Thursday, 17 October 2013

Reading Shem in Sweny's

My weekend in Dublin ended with a return visit to Sweny's Pharmacy, to join in their regular Sunday night reading of Finnegans Wake. On arrival, I was welcomed by volunteer P.J.Murphy, in his white chemist's coat, who offered me a mug of tea and a paperback copy of the book. Twelve people arrived for the reading, and we all sat around the walls of the Pharmacy.

There were also free fairy cakes!

Fairy cakes!
I was nervous beforehand, because I've always believed that Finnegans Wake should be read in an Irish accent. While I'm happy to do that on my own, I'd be  embarrassed to put on an Irish accent in front of a room full of Irish people.

So it was a relief to find that there were other non-Irish folk there. I sat between David Cunningham, a Scottish lighting designer, who was working on a production at the Abbey, and Kirsten, a Danish journalist who'd just moved to Dublin and was discovering Joyce for the first time. She'd already been to the Ulysses reading at Sweny's. I think, after that, Finnegans Wake came as a bit of a shock! There was also a jolly American and another Englishman. The remaining seven were Irish.

Kirsten from Denmark

A jolly American

The reading was begun by the bearded Irishman (below) behind the counter, who explained that we were in the Shem the Penman chapter, starting from the middle of page 176. Shem the Penman is a comic and grotesque portrait of Joyce himself, and it's the funniest and easiest chapter in the book. Everyone would read a page in turn, in an anti-clockwise direction.

The reading begins
The fact that there were twelve of us was a wonderful Joycean coincidence. Joyce told his friend Padraic Colum, 'Twelve is the public number. Twelve hours of the day, twelve men on a jury.' In the book, there are twelve drinkers in HCE's pub, who are also members of a lynch mob, mourners at the wake, jurymen, months, hours, apostles, a football team, the twelve tables of Roman Law, Napoleon's marshals, tribes of Israel, and heaps of other things.  

You can spot the twelve in the book because they're always accompanied by pompous words ending in
'-ation'. They 'crunch the crusts of comfort due to depredation, drain the mead for misery to incur intoxication, condone every evil by practical justification and condam any good to its own gratification...' (142.19-21).

While he was writing the Wake, Joyce got twelve friends to write a book of essays explaining what he was up to. Published in 1929, it was called Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. The cover has Joyce's sigla (symbol) for the twelve, a circle (based on a clock face). That's also picked up in the word 'Round' in the title.

So it was very appropriate that there were twelve of us and we were all sitting around the walls of Sweny's Pharmacy, reading the book in a circle!

Having said all that, three other women did join us after the reading had started, but after five minutes listening to us reading Finnegans Wake, they realised they'd made a mistake and left. Yes, the Shade of Joyce compelled them to go, preserving the magic Twelve!

As the reading passed around, I couldn't help flicking forward to see which page was likely to come my way. Some pages are much harder to read than others. I was lucky to get page 182, a relatively easy one describing Shem writing 'nameless shameless shamelessness about everybody he ever met.'

Kirsten, who followed me, was less lucky to have to read the long list of all the rubbish strewing Shem's house ('once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mottage, unquestionable issue papers, seedy ejaculations...'). 

Kirsten reads p183

The Englishman who followed stood up to read his page, another difficult one describing Shem's preparation of an insane egg dish.

Englishman reading page 184
But I felt sorriest for the Irishman who got page 185. He had to read the filthiest passage in the whole book. It describes Shem making ink from his own excrement and, to preserve decorum, it's in Latin! There's a translation here. He did a heroic job getting through it.

We raced through the chapter at a good rate and seven of us had to read a second page. 

I was pleased to end up with the final page, which describes the coming of Anna Livia Plurabelle, 'as happy as the day is wet, babbling, bubbling, chattering to herself, deloothering the fields on their elbows leaning with the sloothering slide of her, giddygaddy, grannyma, gossipaceous Anna Livia.' When I was a teenager, my Father bought me a record of Cyril Cusack reading this so it's very familiar to me. I copied Cusack's phrasing and rhythms (but not his Irish accent). At the end, I got a round of applause!

