I gave the following speech to Toastmasters on June 25th, 2003, as Speech
#4, "Show What You Mean". Clearly, I've reused some material from
my earlier post about Bloomsday.
I'm also finding that I take longer to
deliver a speech to an audience than I do when rehearsing, so I cut some of
the material on the day to fit the seven-minute limit.
"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl
So begins James Joyce's Ulysses, one of the most famous, and famously
difficult, novels of the Twentieth Century. The book is by turns funny,
obscure, insightful, and irritating.
The whole book takes place in Dublin on June 16th, 1904 and tells of
the wanderings of Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged Irish Jew, and of
Stephen Dedalus, a young writer who is Joyce's alter ego.
Nowadays, there is a thriving Joycean industry in Ireland, that
re-enacts portions of the book on Bloomsday, June 16th, the anniversary
Next year is the centenary and you can be sure that the Joycean
industry will make the most of the occasion. Ireland loves Joyce now:
he helps bring in the tourist dollars.
This wasn't always true. Ulysses was banned in Ireland until the 1960s.
It was considered obscene, pornographic, and profane. It's true that
Joyce was an apostate Catholic who mocked the Church and that he was
unusually frank about lust, sex, and excretion, but the novel is
undoubtedly a work of literature, not mere base titillation.
Ulysses was also banned in the United States when it was first
published in 1922 because it was considered pornographic. That ban was
overturned in 1933.
Bloomsday is celebrated outside Ireland too. In many cities around the
world, you will find groups of Joyce fans celebrating on June 16th. In
Seattle, the Wild Geese Players have been staging readings of Ulysses
for the last few years. This year, I joined them.
We staged readings from Chapters 8 and 9 at the Brechemin Auditorium in
the School of Music at the University of Washington. We had a cast of
about fifteen readers who read aloud from scripts, acting the parts of
various characters. We were watched by about forty people, only half of
whom were related to the cast.
Ulysses is very loosely modeled on Homer's Odyssey, the classic Greek
epic, which tells of the wanderings of Odysseus, who took ten years to
return home from the siege of Troy. (Ulysses is the Roman name for
Odysseus.) Each chapter of Ulysses roughly corresponds to a book of the
Odyssey. Each chapter is written in a very different style. Leopold
Bloom represents Odysseus the wanderer, while Stephen Dedalus
represents Telemachus, Odysseus's son, and Molly Bloom represents
Penelope, Odysseus's wife.
Chapter 8 of Ulysses is The Lestrygonians. In the Odyssey, the
Lestrygonians are foul cannibals who threaten Odysseus's crew. In
Ulysses, Bloom wanders southwards through the center of Dublin,
encountering sights, smells, food, and drink as he goes. He enters one
pub in search of lunch, but is repulsed by the gorging and gluttony of
the customers. He moves to Davy Byrne's pub, where he eats a calm
lunch. Bloom's interior monologue takes up most of the chapter, as he
observes people and places on his walk. There are a number of
encounters along the way.
This chapter was difficult to stage. Bloom moves from one encounter to
another. We had perhaps twenty scenes in ninety minutes. I myself
played four minor characters.
I came on first as Denis Breen, the half-mad husband of Mrs. Breen,
whom Bloom has spent the last five minutes talking to in the street. I
shuffle unseeing across the stage, muttering to myself, clutching an
enormous tome to my chest. A real stretch!
A few minutes later, when Bloom is recalling a pro-Boer student riot at
Trinity College Dublin, I return, playing the part of one of those
students. Wrapped in my old Trinity scarf, I stride onto the stage
bellowing such slogans as "Up the Boers!" and "We'll hang Joe
Chamberlain on a sourapple tree!" It wakes the audience up nicely.
For my third part, I play the barman in the first pub that Bloom
enters, the one that soon repels him. I get to utter in my best
working-class Dublin accent such memorable lines as "Roast beef and
cabbage", "One stew", and "Pint of stout", while serving some of the
My final role in this chapter was slightly meatier. I played Tom
Rochford, one of a trio who enter Davy Byrne's pub as Bloom is eating
his lunch. We stand around, ordering drinks and arguing about horse
Chapter 9 of Ulysses is Scylla and Charybdis. In the Odyssey, Scylla is
a six-headed monster, while Charybdis is a whirlpool. In Ulysses, these
dangers are metaphorical, as the journey becomes becalmed in the
literary debate between Stephen Dedalus and other writers of the day,
We are subjected to torrents of language, in lyric, in dramatic, in
verse, and in prose form, as well as Stephen's interior monologue. The
debate wanders through the life of Shakespeare, especially his
relationship with Ann Hathaway; Shakespeare's work, particularly
Hamlet; and the nature of father/son relationships.
This chapter was much easier to stage, if harder to follow. Almost the
whole chapter takes place around some tables in the National Library.
We sat mostly, although we did stand for the Hamletesque play within
the play, and Buck Mulligan wanders around poking into things.
I read the smallest of the main roles in this chapter, that of Mr Best,
an inoffensive young man in the mold of Bertie Wooster, who can't quite
hold his own in the debate that rages between Stephen and the other
He says such things as "But Hamlet is so personal, isn't it? I mean a
kind of private paper, don't you know, of [Shakespeare's] private life.
I mean I don't care a button, don't you know, who is killed or who is
I enjoyed myself that night. I hope I have conveyed something of the
flavor of the evening, if not much of the book itself. That's difficult
to do without reading aloud passages from the book, and this speech
format doesn't lend itself to that.
Cut due to lack of time
Several times in the last 20 years, I have attempted to read
Ulysses. Always before, I gave up in the first half of the book.
Some of it is very difficult, especially when Joyce is playing with
I'm rereading the book once again. I've not yet finished it but
I've gotten further than I ever did before. I've learned two
tricks. The first is not to give up if a section doesn't make
sense. Just keep going. It'll get more enjoyable. I don't think it
all makes sense to anyone on the first reading. The second trick is
that sounds are very important. Joyce was a poet. Subvocalize or
speak aloud the odder bits and the music will come through.
It is said that Ulysses is the most difficult of the entertaining books
and the most entertaining of the difficult books.