the pen of Oliver St. John Gogarty, surgeon, poet, athlete, wit, senator, aviator, and close friend of great Irish literary figures."
What I omitted in this catalogue of Gogarty's activities and talents was his friendship with the man who made him immortal, James Joyce. It was an immortality Gogarty did not relish, an immortality that plunged him into a resentment of Joyce from which he never emerged.
You are now wondering: Why is this man going on about Gogarty when it's Joyce we're concerned with here?
Here is the answer: I wrote my thesis on Gogarty because I admired him, his diversity, his talents, his devil-may-care attitude toward life. If offered the chance for another life, I would ask to be reincarnated as Oliver St. John Gogarty.
I could have attempted a thesis on Joyce but the world was already busy with a thousand such tomes. So...I saw Gogarty as the next best thing, a door to the work, the mind, the life of The Master.
Nineteen sixty-four, the year of my forgettable thesis, was the sixtieth anniversary of Bloomsday. (Richard Ellmann had published his masterly biography in 1959.) Joyceans might have marked June 16 on their calendars in 1964 but you'd search in vain for the kind of celebration the day has engendered since. In certain places Ulysses, all of it, is read by people, some who haven't the foggiest notion of what they're reading. Still, the book sings in your head for a long time and you won't forget its characters-Bloom, Stephen, Molly, Blazes Boylan, or scenes. It's your life.
At these readings there is still a thrill in the crowd with the opening line that Joyceans know refers to my man, Gogarty: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead...." We're off on a journey through Dublin and Ireland and family and Catholicism and eroticism and love and infidelity. The journey ends on a powerful, tumescent note, "yes I will Yes." (Note the uppercase Y on the final Yes. This is not an end but a beginning.) Let us digress a bit here. Joyce won't mind and I'm sure you won't.
Here is a strange fact: Neither Joyce nor Proust ever won the Nobel Prize. Wags have suggested they were ignored because the members of the Nobel Literature Committee were incapable of reading their work.
Another fact: According to the American publisher, Random House, Ulysses was "the number one novel in the twentieth century." Number one in what way? Number of people who actually read it? Number of people who simply considered it number one? Unknown, at least to me.
There are high school teachers "teaching" Ulysses. I'd like to know-how and, most of all, why? Before you look at the opening line of the book you ought to have a knowledge of the geography and history of Dublin and Ireland, you ought to know your way around Catholicism and, maybe, some Judaism (out of respect to Leopold Bloom).
We annually commemorate Ulysses because the action, the story, takes place in one day, June 16, 1904. It is a story, a very simple story, in its broad outlines. It has a structure that is based generally, very generally, on Homer's Odyssey.
But there are layers and themes and connotations that, if you're in the mood, will keep you busy the rest of your life. Because I grew up in Limerick, the only city in Ireland with an anti-Semitic blot on its escutcheon, I've followed the Jewish thread in Ulysses. In January 1904 a Limerick priest, John Creagh, stirred the people up against the Jews who, he said, had shed Christian blood. Richard Ellmann says, "Eighty members of the Jewish community were driven out, and only forty were left. Then Creagh was withdrawn from the community."
(That same Creagh, obviously a madman and not the first to be tolerated by the church, was then sent to Australia where he preached against the aborigines.)
If Leopold Bloom is Jewish and anti-Semitism a theme in Ulysses, why did Joyce fail to mention the Limerick incident? He must have known about it. Ellmann tells us he did, and that makes it gospel. (If, like me, you want to pursue the Jewish connection, there's a book by Ira B. Nadel, Joyce and the Jews, University of Iowa Press, 1989.) Again, the answer is unknown.
Beware the solemnity that might descend on gatherings of Joyceans on June 16. The man himself was anything but solemn and his shade would surely groan if he could witness the extremes of academia in his name. I think he'd enjoy the book you hold in your hand. He'd give Isaiah Sheffer a pat on the back for all those Bloomsdays at Symphony Space where readers and listeners/spectators have sailed on carpets of verbal delight.
I was there at The Creation on June 16, 1982.
May Isaiah forgive me for missing three Bloomsdays in all those years, though I want to remind His Lordship that my brother and I flew from Chicago Just For The Day in 1988.
