Monday, November 01, 2004

Ulysses in Nighttown -- again

On 30 September I wrote an account of a theatrical production called Ulysses in Nighttown, which I saw at the Rooftop Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York, in July 1958.

Ulysses in Nighttown was, as the title suggests, a play adapted from the novel Ulysses by James Joyce. As part of my researches for the 30 September post, I discovered, to my surprise, that the script of the play had been published in 1958 by Random House. (Bibliographical details are given at the foot of this post.) And, with the aid of, I was later able to buy a copy and read it.

If you are at all interested in Ulysses, I suggest that it would be well worth your time to do the same. For one thing, it will give you a fresh insight into the novel, because the adaptation very neatly encapsulates every major theme of the book, and all in 120 pages.

There is an introduction by Padraic Colum, barely a page in length, which describes the principal characters of the book/play in a succinct way which is unequalled to my knowledge. The final paragraph reads as follows:
Two men, one a man of middle age, one a youth. In the city directory they are Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus; in a more ancient book they are Ulysses and Telemachus, the father in search of the son, the son in search of the father.
Thus is all made perfectly clear. Note, please, that I do not say that it makes any sense. Merely that what Joyce was trying to do is made perfectly clear. I myself have never been very struck by the Bloom/Ulysses parallels, or impressed by the way in which the structure of the book matches (allegedly) that of the great classic work. But at least we can see here what is supposed to be going on.

Of course it has to be admitted that there were great advantages to Joyce in following Homer's classic model. In the first place he didn't have to think of a plot; and secondly he was, of course, providing literary critics with plenty to talk about. Joyce, I suspect, was absolutely no fool, and he knew that, if you want to be the hot topic of discussion in the literary salons of this world, you need to supply the raw material for the chattering classes to chew on.

The play begins, as does the novel, in the Martello Tower; and although we quickly move to the Nighttown sequence, which in the book comes some 400 pages from the beginning, the adapter cleverly incorporates passages from earlier and later in the book. Thus at the start of Act Two we have part of Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy which comes at the very end of the novel. We also meet Blazes Boylan and hear about Bloom's dead son, Rudy.

Even on page one, barely ten lines into the script, we have the first of no doubt many other literary references. 'God,' says Mulligan, 'isn't the sea what Algy calls it; a great sweet mother?'

Algy, as you doubtless recognise, is Algernon Charles Swinburne, and the reference is to his poem The Triumph of Time:

I will go back to the great sweet mother,
Mother and lover of men, the sea.
I will go down to her, I and none other,
Close with her, kiss her and mix her with me;

And if that doesn't draw you into the play, nothing will.

When reading this script I was continually astonished by how clearly I remember the original production. OK, so I was a very impressionable young man at the time, but when you consider how much else I have long forgotten it is surprising how easily the images come to mind. However, you have to remember that Bloom was played by the immortal Zero Mostel. And it is quite apparent to me, in retrospect, that without Mostel's comic genius this might be a very wearisome play to watch.

Not that you are likely to watch it. The cast list includes 62 named characters, and even with extensive doubling it doesn't seem possible to mount a production without at least 16 (highly talented) actors. So don't expect it to come to your local theatre soon. It is also, of course, a mighty difficult piece to direct.

Details of the printed version of the play are as follows: James Joyce's Ulysses in Nighttown, dramatized and transposed by Marjorie Barkentin under the supervision of Padraic Colum. Published by Random House, New York, 1958.

No comments: