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.
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 it won't be for lack of talent. Exuding kilowatts of stage presence, Cariou dominates the stage, and it is easy to imagine him throwing a shadow 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 not seen here, suggesting that facts about his health are considered dispensible by the show's creators.
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 fact, 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 literally has to 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 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. There really are no songs or lyrics to speak of, however. 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 conflicted feelings about Ireland, religion, and his family affected his life and his work. Thankfully, 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 of what is important even when the direction and writing can'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.
Book by Sheila Walsh, lyrics by Sheila Walsh and Jonathan Brielle, music by Jonathan Brielle. Directed by George Rondo. Starring Len Cariou, John Felix, Jacqueline Knapp, and Brian Mallon. Through February 15. Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, toll-free 930-6400.