You don't have to be an actor to read on the Symphony Space stage. I've stood at a microphone with beer salesmen, accountants, The Retired, businessmen, editors, and even, God help us, professors who knew what they were reading and who, offstage, could explicate.
But the professors did not explicate. It wouldn't be tolerated. Yes, yes, there are people (very few) who read assigned passages with no idea of context but they are loved for being there and for their whispered determination that someday they'll read this damn book. It's all right. There are people who read bits of the Bible on Sundays but who among us has read the whole thing?
Look! Ulysses is more than a book. It's an event-and that upsets purists, but who's stopping them from retiring to quiet places for an orgy of textual analysis?
I will read at "Bloomsday on Broadway" as long as Isaiah permits me and as long as I can croak out Joyce's wondrous words.
Over the years we've aged, the hair whitening or graying, and many of us have long passed the age at which Joyce died, fifty-eight. Joyce's work has liberated many an artist while his life stands as a lesson for all of us. He suffered greatly: the growing failure of his eyes, the growing madness of his daughter. All his days he skirmished for pennies and fought pitched battles for his art. He was a family man, fiercely tribal, and we must not forget he was driven by love.
Did he love Ireland? As the squirrel loves the nut.
Did he love Catholicism? Imagine his work without it.
Do we love James Joyce?
Watch for the explosion around the world on June 16, 2004, centenary of the Bloom/Dedalus meandering around Dublin and the umpteenth expression of Molly Bloom's triumphant Yes.
There are not many literary holidays that stand out in the calendar year. The twenty-third of April, thought to be William Shakespeare's birthday (as well as the date of his death), is one, and it's a fine spring day for writing a sonnet to your beloved, or walking in the park where birds do sing, hey ding a-ding a-ding. Calendars noting authors' birth dates remind you to honor your favorite writer in whatever way seems appropriate.
But there is only one annual commemoration of a fictional date, a date in which something happened in a book. As far as I know, there are no celebrations of the day Huck Finn and Jim set out on a raft in the Mississippi, or the day Ishmael made a fateful decision and signed on board Captain Ahab's Pequod, or even the day Saul Bellow's hero Augie March failed to seize the day.
Yet, the sixteenth of June, the day on which James Joyce sets all the action of his epic, Ulysses, has, for some reason, turned into a major literary event, "Bloomsday," celebrated each year all over the world, from Dublin to New York and around and down to Sydney, Australia. And we may well ask "what is that reason?", which is also a way of asking just what is so special about Ulysses that causes otherwise sane people to want to live inside it for a day each year, whether by reading its pages, listening to actors wrestle with its linguistic challenges, tracing the fictional footsteps of its protagonist through the actual or imagined neighborhoods of 1904 Dublin, or even eating fried kidneys for breakfast?
The biographers tell us that Joyce chose the date of June 16, 1904, for his chronicle of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Molly Bloom because it was on that date that he first walked out with his own inspiration for Molly, Nora Barnacle, who would be his lifelong companion and mother of his children. But he may also have chosen to set his "chaffering allincluding most farraginous chronicle" on a long day, a spacious day, five days before the summer solstice, when, in the latitude of Dublin, Ireland, the daylight lingers into late evening, and there's room for everything.
Room for everything...? Yes, that may be the first reason for the unique status of Ulysses that encourages the lovely madness of celebrating Bloomsday each year. The novel is "allincluding." Think of a human feeling, a part of the body, a bodily function, an activity of man- or womankind, and the odds are very good that you'll find at least a reference to it, if not a deep exploration, somewhere in the pages of Joyce's creation. Sports, sex, politics, cooking, parenthood, sons, siblings, daughters, lovers, death and burial, imagination, swimming, streetcar noise, newspaper ads, religion, capital punishment, sado-masochism, butchers, cocoa, Greeks, trees, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, restaurant menus, outhouses, music, books, flirtation, drink, fantasy, cosmetics, bath salts, school, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, song lyrics, violence, fireworks, dogs, cats, rats, cows, protest marches, ferryboat accidents, jealousy, or philology-they're all in there somewhere, and that's only the beginning of what could be a very long list!