After the reading, we all went over the road to have a drink in the Lincoln's Inn pub. Another Joyce coincidence! This pub is next door to Finn's Hotel, where Nora Barnacle was working as a maid in 1904 when she first went out with James Joyce. The Lincoln's Inn even has the original front door of the hotel. The words 'Finn's Hotel' are all over Joyce's early Wake notebooks, and it looks as if this was his first title for Finnegans Wake. He has hidden this original title in the Wake at 514.18:  '— .i..'. .o..l.' 

The perfect ending to a wonderful Wake weekend in Dublin.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

At the Gaiety

On Sunday, our last day at Dublin Theatre Festival,  Lisa and I went to the Gaiety Theatre to see the matinee of Waiting for Godot. The Gaiety is one of the most beautiful theatres in the world, with a stunning interior by Frank Matcham. It was also James Joyce's favourite theatre, and it appears in almost all his books. Just as the Mullingar House is the principal pub in Finnegans Wake, the Gaiety is the book's main theatre.

We've been to the Gaiety once before, in 1987, to see Niall Toibin in Borstal Boy. Toibin, who has spent most of his life impersonating Brendan Behan, did a brilliant job, catching the North Dublin accent and the suggestion of a stammer. Have a listen to Toibin reading the end of Borstal Boy, from his album, 'Being Behan'. Back in 1987, we were annoyed by the audience, who burst into applause every time Toibin swore.

The Gaiety is a major Dublin institution, and the palm prints of the performers who've played there are cast in bronze on the street outside. Here's Milo O'Shea, who played Leopold Bloom in the film of Ulysses.

Here's the great Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners.

The Godot production was by Gare St Lazare, who specialise in Beckett. They usually stage one-man shows by the brilliant Conor Lovett, who speaks Beckett's prose in the most natural way. We went to a post-show talk by him in Brighton in May when he said that, if he could write, he would write just like Beckett.

Lovett's Vladimir formed a great comic double-act with Gary Lydon's Estragon. By the way,
A Gaiety pint to suspend my disbelief
Lydon is the spitting image of Brendan Behan! I also loved Gavan O'Herlihy's American accented Pozzo and Tadgh Murphy's astonishing Lucky, whose long speech got the Gaiety audience applauding again. But this is no place to be reviewing Samuel Beckett, except to say that his career was a reaction against James Joyce. He told his biographer, James Knowlson:

'I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.'

In the theatre programme, the director, Judy Hegarty Lovett quoted the physicist Richard P. Feynman, to describe her feelings about the play:

'I can live with doubts and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong...I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me.'

That strikes me as even more applicable to Finnegans Wake. When you read Joyce's book, you are certainly 'lost in a mysterious universe'.

The Gaiety was built in 1871 by the Gunn brothers, Michael and John. There's a bust of John Gunn on the stairs, but it's Michael who appears repeatedly in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He was a friend of Joyce's father, John Stanislaus, who often took his family to the Gaiety. In the Wake, Gunn is another identity for the hero, HCE, appearing as 'Mr Makeall Gone' (220.24) and 'Daddy Gunne' (104.08) among others.

The theatre is also named many times, and is described in detail on page 32: 'that king's treat house of satin alustrelike above floats and footlights...' (a play on the address, South King's Street).

The Gaiety has always been famous for its Christmas pantomimes, and in Ulysses there are memories of seeing Turko the Terrible and Sinbad the Sailor there. One of Stephen Dedalus's most touching memories of his recently dead mother is of her laughing at the Gaiety pantomime:

'She heard old Royce sing in the pantomime of Turko the Terrible and laughed with others when he sang:

I am the boy
That can enjoy

W.G.Wills' A Royal Divorce, about Napoleon and Josephine, was another play the young
Joyce saw at the Gaiety and never forgot. It starred the actor manager, W.W.Kelly as Napoleon, with his wife playing Josephine. J.S.Atherton, who tracked a manuscript copy of the play down, describes its astonishing final tableau:

'A backcloth showing the scene of Waterloo was pierced with holes which were

intermittently lit up to represent the firing of cannon. In front of this models of cavalrymen were wound forward on glass runners while 'Pepper ghosts' of cuirassiers produced by a sort of magic lantern, fell dramatically to their death in the clouds of white smoke that filled the stage. In the foreground on a big white horse, rode Napoleon, or sometimes - apparently when Mr Kelly wanted a rest - Wellington. It made no difference to the play who was on the horse as nothing was said.' The Books at the Wake.

