Bwogger Mariela Quintana attended yesterday’s Bloomsday on Broadway celebration at Symphony Space. Here, she explains what to expect from a seven hour performance of two episodes of Ulysses.
Last night, literati, and admirers of Eire convened on the academic megaplex that is Symphony Space to celebrate the 104th anniversary of Bloomsday. Each year the venue hosts “Bloomsday on Broadway”, a commemoration of the day Leopold Bloom traversed through Dublin in Ulysses, James Joyce’s epic and famously esoteric novel, one of the few canonical works left off the Lit Hum syllabus for the welfare of both freshmen and their professors. How could a work that could not be encompassed by our august Lit Hum be circumscribed in single, public event?
Dressed in a sharp white summer suit and a royal blue button down, emcee and co-founder of Symphony Space Isaiah Sheffer introduced the reading with the cavalier familiarity that only twenty-seven years of tradition could afford. In his opening remarks, Sheffer discussed the enduring relevance and accessibility of Joyce’s work in New York City street culture and in the mix and flow of voices on Broadway. The night, Sheffer explained in his sedate, NPR timbre, would consist of a multi-voiced reading of the entire “Ithaca Episode,” a musical interlude and then the reading of the final episode, “Penelope,” performed by Fionnula Flanagan. As the final two episodes in the novel, “Ithaca” and “Penelope” are collectively known as the “Homecoming” and detail the culmination of Bloom’s day (after he has returned home with Dedalus) and Molly Bloom’s final address, respectively.
Despite Sheffer’s insights, what I heard when the reading began was entirely out-of-the-ordinary and at times unintelligible to my sophomoric ears — though many savvy audience members brought their copy of the text to follow along with the live performance. The format of the reading, however, clarified the writing and made Joyce’s text into what in many ways could have been radio drama, especially fitting since the reading was being streamed online.
For the clarity’s sake, “Ithaca” was broken down into thirty-one vignettes, given explanatory titles like “Getting into the House,” “Leopold, father of Millicent” and “Pillow Talk and Falling Asleep.” The length of the each vignette and the number of performers reading for the various voices and thoughts within the vignette depended on the content of the passage. As only can be expected from a seven-hour performance, some of them dragged, and due to space and equipment restrictions readers often had to share microphones, which added to the overall sense of confusion. Although Joyce’s words are as compelling to listen to as they are to read, the sit-back-and-relax tactic, from my experience, proved unwise.
A silvered dame and former stage and silver screen star, Marian Seldes lent her rich voice to the busy “In the Kitchen” scene. Drawing out her vowels and hissing her fricatives, Seldes transformed “its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea,” into a mesmerizing dirge to a dripping tap of a kitchen skin.
On my homeward trek I asked myself what had I learned from this festival of bibliophile pride, if anything. During my journey back home, I indulged myself to believe I was tuning into the atavistic spirit of Leopold, Stephen Dedalus, Bloom’s doppelganger and a figure of Joyce himself, and perhaps even a hint of the Wily Odysseus, the novel’s ancient inspiration, titular tributary and guiding force. Am I not just like Joyce himself by writing for this very piece for Bwog — fostering the osmotic transferal of thoughts and perspectives? Why, you too could be Dedalus!