Published Date Written by Timothy GillisEven if you have never read "Ulysses," the masterwork by James Joyce always at the top of Great Books lists, you can still revel in its environs this week. The American Irish Repertory Ensemble has planned events for each day leading up to this Sunday, June 16, known as Bloomsday, the day on which the events of the novel take place. The day is named for the novel's hero, Leopold Bloom, and it inspires celebrations in Dublin and around the world.
On Monday, Seanachie Nights held a special reading, with Lynne Cullen telling Irish folk tales, Sebastian Lockwood reading the "Anna Livia Plurabelle" episode from "Finnegans Wake," and Janet Lynch performing a rousing rendition on the "Penelope" episode of "Ulysses," becoming for a time Molly Bloom, Leopold's wife in the final chapter of the epic story.
Cullen, a local storyteller, artist, and playwright, created Seanachie Nights, which meets the third Monday of every month at Bull Feeney's, upstairs in the Yeats' Room. Lockwood is a storyteller who specializes in the epics and recently recorded audiobooks with his bassy brogue. Lynch has an upcoming performance as Molly in "Love's Old Sweet Song" as part of the PortFringe 2013 Festival. The show will include the material she performed Monday, plus a previous scene featuring additional text from Joyce interwoven with period songs. The one performance of "Love's Old Sweet Song," will be on Wednesday, June 26, at 7 p.m. at the Studio Theater of Portland Stage.
On Tuesday night, Port Veritas, a local slam poetry troupe, opened their stage to readings dedicated to James Joyce. After the open mic, Nate Amadon read from "Two Gallants," a story from Joyce's "Dubliners." John McVeigh read what he called a "Joyce sandwich," reworkings from the Irish writer's lines, and Jim Donnelly, of Lowry's Lodge poetry reading in Westbrook, read from Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."
AIRE representatives then read from the "Nausicaa," episode of "Ulysses," the infamous section that helped get the book banned in the United States in 1922. Twelve years later, a Supreme Court decision overturned the ban and made the book legally available.
Susan Reilly, managing director of AIRE since its inception in 2004, was joined by AIRE and Maine Irish Heritage Center member Ellen Murphy in reading the controversial episode, in which Joyce mocks the romantic genre of writing and has Bloom and Gerty McDowell participate in what Reilly called "Immaculate Ejaculation."
"Our aim is to make it accessible for people who have never read the book, have no intention of doing so, but want to talk about it at cocktail parties," Reilly said of AIRE's efforts this week. "We are trying to find narrative pieces from the book to help tell the story."
On Wednesday, AIRE performed "Ulysses for Beginners," a rollicking performance piece that used scenes, songs, slides and humor to explain the story line of "Ulysses" in one hour. The cast included Harlan Baker, Paul Haley, Tara McCannell, Susan and Tom Reilly and Ben Row.
On Thursday, Joyce fans can continue to imbibe to the brim with a viewing of "Bloom," a 2003 Irish film based on "Ulysses" starring Stephen Rea as Leopold Bloom. It will be screened at 6:30 p.m. at the Portland Public Library. University of Southern Maine professor Francis McGrath will talk about "Ulysses" on film.
"I will give a brief introduction before film, and then have a conversation afterwards," McGrath said. "The cross-references and allusions get sort of somewhat lost. It would be hard to follow those in a film. To me, the main challenge for a filmmaker is that most of Joyce's novels happen inside someone's head. They do things in the external world, but you only know that through what they're thinking. For someone coming to film without much knowledge of Joyce or "Ulysses," the film is still accessible to him or her.
Reilly said the Joyce celebration has grown in each of the four years that AIRE has sponsored it.
"Since we started it several years ago, it's been expanding," she said. "Most people don't go to everything, but more and more people are going to something."
On Friday, June 14, McGrath will host a one-hour discussion called "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Ulysses but Were Afraid to Ask." The talk starts at noon in meeting room 5 of the Portland Public Library.
"I have no idea how that will go," McGrath said. "I will be completely winging it. It's hard to judge what kind of audience you will have beforehand. You have no idea how familiar they are with the text."
In addition to "Ulysses," Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" and "Portrait of the Artist" are also regularly ranked in the top ten greatest novels ever written. His work also rates as the least read and/or most difficult to read. The Bloomsday events can help the novice break through the intimidating texts and realize some of the beautiful language he employed to earn their status.
"Joyce had a fantastic ear. He really wrote for the ear," McGrath said. "The later works of Joyce need to be read vertically. Every word has a number of associations with it. You're interrupted from reading horizontally in "Finnegans Wake," especially. References to Irish places, myths, characters – all the characters are layered on top of each other and are one character. A word is never singular in meaning."
Round out your Joyce week with "A Party for Mr. Joyce," at the Maine Irish Heritage Center on Saturday, June 15. It will include a trivia contest, costume competition, music, and refreshments, and will be held from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
The party takes to the streets for "Poldy's Perambulation," a Bloomsday Walk from the Maine Irish Heritage Center to various spots in downtown Portland, including Brian Boru, RiRa, Bull Feeney's, Longfellow Books, and the Portland Public Library, with excerpts from "Ulysses" read by AIRE actors at each location.