By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
James Joyce's work is an acquired taste. Whereas the Irishman's short-story collection Dubliners (1914) is an easy read, his later novels have been banned from my beach bag because of his experiments in style. Not willing to thread my way through the stream-of-consciousness narrative of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), I'm even less inclined to tackle the mammoth Ulysses (1922), which features, in its final chapter, a first sentence that is about 2500 words in length. I take heart from the fact that, in 1939, even book critics were stumped by the neologisms in Finnegans Wake, his last novel.
Still, I can't deny that Joyce does service to Ireland and its people. Even when style obscures plot, I recognize the humanity in his vividly drawn characters.
I can't say the same for the world premiere of Himself! at Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre Company. Starring Broadway veteran Len Cariou, the drama with musical underscoring is presented in a manner similar to Joyce's style. But as lyrical and emotional as the vignettes are, the audience isn't given the information needed to understand the man.
Unexplained is the fact that, at the end of his life, Joyce took morphine to dull the pain of a perforated ulcer. When the play opens, however, a 58-year-old Joyce (Cariou) is sitting in a chair shouting for the drug. Behind him are thirteen silhouettes, representing family members and the Dubliners of his books. He drifts through memories of growing up in Ireland and leaving, at the age of 23, for self-imposed exile in Rome, Trieste, Paris, and Zurich.
Cariou is joined by three actors who nimbly assume the roles of major players in the writer's life. Together they mimic Joyce by spouting fractured dialogue in a series of short scenes bereft of set or costume changes. The overall effect is akin to catching snippets of outdoor drama during a lightning storm.
As in his writings, Joyce's memories take him back to Ireland. Whether he's an observer or a participant, he constantly scribbles in a notebook he keeps in the vest pocket of his Irish tweed suit. Brimming with Celtic spirit, his drunken father (John Felix) offers advice. "Write the laugh," he urges. "Never take the laugh." He also gives the play its title by warning that whatever profession a man follows, he has to go through life as himself. Borrowing from a childhood story that begins the semiautobiographical Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, father and son break into an often repeated chorus: "Oh, the moo cow goes moo-moo, and the duck must quack-a-quack." While this unexplained reference to Joyce's work may serve as an ode to the independent Irish nature, I can just see the literate Joyce in his grave going roll-roll.
Of course, no one is more interested in the Irish soul than an Irish priest, and an unnamed man of the cloth (Brian Mallon) frequently pops up in lapsed-Catholic Joyce's recollections. In one of the play's few lighthearted moments, a young Joyce comes across a prostitute (Jacqueline Knapp) who crudely propositions him while the priest whispers of hell fire and damnation. When the prostitute asks Joyce if he has any diseases, he answers, "Catholicism."
Throughout Himself! Joyce is depicted as a man obsessed with sex. His relationship with Nora (also Knapp), his long-time partner, was perceived in Ireland as shocking; it was only after 27 years and at the urging of their two children that he agreed to marry her. Nora's decision to stick with him gives the episodic show its humanity. Agreeing with Joyce that the worst thing a person can do is break someone's spirit, Nora endures poverty and Joyce's drinking.
Most of the time in the play, Joyce thinks only about Joyce. While his family starves in Paris, he complains about having to walk through the city with holes in his shoes. And later, when his daughter is wrapped in a straitjacket, he worries that her condition will reflect poorly on his role as a father. What isn't explained is that, because of publishing problems and royalties lost to pirated versions of his books, Joyce and his family were forced into poverty. His daughter was born in a pauper's ward, and later suffered from schizophrenia. Without this background he comes off as petty.
In the first act, Joyce is an Irish Everyman who drinks, lusts after women, and suffers religious guilt. The play's second half finally elucidates why anyone cares about the man: his books. "I open up. I bleed. I write with my blood," Joyce declares, convincingly. Dispensing with incomplete sentences and enigmatic scenes, the play turns to Joyce's letters and books to examine his quest to publish Ulysses, which, because of its sex scenes and frank language, was deemed obscene by censors.
The play recounts Sylvia Beach's (Knapp again) brave decision to publish the book in Paris in 1922, under the imprint of her bookstore Shakespeare and Co. Still, it would take eleven years and a court case in the United States instigated by Random House to finally get the book published in an English-speaking country.
Reading from their letters, Joyce, Beach, and their printer (Mallon) wrangle over the author's endless corrections and quicken the play's pulse with a fascinating portrayal of a defining moment in modern literature. Keeping up the excitement, U.S. District Court Judge John M. Woolsey (Felix) reads from his decision, saying that "whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses is undoubtedly somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac."