Ulysses on Stage

Artwork by Jason Cavanagh, courtesy Bloomsday in Melbourne

Artwork by Jason Cavanagh, courtesy Bloomsday in Melbourne

Today is Bloomsday. Bloomsday in Melbourne’s Frances Devlin-Glass writes on the novel’s fascinations, and the challenges of bringing it to the stage for the play, An Irishman and a Jew go into a Pub.

Joyce’s Ulysses is the novel everyone wants to read, but it can be daunting because of the author’s learning and the playful ways he deploys it. Bloomsday in Melbourne has had 18 years of experience in making the novel accessible to the ear and aims to demystify it, and patrons have come to expect fresh and new angles on this most encyclopaedic and entertaining of novels.

In 2011, the theme is ‘Joyce and the Nation’, and the focus will be on Joyce’s account of his nation in 1904 (the date on which the novel is set). It’s a surprisingly nuanced version of Ireland in the early 20th century, before he went into self-imposed exile in Europe. The Cyclops episode is set in Barney Kiernan’s pub in Little Britain Street. It is a hotbed of political posturing circling around a figure based on the founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which revived the ancient games of Ireland and used them as a cover for covert operations and conspiracies. It was a difficult period politically as the Irish had to negotiate the hopes lost after the death of Parnell, and a period of political and economic unrest which would eventually issue in the Easter Rising in 1916. Joyce never resiled from being a Parnellite.

The Irish Renaissance was in full swing in the period about which Joyce writes, and this chapter shows many facets of it - attempts to resuscitate the Irish language and the welter of translations of the ancient poetry of Ireland, both at home and in France and Germany. Although Joyce distanced himself from all of these activities, often satirising them, he was fascinated by aspects of them. He was very strategic about his alliances. Not only does he analyse and make fun of the seductiveness of political rhetoric, but he also lovingly reproduces pastiches and parodies of the glories of ancient poetry which have more than a trace of the exuberance of the originals, as well as their eccentricities. Even Ireland’s most sacred icons aren’t spared from comedic skewering: even that most gallant of political martyrs, Robert Emmett, the brilliant young lawyer who faced the most appalling death possible - hanging, drawing and quartering - with a courage worthy of Cuchulainn, is treated as a subject for high comedy. And in the year Elizabeth II makes reconciliatory gestures towards the Irish, it is interesting to see how Joyce treats Victoria and Albert.

This is an exceedingly challenging chapter to render as theatre, possibly the hardest Bloomsday has attempted: a naturalistic pub brawl between monocultural zealots and an Irish Jew is interrupted by 34 passages of parody or pastiche in a variety of styles, mainly archaic Irish. The director Brenda Addie and her cast will surprise and delight with their inventiveness. They take inspiration from the Greek intertext which sits under Ulysses and draw on Greek theatrical conventions, specifically the chorus. One of the delights of performing Joyce is rediscovering year by year how very benign and wise Joyce’s kind of comedy is. As with last year’s adaptation of the Circe chapter, Carnivale of Night-Town, this is a chapter in which Leopold Bloom is treated very tenderly. A rather hapless victim of gossip, Bloom nonetheless stands his ground and is moving in his hamfisted attempts to explain his philosophy of life.