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

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