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."
Overall, however, Himself! says very little about a man who so passionately wanted to be heard. It's unlikely to please either Joyce fans or neophytes, but not for lack of talent. Exuding kilowatts of presence, Cariou dominates the stage, and it is easy to imagine him striding over the landscape of modern literature. Whether flashing a leprechaun's grin or getting his Irish up over censorship, the Tony Award-winner (for Sweeney Todd) infuses each snapshot of Joyce with emotion.
The script, however, offers him no opportunity to bridge the outbursts with a multilevel portrayal. One telling detail is Cariou's attempts to hint that Joyce had glaucoma. In fact, he suffered through numerous eye operations and long periods of near blindness. But the eye patch Joyce wore during his later years is nowhere to be seen, suggesting that the show's creators consider facts about his health superfluous.
Likewise, the rest of the cast is caught between realism and caricature. Dropping his trousers to enjoy a good "shite" in front of the priest, Felix lustily plays Joyce's father as a stereotypical Irish boozer. Working with a script that favors fervor over facts, he can't do much to show the other side of the older Joyce: a college-educated civil servant who wrote letters connecting his wayward son to his homeland. Similarly, Knapp has to literally lift her skirts in an exaggerated portrayal of a prostitute before she is handed the touching role of the self-sacrificing Nora, who pulls a thread from her own clothes to sew on a button for her husband.
On the other hand, Mallon's roles as the priest and a publisher who rejects Ulysses are so one-dimensional that he is able to grab hold and play them with total conviction. The result: You almost root for Joyce's adversaries.
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What's missing from Himself! is a full portrait of Joyce. Developed in a couple of staged readings in New York, the play was created by book writer Sheila Walsh and composer Jonathan Brielle, both of whom are also credited as co-lyricists. Oddly, there really are no songs or lyrics. Although Joyce and company may sing a line or two, the show's only musical number is a rousing listing of county names in Ireland, which could have been written by George M. Cohan for all it says about Joyce.
Caught up in Joyce's experimentation with language and style, director George Rondo stages each moment as its own event, leaving the audience to play a game of connect the dots to understand how Joyce's complex feelings about Ireland, religion, and his family affected his life and his work. Thomas Salzman's lighting serves as a welcome Cliffs Notes version of events, seamlessly merging vignettes and spotlighting designer Tim Bennett's glorious Dubliner silhouettes in a way that informs us what is important even when the direction and writing don't.
In the play, Joyce argues with his printer over the final word in Ulysses. He insists the book must end with the most positive word in the human language: Yes. Following his lead, I'll sum up with my opinion on whether or not this play has a future: No.
Written by Sheila Walsh; lyrics by Sheila Walsh and Jonathan Brielle; music by Jonathan Brielle; directed by George Rondo; with Len Cariou, John Felix, Jacqueline Knapp, and Brian Mallon. Through February 15. For more information call 930-6400 or see "Calendar Listings.