A second reason could be that the central characters of Ulysses are people we can deeply identify with in one way or another. The first time I read the book I was a young man not too far from Stephen Dedalus's age. Like him, I had recently experienced the death of my mother, and I felt very close to the young schoolteacher, dressed in mourner's black, moping his way through the city's streets or walking along the beach with his ashplant walking-stick, watching the waves ripple and thinking about mortality. At another point in life, when I had become the father of a daughter, I found myself resonating with Mr. Leopold Bloom and his worries about his young filly, silly Milly. And where is the married couple who cannot identify with some aspect of the marriage of Molly and Poldy, its stresses, its contradictions of spunkiness and sterility, its ultimate basic soundness?
A third reason for wanting to dwell in the world of Ulysses for at least one day a year is all the rest of the people in it! By which I mean, the enjoyment of encountering the hundreds of minor characters who people its pages and parade through the neighborhoods of Dublin and the hours of Bloom's day. What a collage of portraits, small and large! Some of my favorites: the outrageous and blasphemous mocker Buck Mulligan; young Master Dignam, whose father Paddy was buried this morning, now thoughtfully making his way to the butcher shop; Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, the twin barmaid sirens; the cyclopean superpatriot citizen; Blazes Boylan, the coarse superstud; Bella Cohen, the whoremistress of Nighttown; Gerty, the twilight temptress of the seaside; the superior, the very reverend Father Conmee, S. J., the pedestrian priest whose long walk provides the backbone to the "Wandering Rocks" episode; poor Mr. Denis Breen, who walks the avenues with a protest sign reading "U.p. up"; Nannetti, the Irish-Italian printer; Professor MacHugh, the rhetorician; or the amply named passer-by Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell-these are only a baker's dozen of the hundreds (thousands?) of vividly limned figures who populate the sixteenth of June, 1904, in Dublin and whom you can figuratively greet like old friends when you partake of a Bloomsday celebration.
If a book as long as Ulysses were of a single texture it would probably not engender the same kind of passions and obsessions. But since each of the eighteen sections of Joyce's masterpiece has its own style and form and linguistic distinctiveness, the silent reader or the listener to a Bloomsday reading encounters endless variety, and never grows bored or weary. A lifelong reader whose familiarity with the text is deep can still pick up Ulysses, riffle through its pages, and be confronted with a bounteous buffet of literary flavors to choose from: the unpunctuated stream of consciousness of a young man strolling the strand in the "Proteus" section; the howling headlines and tabloid paragraphs of the newspaper episode; the interlocking jigsaw puzzle of "Wandering Rocks"; the over-sweet Victorian lady's magazine prose of "Nausicaa"; the phantasmagoric play script of the Nighttown "Circe" episode, in which the italicized stage directions provide some of the biggest laughs; the cool, exceedingly precise and detailed scientific questions and answers of the homecoming scene in "Ithaca"; the sonic experimentation and fragmented musicality of the "Sirens" episode; the incredible experience of watching the English language itself gestate and evolve from pre-Anglo-Saxon through Chaucerian, Elizabethan, Swiftian, and Dickensian parodies to jazz-age scat in the "Oxen of the Sun" section; and right on up to Molly Bloom's let-it-all-hang-out free association as the book ends. What a choice of treats!
Some people's fun with Ulysses may, of course, be based on the puzzle-lover's joy of figuring out complicated structures. Whole library shelves are devoted to books that help the intellectually curious reader to comprehend the architecture of Joyce's ambitious undertaking. Understanding the eighteen-episode structure as a series of six triads, each embodying a progression of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; or, if you want to see it another way, a triptych with a big central panel and two smaller panels on either side; that is, a three-episode prologue about Stephen Dedalus's morning, twelve central episodes detailing Mr. Bloom's day and containing several near-misses as he and Stephen almost-but don't quite-meet, until at the very end they finally come face to face in the book's climactic moment, and a three-episode epilogue in which the two men are together for a while, separate, and continue to coexist only in Molly's nighttime thoughts.