This scene is re-enacted in Finnegans Wake ('This is the Willingdone on his same white harse....This is the Willingdone hanking the half of the hat of lipoleums up the tail on the buckside of his big white harse' pages 8-9) and referred to many times elsewhere in the book.

In his library, Joyce owned a copy of an 1896 booklet called the Souvenir of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Gaiety Theatre. The cover shows the Gunn brothers at the top, with Michael on the right.

You can read the whole booklet here. I looked it up in Raphael Slepons' wonderful 'Finnegans Wake Estensible Elucidation Treasury' website, and found that Joyce quotes from the booklet in the Wake twelve times.

J.S.Atherton also talks about Joyce's use of the booklet and the many appearances in the Wake of the actors and actresses who once performed at the Gaiety:

'Nearly all of them are now dead and many of them were not very well known outside Ireland when they were alive. But they were part of the set-up that 'made the world and how they used to be at that time in the vulgar the good old bygone days of Dion Boucicault the the otherworld' (384.36). And Joyce recreates his 'other world' of the 'vulgarera' without any thought of making things easy for his readers to understand. In fact he seems to have decided that readers who were not prepared to study the Dublin of his youth did not deserve to understand his book.'

The Books at the Wake p151

Monday, 14 October 2013

Lemon Soap from Sweny's

'Sweny's in Lincoln place. Chemists rarely move. Their green and gold beaconjars too heavy to stir.' Ulysses

After our trip to Chapelizod, we headed to Sweny's Pharmacy, a delightful Joycean shrine run by enthusiastic volunteers. They have regular readings from Joyce's works, including Finnegans Wake, and also sell Joyce's books, postcards and souvenirs. Don't go looking for medicine though. They proudly boast that this is the 'worst Pharmacy in the city'!

There's a lovely bit of film on vimeo, by Ailbhe O'Donnell, which beautifully captures the atmosphere of Sweny's.

The man in the white coat above is P.J.Murphy, one of the volunteers. You can see him here on youtube talking about his favourite bits of Ulysses.  We had a long chat, and he invited me to come back the following day for their weekly reading of Finnegans Wake. I bought a bar of lemon soap, as I always do when I visit Sweny's.

In Ulysses, Leopold Blooom goes to Sweny's to order some orangeflower and whitewax skin lotion for his wife. He also picks up a bar of lemon soap, on impulse, promising Mr Sweny to come back later to pay - a promise he forgets to keep.

Bloom's lemon soap has its own mini-Odyssey through the pages of the book, as he variously moves it from one suit pocket to another. Finally, in the hallucinatory Circe episode, the soap appears as a character in its own right!:

'BLOOM: I was just going back for that lotion, whitewax, orangeflower water. Shop closes early on Thursday. But first thing in the morning. (He pats divers pockets)....

(He points to the south, then to the east. A cake of new clean lemon soap arises, diffusing light and perfume.)

We're a capital couple are Bloom and I;
He brightens the earth, I polish the sky.

(The freckled face of Sweny, the druggist, appears in the disc of the soapsun.)
SWENY: Three and a penny, please. 
BLOOM: Yes. For my wife, Mrs Marion. Special recipe.'

That's a picture of Mr Sweny himself, an astonishing find, on display in the Pharmacy.

When I first visited Dublin, in the 1980s, Sweny's was an ordinary modern chemist's, with no visible sign of a Joyce connection. I took this photo in 1987, when I bought a film and some toothpaste there. I'm pretty sure there was no lemon soap for sale then.

By the 90s, the Joyce tourism industry was in full swing. So, in 1993, I did buy a bar of lemon soap, but from the Joyce Tower at Sandycove rather than Sweny's. I still have the faded box it came in.
We were back in Dublin in 2004, celebrating the centenary of Bloomsday. The whole city had gone Joyce nuts and every butcher and cheesemonger had a quote from Ulysses in the window. Sweny's was still a pharmacy, but now had a window full of Joycean memorabilia and lemon-shaped lemon soaps.

