Thursday, September 30, 2004

Ulysses in Nighttown

My brief mention of James Joyce’s Ulysses on Monday reminded me that I possessed, hidden somewhere deep in a file or cupboard, a theatre programme dating from 1958. And, with a little digging, I found it.

The theatrical production which the programme describes was entitled Ulysses in Nighttown, and it was, as the name suggests, a stage adaptation of Ulysses – or at any rate parts of it, chiefly the section set in Nighttown.

The particular production of the play which I saw was mounted at the Rooftop Theatre in Greenwich Village, and it opened on 5 June 1958. I must have seen it soon after that.

Ulysses in Nighttown was conceived, the programme tells us, by Burgess Meredith, who was a well known actor from the 1930s on but subsequently became much more famous (e.g. as the trainer in Rocky and as Penguin, the arch enemy of Batman). The play was, however, ‘dramatised and transposed’ by Marjorie Barkentin. ‘Transposed’, I suppose, because the Nighttown sequence of Ulysses is already in dramatic form. And ‘dramatised’ because the play version begins, like the book, in the Martello tower. (I was in the very room only last summer, I’ll have you know, and I have a James Joyce mug for my coffee to prove it.) The play ended (as I recall), with part of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. But there was also, again if my memory does not deceive me, a final coda, perhaps transported from earlier in the text, in which Leopold Bloom sees his dead son Rudi, and calls out his name, in distress.

Why have I kept this programme? Because I have never seen any theatrical production which matched this one, that’s why. OK, so I was young and relatively easily impressed. But you have to admit that this was one hell of a show. I live in hope of seeing something more impressive before I die, but things are not looking hopeful.

Why was Ulysses in Nighttown so memorable? Well, apart from the obvious fact that it was based on one of the most durable novels of the twentieth century, one key factor was that it starred Zero Mostel as Bloom.

Now Zero Mostel was never a Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart type movie star, but he was, I venture to suggest, a connoisseur’s actor. He won three Tonys for three Broadway shows in a row, so he knew how to do the job. And he seemed to me then, as now, a natural for Bloom. Whom he made, of course, funny. (Not that Mostel had to distort anything to do that, because Ulysses is full of humour.) It turns out that Mostel won an Obie for this particular performance, and no one can be surprised at that.

Subsequent performances of this play do not seem to have been plentiful. The original production came to London in about 1959 or 1960, when it did not set the town on fire, and it was revived on Broadway in 1974, again with Mostel in the lead and Burgess Meredith directing. There was also an Irish production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1990. And, er, that seems to be about it.

No doubt one of the reasons why the play is seldom performed is that it calls for a large cast. My programme lists 16 performers, who between them play 62 named characters. Far too many, in other words, for most producers today. A cast list of more than about five scares the poor devils to death.

It was this theatrical experience which encouraged me to spend a bit more time reading Ulysses than I had done up to that point – though I was certainly well aware of Joyce and had been somewhat stunned by picking up a copy of Finnegans Wake. And the main purpose of this post is to encourage you to have a look at the book, if you have not done so already.

Ulysses is quite unlike any other novel of my acquaintance in that it is probably not a good thing (in my opinion) to start at the beginning and read through to the end. A passing acquaintance with the structure of the book will provide a little illumination, and after that the best plan, I believe, is to dip into it at random.

You could do a great deal worse than to start by reading the Nighttown episode. In my Penguin edition, which runs to some 700 pages in total, Nighttown begins on page 425, and you can recognise it because the text is set out as if it was a play script. Which, of course, it is.

Now -- who says I don't appreciate literary fiction? It just has to be good, that's all. And I mean genuinely good, not just good according to the professors of English literature.


Michael Allen said...

Yes, no problem. The GOB is published under a Creative Commons licence which permits any non-commercial use, provided the source is credited.

epsteinsternator said...

Great blog, thank you! You wouldn't happen to know of any performances of *Nighttown* that have been recorded? A fool's errand, I expect, but figured it would be worth asking. Thank you!

A.R. Luce said...

My father, Tom Luce, from California, acted the role of "Narrator" in Off-Broadway production of "Ulysses in Nighttown" in 1958. He regaled my 3 younger brothers and me while we were growing up, with stories of rehearsing & performing with Zero Mostel, Burgess Meredith (the Penguin on Batman!), Carroll O'Connor (Archie Bunker on All in the Family!), John Astin (Gomez on the Addams Family!), and Anne Meara (Stiller & Meara!). He turned down the offer to go with the play to Europe (London & Paris) because he had just met an actress from Buffalo, Helen Armesto, ("Medea", "Machinal", "Antigone") in NYC who had a bevy of suitors. His wooing proved successful, they married, had 4 babies. Years later, in the 1980's, in San Francisco, he acted, directed, & cast professional actors from the SF Bay Area and staged a word-for-word, 24-hour, non-stop, marathon public reading of James Joyce's 800-page novel "Ulysses" for "Bloomsday" (held all around the world every year on June 16). He & my mother acted several parts. For years since then, people (actors & audience members) would bring up their somewhat astonished memories of this event and their recollections of both my parents, Tom Luce & Elena Luce, their stage presence, their talent, the unique experience, and the legacy of having Joyce's words burned into their brains forever.