Joyce himself gave great impetus to this kind of analytic appreciation of his book by allowing a schematic plan of the book to be published, detailing the ways in which each episode has not only its distinctive literary voice, but also its own part of the body, its own color, its own symbols, its own correspondence with the little journey that Bloom's bar of soap makes on its way through his various pants and suit pockets, and its own parallels with figures and events in Homer's Odyssey. I must confess that the first time I set out to read through the entire book I armed myself with these guides, side by side with my Ulysses. But after a while I came to feel, as most readers probably do, that the training wheels could be removed and I could keep pedaling without their aid.
James Joyce is said to have predicted that people would be puzzling out his Ulysses for many years to come, and for me it continues to be the case that with each new reading, and with each year that I direct actors in Symphony Space's June 16 celebration, "Bloomsday on Broadway," I find myself discovering new connections, new reverberations, and new meanings in small details and large themes-as more blanks in the crossword puzzle get filled in. That unnamed man flirting with the flower-shop salesgirl in the "Wandering Rocks" episode is of course Blazes Boylan on his way to his afternoon rehearsal/assignation with Molly Bloom! Several of the somber-suited Dublin men in attendance at the Glasnevin cemetery in the morning "Hades" episode turn out to be on the list (if you can believe that list) of Molly Bloom's amorous conquests, catalogued so fully in the "Ithaca" section's catechisms! Stephen's unorthodox theory of Shakespeare's Hamlet, expounded so calculatingly and eloquently to his National Library cronies in the "Scylla and Charybdis" scene, with its focus on the two Hamlets, father and son, King and Prince, has more and more resonances, each time one reads or hears it, with the drama of two Dedaluses, father and son, and even more with the central theme of Ulysses, the spiritual father-and-son relationship between Bloom and Stephen.
Compelling human interest, dazzling variety, emotional identification, the rich palimpsest of people, from the book's complex major protagonists to the tiniest vivid word-portraits of background figures in the streets and saloons, the intellectual challenge of mastering the structure and details of a book it took Joyce almost ten years to write-all of these are partial explanations for the reading public's continuing attraction to James Joyce's Ulysses. Nevertheless, it remains the case that for many people, including quite a large proportion of English-major college graduates, the book has remained unread, or half-read, for a variety of reasons.
It's a big book, and if you flip randomly through its pages in a library or bookstore, you're playing a tricky game of literary roulette. You may get lucky as your eyeball comes to rest on a page that looks easy enough to comprehend, with narrative description and clear dialogue that take you right into the story and its delights. Or, if you're not as lucky, you may hit upon a page that's far more difficult to penetrate. What is this? Where are we, and what's going on? And this may be discouraging enough to make you assign Joyce's epic to your private list of books that you mean to get around to reading one day-maybe.
What a shame for that to happen to anyone. But there is one surefire, proven, and time-tested way of overcoming one's fear of "that big, forbidding, incomprehensible epic" that you didn't manage to master in college. And that is to hear sections of it, or all of it, read aloud by good actors.
This was the original idea behind the annual literary event that has been taking place at Peter Norton Symphony Space, a performing arts center on Manhattan's Upper West Side, since June 16, 1982. Those who know Ulysses well will enjoy hearing chunks of it read by Broadway, television, and film actors who enjoy sinking their teeth once each year into finer and more challenging lines than they usually get to speak. Those who are new to Joyce's work, or awed or frightened or just simply bewildered by it, can be swept up and carried into Bloom's world by the voices, the intelligence, and the brimming enthusiasm of terrific actors.
James Joyce had a lifetime of eye trouble and near-blindness, and scholars and biographers have pointed out that this reality helped make his artistry more aural than visual. His passion was for music, especially vocal music (most especially the tenor repertoire), and he might well have had a singing career himself. His delight was in the sound of words. And for this reason, the words of Joyce, all the different prose styles he mastered, and his poetry as well, come most alive when read aloud.
The big revelation to most people who encounter Ulysses in a "Bloomsday on Broadway" reading is that James Joyce is funny! Year after year, the mail that pours in from listeners to the public radio broadcasts of "Bloomsday" stresses this reaction. What looked forbidding on the page turns out to be hilarious on the stage or on the radio.