The Pharmacy finally closed in 2009, and it looked for a while as if the beautiful interior might be lost, ending up as yet another bland coffee shop. But a group of volunteers got together to save it. They are unpaid, but costs are partly covered by the sale of Joyce's books, jewellery and the famous lemon soap.

Here's a photo I took of the window in the spring of 2013. Not only were they reading from Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, A Portrait and Dubliners, but also from Ulysses in French!

Here's a man we met in Sweny's in 2010. He was introduced to us as the great-grandson of Mr Sweny's second cousin.

The cabinet drawers are filled with old paper packages

This chap (below) used to stand outside the Pharmacy, but they had to get rid of him for health and safety reasons!

I like the sign saying 'Bring your lunch. Why not?'

I recommend Sweny's lemon soap, which you can now buy online from them. It's very lemony.

I went back the following day to join in their weekly Finnegans Wake reading...

Saturday, 12 October 2013

A Pint in Earwicker's Pub

Although I've been to Dublin many times, until last Saturday I'd never been to Chapelizod, the little suburb beside Phoenix Park, three miles west of the city centre. This is in spite of the fact that Joyce told Eugene Jolas that Finnegans Wake was the story of a 'Chapelizod family':

'I might easily have written this story in the traditional manner....But I, after all, am trying to tell the story of this Chapelizod family in a new way. Time and the river and the mountain are the real heroes of my book.' (quoted by Jolas in My Friend James Joyce).

After leaving the Phoenix Park, we walked west along the Chapelizod Road, until we came to the Mullingar House pub. This has an extraordinary plaque above the door, which was the main reason I wanted to visit Chapelizod. Dublin is full of pubs with Joycean plaques and signs. Usually they make limited rational claims, such as, 'This pub features in Ulysses.' But the Mullingar House makes the wonderful claim to be 'HOME OF ALL CHARACTERS AND ELEMENTS IN JAMES JOYCE'S NOVEL 'FINNEGANS WAKE''!

So we went to the Mullingar House, half expecting to find 'the whole stock company of the old house of the leaking barrel'(510.17).

I've been looking into where this claim comes from. Most of Book Two of the Wake takes place in and around a pub, run by Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. There's a letter from Lucia Joyce to Frank Budgen (written in May 1933, when Joyce himself couldn't see to write), which says, 'The principal bistro he [Joyce] says is the Mullingar Inn, of which in W.i.P. [Work in Progress] the big man is assumed to be the landlord'.

Frank Budgen had been commissioned by Joyce to do a painting of Chapelizod. In his great book, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (1934), Budgen described his visit to the pub. This must be the source of the word 'elements' on the plaque:

'An atmosphere, sweet and glad, hangs over the river at Chapelizod...All Joyce's elemental shapes are there. I painted a picture on the south bank of the river in front of a row of cottages....Shem and Shaun and a murmuration of Maggies gathered round me to criticise and admire....When it began to ''darkle'' I adjourned to the Mullingar Inn. Sawdust was strewn in ''expectoration'' and a quorum of ''representative civics'' already assembled to ''drain the mead of misery to incur intoxication''. The subject of their ''conflingent controversies of differentiation'' was the Irish Grand National. Mr Keenan, blond, burly, affable, authoritative and bright-eyed, entertained us in his custom-house. He was called away, and in his absence an amiable lady served us with pints...Here in the space of a few hours, and in their own locality, I made acquaintance with many of the elements of Work in Progress - river, hill, forest, human habitation, laughing girls, brothers in conflict, citizens in council, a woman serving and a big man presiding.'

The Liffey at Chapelizod from the bridge
Earwicker is largely based on Joyce's father, John Stanislaus Joyce. Joyce told Budgen that 'the whole basis' for Finnegans Wake was an encounter his father had with a tramp in the Phoenix Park. Like HCE, John Stanislaus was a disgraced patriarch, a man who was 'one time the king of our castle/ Now he's kicked about like a rotten old parsnip.' (45.07)

In 1873-6, John Joyce had a well-paid job as Secretary to the Chapelizod Distillery, and spent many happy times drinking in the Mullingar Hotel, as it was then called. In later years, after he had squandered his inheritance, John Joyce looked back to his times in the Mullingar, run by the Broadbent family, as a lost golden age:

