About 70 years ago in an American bookshop in Paris, the great Irish novelist James Joyce was introduced to a young aspiring writer named Ernest Hemingway. If any performer is qualified to portray both men in a reenactment of that moment (okay, if would be difficult to play both), it would be Len Cariou. In 1994 at Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre Company, Cariou starred as a boastful, hard-drinking, very humorous, and ultimately tragic Hemingway in Papa, the one-man play by Sun-Sentinel staffer John de Groot. Both the production and Cariou's performance in it won Carbonells -- South Florida's theater awards -- and the play, with Cariou, eventually moved to off-Broadway.
Now Cariou's back at the Caldwell, this time to play James Joyce in the world premiere of Sheila Walsh's lyrical and thought-provoking drama Himself!, about the man who is arguably Ireland's greatest -- and certainly its most difficult -- novelist. Cariou will don dark glasses to play the almost-blind Joyce, exchanging Hemingway's Scotch for the Dublin native's Jameson's Irish whiskey. For Cariou it's a journey of discovery, getting under the skin of the Irishman whom he describes as a tortured soul.
"He wrote about nothing but Ireland but couldn't write in Ireland," notes Cariou, speaking over the phone from New York City. "His morals were regarded as very suspect. He was thought of as obscene, but he was really trying to write about people and saying that love was all-important. It was tough growing up in Ireland with the Irish priests making you feel guilty if you weren't becoming a priest."
Joyce spent most of his adult life in Europe in self-exile because he felt rejected in Ireland. Numerous publishers turned down Dubliners, his now-famous collection of short stories, before it was finally published in 1914. And his Ulysses, recognized as a twentieth-century masterpiece, existed only in pirated editions until the American bookseller Sylvia Beach published it in Paris in 1922. (Back then Ulysses was banned in both Ireland and England.)
Walsh is a little-known New York playwright who brought the first version of her play to a reading at that city's Actors' Studio in 1994. At the time it featured a cast of thirteen, which she whittled down to four. The play came to the attention of New York-based director George Rondo, who sent a copy of the script to Cariou. The actor was impressed and volunteered to read the part of Joyce at another reading, this one held at New York's Irish Center. It was Cariou who suggested premiering the play at the Caldwell, where he had had such a good time playing Hemingway.
Walsh's play is a theatrical equivalent of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness technique: When Joyce thinks of a character, he or she appears on stage. When the writer visits a whore in the play, a disapproving priest is also present and won't go away. "Walsh is extraordinary," says Rondo, who is directing the Caldwell production. "She shows this whole parade of characters all in one breathless moment, this eye-blink. In this eye-blink Joyce has to reconcile the difficulties, torments, and pleasures of what he's done." Rondo feels that the play's abstract quality makes it intense and dramatic. "There's one doorway in the entire set, like Sartre's No Exit," he explains. "They [the characters] do not leave. They cannot get out of that door. The characters are always there. They are always in Joyce's heart and mind."
In writing about Joyce, Walsh writes about Ireland itself, the land that the novelist loved and cursed. Joyce's executors would not allow her to use Joyce's words, but her play would likely delight the author, whom she affectionately calls Jimmy. In rich language that seems to come straight out of Joyce's mouth, her play talks of how the "priest-infested island whiskeys its men into subservience."
"Joyce believed the church stifled him and Ireland," says Rondo. "There was no way to breathe."
Himself! pays particular attention to the women in Joyce's life, especially his wife Nora, who was the inspiration for his most sensuous creation, Molly Bloom, from Ulysses. "Where he grew up in Catholic Ireland, the women were prim and proper," observes Walsh. "Nora was very earthy with her freedom of expression, and she talked dirty to him and this blew him away."
Nora's steamy language in Himself! is worthy of the voluptuous Molly. Pining in Ireland for the absent Joyce, Nora complains, "Lonely I am here in my bed with my lovely emerald garters wrapped around my silky plump rump."
Jonathan Brielle's instrumental score adds another dimension to the production. "Music was always a part of Joyce's life," explains Cariou. "He sang to the piano, and his father was a singer, too. He says music was the first sound he ever heard when he was in the womb." Using Irish place names, Brielle has created an anthem that expresses the writer's longing for his homeland, and the composer describes Himself! as a "musicalized play" rather than a play with music.
"We make him [Joyce] very human," Walsh notes. "He's somebody's son, somebody's father, and somebody's lover." She recalls meeting Joyce's "very prim-looking" nephew. "I said to him: 'Let me rub your shoulder,' and I did. That's the closest I'll get to Jimmy."
Previews of Himself! will be presented at the Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, January 2-4 and 6-8. The play opens January 9 and runs through February 15. Call 930-6400 (toll-free in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties).