George V. Reilly

Bloomsday Speech

Bloomsday Speech

(Originally posted to Home at EraBlog on Mon, 07 Jul 2003 15:34:22 GMT)

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.

I’ve uploaded some photos of the reading to one of my other websites.


"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather…"

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 of Ulysses.

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 customers.

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 racing.

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 writers.

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 guilty…"

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 language.

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.

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