'Broadbent and I were very great friends. He had the Mullingar Hotel there, and a fine decent fellow he was. We used to have great times there. There was a bowling green at the back of his hotel and I was considered a celebrated bowler...On one occasion Dollymount challenged us to a game. We won and we stood them food and drink after it. This was followed by a splendid musical evening as we had a lot of musical fellows down with us....We beat Dollymount and I made a big score; and by God I was carried around the place and such a time we had....I was made a lot of and was taken around by the boys on their shoulders; and my God the quantity of whisky that I drank that night! It must have been something terrible for I had to go to bed. I was not very long in bed when half a dozen of the fellows came up to me and said that they were having a singsong downstairs, adding: 'Come on Jack, don't have them beat us at the singing.'...Begor I could not walk so I told them to clear out to Blazes...'

(Interview with John Joyce, found among his son's papers after his death)

Here's a painting of John Joyce by Patrick Tuohy, commissioned by Joyce in 1923, the year he began writing Finnegans Wake.

'This old man, ruddy and hoary, dignified and truculent, stubborn as a mule and witty as the devil, would soon dominate his son's life again, this time from a portrait painted by an Irishman and hung on the drawing-room wall. Joyce attached at least as much importance to this painting as to the portrait of Mrs Svevo, named Anna Livia, who, as we know, was to lend her golden hair to Anna Livia, and to the waters of the Liffey.'

Nino Frank, 'The Shadow that had Lost its Man', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Potts) pp 86-7
John Joyce's drunken collapse into bed in the Mullingar House reminds me of the end of the pub sequence in Finnegans Wake, when we learn what befell 'to Mocked Majesty in the Malincurred Mansion' (380.04). Following scenes of riotous drinking and singing, HCE, now identified as 'His Most Exuberant Majesty King Roderick O'Conor', last High King of Ireland, drinks all the dregs and collapses unconscious in his pub. This is one of the many falls in the book.

There's another link between John Stanislaus Joyce and the Mullingar House - Sheridan Le Fanu's novel, The House by the Churchyard, set in 18th century Chapelizod. Joyce told his biographer, Gorman, that this was one of the four books which made up his father's 'library'. It's a major source in Finnegans Wake. A lot of scenes take place in the village inn, called the Phoenix, which may have stood on the site of the Mullingar House.

Here are a few more references to the Mullingar House in Finnegans Wake: 'the whole history of the Mullingcan Inn' (64.08); HCE  'owns the bulgiest bungbarrel that was ever tiptapped in the privace of the Mullingar Inn' (138.18); 'the boss's bess bass is the browd of Mullingar' (286 L06); 'that mulligar scrub' 321.33; 'The other foregotthened abbosed in the Mullingaria.' 345.34; 'those Mullinguard minstrelsers are marshalsing.'  371.3; and 'the bogchaps of the porlarbaar of the marringaar of the Lochlunn gonlannludder of the feof of the foef of forfummed Ship-le-Zoyd.' 370.27
Joyce's death mask above the bar

But is the Mullingar House really 'home of all characters and elements' in the book?
Lucia Joyce's letter uses the phrase 'the principal bistro'. Nothing in Finnegans Wake is fixed, and HCE's pub moves around Dublin and Ireland and even turns into a ship in the Roderick O'Connor scene. Elsewhere in the book, it's identified with the Royal Banqueting Hall at Tara ('House of cedarbalm of mead' 558.35); The Nancy Hands pub, east of Phoenix Park; The Hydropathic Hotel, Lucan ('his hydrocomic establishment' 580.25); and a pub called the Goat and Compasses. Chapelizod also gets muddled up with another suburb, Lucan, in a dream location Joyce calls 'Lucalizod'.
A picture of Joyce on the wall of the pub

In his
Finnegans Wake Gazeteer, Louis Mink writes, 'Earwicker's public house is no doubt everywhere, or everywhere that pints are drawn and songs are sung.'

The Mullingar House has a James Joyce Bistro at the back, and drawings of Joyce and his death mask on the walls. But it's very much a locals' pub, away from the tourist trail. The bowling green where John Joyce had his triumphant game in the 1870s is long gone, and the pub now stands on a busy road.

Even if it doesn't live up to the great claim made on the plaque, the pub is well worth a visit. Sitting in the bar, I imagined the landlord drinking the dregs and the whole place transforming into a ship. Looking at the curving wood of the bar, Lisa said, 'It does look a bit like a ship.'