What is it that's so funny? Well, almost everything, but here are a few favorite examples: The three different meowings of Mr. Bloom's cat:
Molly Bloom's reply to her husband's definition of "metempsychosis":
"O rocks, tell us in plain words!";
Bantam Lyons' misunderstanding of Leopold Bloom's statement that he is going to "throw away" a piece of paper, a chance remark that Lyons misinterprets as a tip to bet on Throwaway, an outside long shot in the Ascot Gold Cup horse race, a bet whose results will cause Bloom violent trouble later in the day;
The noisy rhetorical competition of the journalists in the newspaper sequence, each trying to outdo the others in savvy sarcasm and verbal swordsmanship;
The extravagant description of the figure, clothing, and appurtenances of the cyclopean patriot citizen, bedecked with the trappings of all the great Irish heroes from Patrick Shakespeare to The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo;
The pub drinker's exclamation after his first drink of the day, "I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. Declare to God I could hear it hit the pit of my stomach with a click";
The cascading deluge of words that follows the three-word question, "Did it flow?" as Joyce explains the consequences of Bloom turning on the tap to get the water for his and Stephen's late-night cocoa, by describing the workings of the entire Dublin water system from the farthest reaches of the watershed through all the streams, aqueducts, pipes, hydrants, risers, and pumping stations of the Hibernian metropolis. To look out from the stage at Symphony Space at a theatre full of hundreds of listeners, several dozen holding printed copies of the text and following along with the readers, is to take in a sea of attentive and frequently smiling faces, smiling at the pleasure of a particular passage, or just smiling with a look of wild cognition that says clearly, "Oh! Now I get it!"
When we first began presenting "Bloomsday on Broadway" we made some basic artistic decisions that have remained in force for more than two decades. We did not want this to be one of those happenings at which enthusiasts take turns reading a page or two of a classic and then step down to give the next reader his or her turn, regardless of the content or meaning of what is being read. No, this would be carefully chosen excerpts from Ulysses, thoughtfully cast, crafted and shaped, directed and rehearsed, read by an annual assemblage of some of the best actors in New York, supplemented here and there by avid Joyceans who, if not professional actors, would contribute enthusiasm and authenticity.
We wanted Bloomsday to be a lengthy event, commensurate with the long novel it celebrates. But exactly how long should it be? Despite some press accounts describing our June 16 tradition, we have never read through the entire book from start to finish in any one year. Even though Symphony Space likes presenting the occasional marathon musical or literary event-such as the twelve-hour "Wall-to-Wall" concert series, another of our flagship events, with a tradition that's even longer than the twenty-three years of "Bloomsdays"-reading all of Ulysses would take something like thirty-two hours-a little too much for even the hearty and adventurous Symphony Space production staff.
The longest "Bloomsday" was around sixteen or seventeen hours in duration, beginning at eight o'clock in the morning and going on until after two the next morning, but most have been much shorter. None has been less than five hours long. When the sixteenth of June falls on a weeknight when most people have to get up for work the next day, a typical "Bloomsday on Broadway" reading at Symphony Space begins at five or six in the evening and goes until midnight (or a little after, since Molly Bloom's nighttime thoughts, which end the book, are said to be beyond time, in the numberless wee hours).
But a Saturday or Sunday "Bloomsday," when audiences and our radio station broadcast partners are available for a longer day's journey into Nighttown and beyond, offers a more spacious opportunity to do a ten- or twelve-hour literary extravaganza, covering more of the text and employing the talents of seventy or eighty readers. For the 2004 centennial of that great fictional day, June 16, 1904, which happens to fall on a Wednesday, we will go from noon to midnight (or a little after) with one hundred actors.
Since our way of celebrating Bloomsday is to create a literary event in a New York City theatre, we cannot, as they do in Dublin, conduct a citywide trek from place to place mentioned in the book, dressed in the clothing of 1904, nor do we get people together in a restaurant on the morning of June 16 to duplicate Leopold Bloom's breakfast of "the inner organs of beasts and fowls." We do, however, have our theatre's café offer the wine and cheese that Bloom enjoys for lunch as well as a large supply of the good Irish ale that lubricates the book and our actors and audience. The historic McSorley's saloon in downtown Manhattan has a lovely tradition of donating a few cases to Symphony Space for the enjoyment of the Joycean revelers.
Though we do not costume our readers, they are free to dress as they see fit, and in 2003 an actor who had been assigned the role of Bloom got himself up in a dark suit and bowler hat. On his way uptown to do his reading he was recognized and greeted by many New York City subway riders who cried out across the platform, "Hello there, Mr. Bloom!"
