Staging 'Ulysses': 'What impressed me most was also what scared me most'
DERMOT BOLGERhad to wrestle with the expansiveness of Joyce’s 265,000-word masterpiece in order to turn it into a play that would arouse audiences’ curiosity
NO TIME IS MORE dangerous for a phone call than 8pm on a Monday when your thoughts are tuned to nothing more daunting than the dinner dishes. If your phone rings, never answer it: it’s invariably somebody asking you to do something you don’t want to do.
One Monday evening in 1993 the English theatre director Greg Doran, of the Royal Shakespeare Company, phoned to say that he had recently staged Derek Walcott’s acclaimed version of the Odyssey and wanted to follow it with a stage version of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
I explained why I would never attempt this near-impossible task. I explained my reasons again over lunch, after he flew to Dublin to see me. I was still explaining why I wouldn’t consider it when, in one of those metamorphoses that occur between the main course and coffee, I started drawing diagrams on my napkins to show how it might be staged.
As Greg departed for London I stood outside the restaurant, feeling palpable terror, because in explaining how it couldn’t be done I had somehow agreed to transpose Joyce’s masterpiece of 265,000 words – in 18 episodes, alternating through a dazzling array of linguistic styles – into a play, due to have a staged reading in a 1,300-seat Philadelphia theatre the following Bloomsday.
Then I realised that my terror at approaching it as a playwright reflected the terror many readers feel at approaching it as a book.
Ulysses has a deserved mystique. Nobody could call it an easy read. Joyce joked about wanting to keep critics busy for centuries. Ninety years on he remains on track, with an industry surrounding the book.
Much of what is written laudably attempts to open up the book’s myriad meanings. But some criticism is so abstruse as to place barriers around its being simply enjoyed as a novel. The Joycean industry seems to involve many more faction fights than occurred between 18th-century rival gangs of butchers’ apprentices in Finglas Woods.
I took as my starting point a complaint by Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s great love, that he kept her awake at night, laughing so much as he wrote it. Beginning my adaptation, I quickly realised why Joyce laughed at subtly getting under the skin and prejudices of the claustrophobic city Stephen Dedalus knows he must escape from. The writing teems with brilliance and virtuosity, but also with deep humanity and insights into the human condition that remain as true today as in 1904.
What impressed me most as a reader was what scared me most as a playwright. Not only does Joyce create remarkable characters in all their contradictions, but his book expands to encompass the physical and psychological backdrop of an entire city. Ulysses could be said to be devoid of minor characters, because he brilliantly conjures entire lives for people who appear only fleetingly.
Such expansiveness is the privilege of fiction: secondary worlds can be explored that are not pivotal to the narrative but inform it by being the common bedrock from which the characters spring.
But a play cannot sit down and digress too overtly from its central preoccupations. Playwrights enter an unspoken pact with their audience, but also a silent duel. An audience will follow a playwright anywhere once they are being propelled forwards by the engine of curiosity. If they get ahead of the playwright the spell is punctured. The taut sting precariously holding a play afloat loses its tension, and all drama dies.