A pint of Guinness from Earwicker's pub!


Friday, 11 October 2013

A Walk through the Phoenix Park

The day after seeing Riverrun, we walked though Phoenix Park, from Islandbridge to Chapelizod. It's the biggest enclosed park in Europe, and a major location in Finnegans Wake. Joyce's book is a resurrection myth, in which everything is renewed through a 'commodious vicus of recirculation.' So the Phoenix, the mythical fire bird that is resurrected from its own ashes, appears again and again in the book. There's a column in the park with the bird on top. 

The opening page describes the fall of the giant Finnegan, who lands with his head at Howth in the east and his toes sticking up in the Phoenix Park in the west. The Park is also a Garden of Eden, where the hero, HCE, is supposed to have committed some sort of primal sin or crime. Phoenix Park has a strong connection with crime, for it was here, in 1882, the year of Joyce's birth, that Lord Frederick Cavendish, the British Secretary for Ireland, and his undersecretary, Thomas Henry Burke, were stabbed to death by the Invincibles.

The park takes its name from the Phoenix Lodge, built in 1611 by Sir Edward Fisher. Dublin lore has it that 'Phoenix' is an English corruption of the Irish name for a nearby spring, the Fhionn uisce (clear water). I can't find any hard evidence for this, and the spring is no longer there. The Phoenix Lodge was later the residence of Henry Cromwell, son of the hated Oliver, when he was Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1656-9. 

In 1734, the lodge was demolished and a Magazine Fort built on the site.  We climbed up
the hill to have a look at it and walk around. 

The Magazine Fort inspired a satirical verse from Jonathan Swift: 

'Behold a proof of Irish sense;
Here Irish wit is seen!  
When nothing’s left that’s worth defence
We build a magazine!'

This is parodied in Finnegans Wake: 'Behove this sound of Irish sense. Here English might be seen'(12.36). The Wake might look English, but it sounds Irish.
Joyce told his friend Frank Budgen that 'the whole basis' for Finnegans Wake was an encounter his father, John Stanislaus Joyce, had with a tramp in the Phoenix Park. According to Ellmann's biography, Joyce senior was working as a rates collecter when he bravely 'defended his collector's bag against an assailant in the Phoenix Park'.

Joyce transforms this into the story of how HCE, 'billowing across the wide expanse of our greatest park', is accosted by a 'cad with a pipe'. Asked the time by the cad, HCE launches into a stammering defence of his character, which suggests that he is guilty of something. The cad later repeats the story to his wife, who tells her priest, who is overheard at the horse races telling the story, by two disreputable characters, Treacle Tom and Frisky Shorty.  As the story passes on, the scandal about HCE grows.

Eventually, it comes together in a comic song The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly, by 'an illstarred beachbusker' called Hosty. There's a recording of Hosty's song, by the late great Ronnie Drew, which you can hear on youtube. I love the way he copes with some of the later verses, where the lines are much longer than the notes allowed.

Here's the opening verse, with music composed by Joyce. Persse O'Reilly is a play on the French perce-oreille (earwig), so it's a version of Earwicker.

Echoing the 'great fall of the offwall' on the book's opening page, HCE is now Humpty Dumpty, who has fallen and landed by the butt of the Magazine Wall, like Lord Olafa Crumple - Oliver Cromwell/ all of a crumple.

Walking down from the Magazine Wall, there was a magical moment when Lisa spotted a fallow deer stag looking up at us. We sat and watched him for several minutes, until he disappeared into the woods.

These fallow deer are the descendants of the original seventeenth century herd, when this was a deer park. 

Another of Joyce's names for the Phoenix Park is 'deerhaven' (244.29).

We headed on towards Chapelizod, to find Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker's pub.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Olwen Fouéré's Riverrun

For Joyceans, the best thing that happened in 2012 was that the great man's works came out of copyright. For years, Joyce’s estate, run by his cantankerous grandson, Stephen, has tried hard to stop people quoting from, performing, or even reading his books in public. All this has now changed, and this year I've seen three fine stage productions of his works.