Choosing the material to be read at "Bloomsday" presents an annual creative challenge. On many occasions, we have devoted a few hours, at least, to "A Whirlwind Tour of All Eighteen Episodes of Ulysses," choosing excerpts from each, and introducing each segment with just enough background on the time of day, the literary style, and the episode's place in the intertwining days of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly to give the theatre audience and the public radio listeners some helpful orientation. The Whirlwind Tour is very useful for people who are new to the book, giving them an overview and enticing them to return on their own to episodes that catch their fancy.
But most years we also seek to go a little deeper into a particular section and read one or two episodes in their entirety, even if that means allocating a sizable chunk of our running time. The morning episodes are the shortest, and episodes get longer as the book goes on. Stephen's early-morning seaside walk, the "Proteus" episode, is a manageable half-hour read, start to finish. The complete "Cyclops" barroom episode, from the early evening, takes a very full three-hour stretch to encompass the violent confrontation between Bloom and the citizen as well as all the parodies and riffs that spin off from the talk in the pub. Similarly, the interlocking urban snapshots of the midday "Wandering Rocks" section require about three hours to perambulate.
And some "Bloomsdays" have an overriding theme that determines the Ulysses selections. For example, when June 16 happens to fall on a Father's Day, we might focus on passages related to the theme of paternity, in all its many aspects, a theme that was quite important to James Joyce. At two very special "Bloomsdays," I was joined as cohost by the eminent translator of Homer's Odyssey, Robert Fagles, and the script for the day was devoted to demonstrating the specific parallels between the adventures of Homer's Odysseus and Joyce's Mr. Bloom.
To keep "Bloomsday on Broadway" fresh each year we also frequently go outside the text of the novel and read a bit from other works of Joyce. A section from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man lets us meet the younger Stephen Dedalus; spoken or sung settings from Joyce's Chamber Music poetry volume offer another kind of insight into the mind and art of young Joyce/Dedalus. And to show the world where some of the experimental linguistic inventions of Ulysses, Bloom's day book, were leading, we have often included at least a sampling of Joyce's next book, the dream-language night book, Finnegans Wake.
A little-known fact in the history of Symphony Space is that our most famous artistic program, Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story, which features actors reading classic and contemporary short fiction and which National Public Radio broadcasts across America, was a result of "Bloomsday." One fateful year we had an actress read a short story from Joyce's Dubliners, and a new program was born.
Over the years, many special segments have been created for "Bloomsday on Broadway": settings of Joyce texts by twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers; a session on food and cooking in Joyce's works; an inquiry by Ira Nadel, the author of Joyce and the Jews, into the question of how the greatest Jewish character in literature came to be created by an Irishman; a revealing portrait of the real-life prototype for stately, plump Buck Mulligan-the colorful Oliver St. John Gogarty; and an investigation of the real relationship between James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.
One year it occurred to me that our annual celebration of life, love, and language could also encompass an entirely non-Joycean two- or three-hour segment, under the patronage of St. James Aloysius Joyce, surveying Irish poetry from the earliest songs of Ossian to the work of such contemporary bards as Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. Many fine actors read hours of wonderful poetry, but we ran into some resistance from a few Bloomsday regulars who reproved us in the press and in letters, saying that we had better not forget that Bloomsday is about Ulysses! It seems we've become part of a tradition, and people have their recurring needs.
Another basic artistic decision about our Bloomsday event has often caused considerable stress during casting and in rehearsals. I'm referring to the direction that I have always given the actors: "No Irish accents!" Recruiting a top Broadway actor to be part of our June 16 readings, I am frequently met by the reply, "Gee, I'm sorry, I'd love to be there, but I can't do a good Irish accent." And then I must carefully explain our policy: this is "Bloomsday on Broadway." We're Americans; some of us are Irish-Americans, others are Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants from everywhere-and each of us should sound like what we are. Yes, we do have quite a few actors here today who are from Dublin or Galway or Belfast or Limerick, but each actor should glory in his own sound and not try to "do the Irish."
