James Joyce's work is an acquired taste. Whereas the late Irishman's short-story collection Dubliners (1914) is an easy read, the experiments in style in his later novels have always banned them from my beach bag. Not willing to thread my way through the stream-of-consciousness narrative of A 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 invented language in Finnegans Wake, his last novel.
Still, I can't deny that, in his books, Joyce paints a vivid picture of 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 as Joyce, the drama with musical underscoring is presented in a manner equivalent to Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style. As lyrical and emotional as the vignettes are, the audience isn't given the factual information needed to understand the man.
Unexplained is the fact that, at the end of his life, Joyce was given 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 out the drug's name. Behind him are thirteen silhouettes, representing the family members and Dublin types featured in his books. He drifts through memories of growing up in Ireland and leaving, at the age of 23, for self-imposed exile in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich.
Throughout the play Cariou is joined by three actors who nimbly assume the roles of major players in Joyce's life. Together they mimic Joyce's style 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 all of his writings, Joyce's memories take him back to Ireland. Whether he's an observer of or a participant in the action, 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 A 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) repeatedly pops up in lapsed-Catholic Joyce's recollections. In one of the play's few lighthearted moments, a young Joyce encounters a prostitute (Jacqueline Knapp) who crudely propositions him while the priest whispers of hellfire 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. Even his relationship with Nora (also Knapp), his long-time partner, was perceived as a shocking affair in Ireland; it was only after 27 years with her and at the urging of their two children that he agreed to get married. Nora's decision to stick with Joyce gives the episodic show its humanity. Agreeing with Joyce that the worst thing a person can do is break someone else's spirit, Nora endures poverty and Joyce's drinking.
Most of the time, 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 put in a straitjacket, he worries that her condition will reflect poorly on his role as a father. What isn't explained in the play 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 Joyce comes off as a petty individual.
In the first act, Joyce is an Irish Everyman, who drinks, lusts after women, and suffers religious guilt. The play's second half finally gets down to 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.