I was in Dublin at the weekend for the Theatre Festival, where Olwen Fouéré performed Riverrun at the Project Theatre. This is her adaptation of the final book of Finnegans Wake, which she acts out, through the voice of the River Liffey.

She performs on a deep wide stage, with a central microphone on a bending stand, the lead twisting away to the left rear corner of the stage. To the right of the lead, the floor is covered with salt crystals, giving the impression of the bank and river. She begins by taking off her shoes and stepping over the microphone lead onto the salt, into the water.

Fouéré then speak-sings the final chapter, from which she has cut out the dialogues and set pieces (St Kevin, Muta and Juva, St Patrick and the Druid). By removing them, using only the framing narrative and the final monologue, she creates a strong sense of a single voice in a flowing river of words. 

The central idea running though the last chapter is of waking up, after the long night of the book. 'Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayne' - a call to everyone lying down to rise up with the day: 'Passing. One. We are passing. Two. From sleep we are passing. Three. Into the wikeawades warld from sleep we are passing. Four. Come, hours, be ours!'

The sense becomes clearer when we reach the final monologue, the only part of the book actually spoken by the river, Anna Liffey, as she flows out of Dublin to die in the Irish Sea.
The Liffey from Sean Heuston Bridge
As she speaks these words, Fouéré moves rhythmically, rolling her shoulders as if she is swimming. The movements grow bigger as she gets nearer the choppy waters of Dublin Bay. The watery sense is strengthened by
Stephen Dodd's lighting and Almer Kellaher's soundscape, which builds throughout the monologue.

The first part is spoken to her husband, who is the fallen giant Finnegan and the city of Dublin stretched out beside her: 'Rise up, man of the hooths, you have slept so long!' She calls on him to dress, and to join her. But he never replies. She's aware that she's being replaced in the water cycle by a younger river, 'a daughterwife from the hills...Swimming in my hindmoist.' This reminds her of her own youth when she fell, as rain, out of her mother, the sky:

The younger river, upstream at Chapelizod
'Now a younger's there.Try not to part! Be happy, dear ones! May I be wrong! For she'll be sweet for you as I was sweet when I came down out of me mother.  My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence. I could have stayed up there for always only. It's something fails us. First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come.'

At the end, as the Liffey approaches the vast sea she grows disillusioned with her husband, the city (' I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You're but a puny.'). Flowing into the sea is a death for the river, and a return to her father, the cold sea:
Looking upstream from the O'Connell Bridge
'I am passing out. O bitter ending! And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms....A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the' 

With the final 'the' Fouéré's face freezes in the light, suspended like the sentence, which will continue on the book's opening page ('riverrun past Eve and Adam's...') Finnegans Wake never ends.

Riverrun is an astonishing achievement, and it was wonderful to see it a stone's throw from

Olwen Fouéré by the Liffey after the show
the Liffey. It was the right time of year too, Autumn, when the Liffey is carrying leaves down to the sea ('I am leafy speafing').  The leaves are the pages of the book, which drift away one by one, until, on the last page Anna Livia says, 'My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still.'

After the show, we went down to the Liffey and joined Olwen for drinks on the Millennium Bridge. I asked her how difficult it was to learn the text. She said, 'I found I just knew it!'

Then we finished the evening in the Oval (where Simon Dedalus drinks with his cronies in
Ulysses) before heading back to Wynn's Hotel (which gets two mentions in Ulysses and three in Finnegans Wake).

Joycean Heaven!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Filming Finnegans Wake

I found the soundtrack album on ebay
It's hard to think of a more unfilmable work of fiction than Finnegans Wake.  Yet there is a film, made in 1965 by Mary Ellen Bute. It's called Passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and you can see the whole thing on Ubuweb and Youtube.

Bute was a Texan who originally studied painting and then stage lighting, at Yale.  From the 1930s, she made short abstract films, like Synchromy No 2, intended 'to create an impression of what goes on in the mind when listening to music'. These remind me of the work of Len Lye and Harry Smith, except while they were painting on celluloid, she was painting with light - reflecting and refracting it with prisms and glass vessels and using colanders, cellophane, ping-pong balls, egg beaters, bracelets and sparklers to make light forms and shadows. She made these films with her husband, the cinematographer, Ted Nemeth, who was an expert at special effects.