This notion has been resisted, to my consternation, by some American actors who insist (rightly, in some instances) that they can do a perfect Irish accent, and why shouldn't they, when at the next microphone stands Fionnula Flanagan or one of the McCourt brothers? It's a challenge to persuade them that we want the mixture of sounds, that it gives our celebration its distinctive New York Broadway flavor. It's more than sufficient to let the rhythms of Joyce's language speak for themselves, without any overlay. As for the otherwise fine actors whose "Irish accents" make them sound like leprechauns in a bad St. Patrick's Day beer commercial, the less said the better. But the policy stands.
Thousands of people who have never set foot in Symphony Space at a "Bloomsday" event have instead enjoyed it through its radio broadcast. It's a very different kind of experience, according to people who have done both. At Symphony Space you can witness the day-long procession of actors being ushered to their onstage seats, where they await their turn at one of the reading stands and microphones that spread across the stage. You can watch the interplay between the actors, all within the framework of the stage décor: huge lithograph blow-ups of "The James Joyce Playing Cards" created by the Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann and the graphic designer Rosita Fanto, in which Molly Bloom, naturally, is the Queen of Hearts and James Joyce is the Joker. You can visit our café, transformed for the day into Barney Kiernan's tavern, and there see pairs of readers for the next segment rehearsing their cues, while readers from the previous segment enjoy a well-earned pint.
Radio listeners tell us that listening to the Ulysses broadcast is a much more private experience. Whether at home and following along in the text, or driving in your car toward whatever other plans you have for June 16, it is the words alone that reach you, and it is your own imagination that conjures up the Dublin scenes.
The social scene in the offstage café area at Symphony Space can sometimes get a little raucous as the day and the evening roll on. Despite the efficient stage managers greeting the actors, signing them in, and directing them toward their partners, their rehearsals, and eventually onto the stage, and despite the loudspeakers carrying the readings from the stage, and despite the large signs that read "Shhh-SERIOUS LITERARY EVENT IN PROGRESS," a party atmosphere often prevails. For a certain segment of the New York theatre community, backstage at "Bloomsday" is your chance to see some old friends once a year.
Whatever the content or format of any particular Bloomsday, whether or not it begins, as the book does, with "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan," it most definitely has to end with the words of Molly Bloom. As Joyce is supposed to have said, "Molly gets the last word." At the shorter Bloomsdays, we've had at least the final hour of the "Penelope" episode, Molly's wakeful, erotic, insomniac nighttime thoughts as her husband, the traveler Leopold, sleeps curled up beside her, his head at her feet.
When time has permitted, at the longer events, we have invited wonderful actresses, including Anne Meara, Terry Donnelly, and, most often, Fionnula Flanagan, to attempt the prodigious feat of reading the uninterrupted, uncensored, and almost unpunctuated forty-five-page monologue that ends Bloomsday. The Molly monologue usually begins after ten p.m. or even eleven, and it will go on until almost two in the morning.
Before Molly begins, I am charged with issuing the annual "public radio language advisory" to warn radio listeners that what they are about to hear contains sexually, anatomically, and scatalogically explicit words that may require parental guidance. I tell the story of the Ulysses court case and remind listeners that in 1933 a United States federal district court judge ruled that Ulysses is not obscene. But I tell parents who fear the possible deleterious effects of having their impressionable children listen in on Molly's thinking to send the kids out in the city streets to play.
An annual ritual has developed around this closing. Many audience members who have been in their seats throughout the marathon event leap up and head for home as the previous episode is ending so they can experience the Molly Bloom episode as Molly and Leopold Bloom do-at home, in bed, safe, returned from an adventurous literary and theatrical odyssey. But a sturdy band of adventurers remain in their seats and stick it out to the last words of the epic.
It is a rare and wondrous experience to be in the theatre at one in the morning, after a long day of literature, love, life, and language, and to feel the attention the audience invariably radiates toward the solitary female figure onstage. As Molly Bloom, that actress expresses vividly the depth, the humanity, the affirmation at the heart of Joyce's compassionate, funny, lovely work. I'm usually exhausted by that point, but if I chance to think, "Whew! Hey...are we going to do this all over again next year?", my answer will probably be, as it has been for more than two decades, "yes I will Yes."
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