Cowan Palace: James Joyce, A Man For The Living And The Dead

Ashley Cowan preps you for next week’s dramatic reading of “The Dead.”

As we move closer to the summer equinox, it seems like the perfect season to soak in some Theater Pub. Well, you’re in luck, friends, because on June 17, “The Dead” is taking over Cafe Royale. Before you get too excited about another zombie tale, you should know that “The Dead” is actually a short story included in James Joyce’s Dubliners, a collection of tales from 1914. Though the word “short” may not quite do it justice, “The Dead” in its entirety is 15,672 words and may be better classified as a novella.

The plot surrounds Gabriel Conroy on a January evening in 1904. More specifically, it’s the annual dance and dinner hosted by the Morkan sisters. But without giving too much away, as the story will reveal itself under the direction of Jeremy Cole, here are a few fun facts about James Joyce, the holiday known as Bloomsday, and how it can help you survive “The Dead”.

So first, who is this James Joyce guy?

Well, his full name is James Augustine Aloysius Joyce and he was born in Dublin, Ireland as the eldest of 10 children. He was probably best known as a poet and novelist but spent a lot of his life struggling to earn a living for his family and often took whatever clerical or teaching work he encountered.

But then he had it easy once he became better known for his writing, right?

Not exactly. Among many life challenges, the poor guy also didn’t have the best eyesight. In fact he underwent over 25 eye surgeries in his lifetime and when he finally began to make a living from writing, his eyesight had deteriorated considerably. He was then forced to rely on others to help him complete his works.

Yikes. Do you think this impacted “The Dead?”

Well, the story seems to be leading to a moment of clarity and ultimately with that, the painful cost that comes with self-awareness. Gabriel battles social awkwardness and crippling insecurities that on some level most of us could understand. It’s likely that Joyce grappled with aspects of these things as well.

But wait, what’s this Bloomsday thing I always here about? Was Joyce a party animal?

Bloomsday, June 16, encompasses an annual celebration for Joyce fans worldwide. It’s honored in at least 60 countries but, of course, it’s probably nowhere near the revelry in Dublin.

Why is that?

As Dublin is the setting for the book Ulysses, Joyce fans have made a tradition of reenacting the story as the central character, Leopold Bloom. His entire itinerary is carried out across the city in new and creative ways each year. But honestly, who needs an excuse to drink a Guinness and party?

When did Bloomsday start?

It actually wasn’t Joyce’s idea. Bloomsday was created in 1954, the 50th anniversary of the events in the book. Two men named John Ryan and Flann O’Brien decided to organize a daylong adventure following the route set about in Ulysses. Included in the friends who joined them was Joyce’s cousin, Tom Joyce.

It seems like Bloomsday has impacted a lot of people.

I’d say so. In fact, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married on June 16, 1956 in honor of Bloomsday.

Bloomsday also continues to make its mark in popular culture as well. A couple references you may remember include: In Mel Brooks’ classic 1968 film, The Producers, Gene Wilder plays a character named Leo Bloom, who as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, is in honor to the fella from Ulysses. Furthering the homage, in the musical adaptation from 2005, the office calendar reads “June 16”.

Richard Linklater was also clearly a Joyce junkie and included Ulysses in his 1991 film, Slacker, by having a character read a passage from the book. He also sets his 1995 Before Sunrise (one of Ashley Cowan’s favorites!) all on June 16.

Okay, I get that June 16 is the day Ulysses was set on and that the name comes from Leopold Bloom. But what’s so important about June 16? Why did Joyce pick that day?

This one may impress all you romantics out there. On June 16, 1904, Joyce took Nora Barnacle on their first date.

And did their first date lead to a second?

Oh, it did! They had quite the love affair. Aside from creating two children, they were also known for some rather erotic letters they would write to each other. In fact, for one lucky fan, a letter sold for almost half a million dollars at Sotheby’s back in 2004.

Any examples from their passionate letters?

Well, pervert, many of Joyce’s books were censored and banned, some even pirated, so we know he was full of potential! But I’ll give you one example with this sexy sentence meant for Nora, “The two parts of your body which do dirty things are the loveliest to me.” Try that one on your honey in honor of Bloomsday!

I can see why Theater Pub wanted to take this project on…

Originally, Joyce had earlier considered titling Dubliners (the book where “The Dead” can be found) Ulysses in Dublin. However, Dubliners made the final cut. The characters Gabriel Conroy, Gretta Conroy, Kate and Julia Morkan, and Bartell d’Arcy, from “The Dead”, are suggested but none of they actually make an appearance in Ulysses. In any case, as Bloomsday also celebrates Joyce in the whole, it seems like a perfect choice for the June 17 Theater Pub.

So tell me more about Joyce’s kids.

Sure. They were named Giorgio and Lucia Joyce. Lucia led an interesting life; at one point she actually dated Samuel Beckett! Later though she was declared a schizophrenic and had to be confined in a mental asylum.

Way to be a downer.

Yeah, well, that’s life. Writers often experience a lot of pain but their work is enriched and praised because of it. Joyce was a complicated guy. It’s also said that he suffered some strong fears. His phobias included: cynophobia (fear of dogs) and keraunophobia (fear of lightning and thunder). It’s believed his final words were, “Does nobody understand?” before he died on January 10, 1941 and I hope for him, heaven is a place without dogs or storms.

Joyce once said, ”mistakes are the portals of discovery”. But don’t make the mistake of missing this Theater Pub or you’ll discover you’ve missed quite the event! So this June 17th, join us at the Cafe Royale at 8 PM, order up your favorite Irish inspired beverage, sit back, and allow the cast of “The Dead” to transport you to Dublin where you’re welcome to take home an Irish accent and a piece of the Bloomsday spirit.

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