Although they sound avant-garde, these were popular films, shown at Radio City Music Hall and mainstream cinemas as shorts before the Hollywood features. Millions of people saw them.

I found these pictures of Bute at the Center for Visual Music website.

Bute's Wake film is an adaptation of a 1950s play by another remarkable women, Mary Manning. She was an Irish actress who was a lifelong friend (and sometime lover) of Samuel Beckett. Manning spent two years combing Joyce's book for beautiful passages, which she reassembled in a dramatic form, assigning them to four main characters: HCE, ALP and their rival sons, Shem and Shaun. This web page, Notes on Mary Manning, has more information about the play and a recording of her reading the book's final monologue.

The film and play are heavily influenced by A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), by the mythologist Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson. They presented Joyce's book as a novel with a plot, and also saw much of the book as the dream of the its central character, HCE. But Joyce's patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, wrote: 'Their ascription of the whole thing to a dream of HCE seems to me nonsensical....My view is that Mr Joyce did not intend the book to be looked upon as the dream of any one character, but that he regarded the dream form with its shiftings and changes and chances as a convenient device, allowing the freest scope to introduce any material he wished - and suited to a night piece.'

So the film begins with HCE lying in bed beside his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle, and the book's opening line is followed by the narrator saying 'And low stole o'er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep', which is followed by HCE saying  'And as I was jogging along in a dream as dozing I was dawdling...' But these lines come from the opening of Book III, pages 403-4, and the second line is spoken by a donkey (Yes the narrator of Book Three Chapter One tells us that he is a donkey!).

There are lots of great things about the film. The musical score, by Elliot Kaplan, is gorgeous. There are many sequences, such as the opening shots of the River Liffey, where Mary Ellen Bute is still painting with light. Her experimental and surreal approach, using montage and animation is a good visual approximation of Joyce's methods. So at the beginning HCE is shown falling out of bed in slow motion, then rapidly  intercut with images of Humpty Dumpty, rainfall, lightning bolts, falling angels and collapsing buildings. 

HCE then lands in the coffin at his own wake. That's a great way of turning the 'great fall of the offwall', on the book's first page, into film.

Another way of visualising the text was to reinvent the Wake's narrative voice as that of a television newsreader, perhaps inspired by the Wake's treatment of television

I love the Irish actors, who were all unknowns. Bute found them in Brendan Behan's off-Broadway production of The Hostage. I particularly like Martin J Kelly as HCE. He has a great face and screen presence. Whatever happened to him?!

HCE as King Mark of Cornwall, beside the Book of Kells
 The film ends with images of sunrise and the woken HCE walking into a new day.

While making the film, Bute gave an interview to Gretchen Weinberg for Film Culture (No 35 Winter 1964-5):

'It is primarily a visual work and it had to be so on the screen. Joyce's language is so kinetic and visual that the spectator will have to hold himself back from flying out of his seat. The cast became so obsessed with the dialogue they wanted to dance it out rather than act it out and had to be held back to more commercial forms of acting. It was heartbreaking sometimes to bring the high-flights of the mercurial Joyce down to the merciless one-eyed stare of the camera....I feel that when our Finnegan says, 'Hues of rich unfolding morn awake arise rally oh rally the smorg is lofting', I feel that it comes through. I think (the film) illuminated the nightworld of Joyce a little. I once wanted to have several objects of light moving at once on a screen in one of my abstract films - I hope I've done it meaningfully in this.'

Despite winning the prize for best debut at Cannes, Bute's film was a commercial failure, unable to cover its shoestring costs. She worked on two later films, which she never completed: Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (itself based on Finnegans Wake) and Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, a film about Walt Whitman.

Here's a lovely description of her last years:

'In her seventies, amicably separated from Ted Nemeth, and having depleted her inheritance, Mary Ellen Bute lived at a Salvation Army residence for women located in New York's fashionable Gramercy Park. During that period, Bute lectured and presented her films at numerous East Coast, midwestern and Canadian venues, trying to raise enough money to finish her Walt Whitman film. Easily recognised by her relentless Texan accent, resounding laugh, red hair and high heels (she was just over five feet tall), she still enjoyed dressing up, sometimes in a sequinned split skirt or leopard print leather pants.'

Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Volume 5 page 96