It’s not the first time: in the mid-1990s his books briefly became public domain, until European copyright law was extended to 70 years after an author’s death.
Then, as now, there was a rush to adapt previously untouchable works.
Writer Dermot Bolger was commissioned by Greg Doran, of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to adapt Ulysses for the stage. Bolger’s first reaction was not encouraging: “I said it was impossible to do. But we had lunch, and in the middle of explaining how it couldn’t be done, I started making notes on the napkin of how it could be done.”
The renewed copyright put paid to Bolger’s play, which had one rehearsed reading, on Bloomsday in Philadelphia in 1994. “That might have been that,” says Bolger, except that Andy Arnold, artistic director of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, heard Bolger talking on Irish radio. Arnold wanted to adapt Ulysses.
Bolger’s challenge was to turn a 250,000-word, 18-chapter epic into a coherent play with a manageable running time. A seasoned playwright, Bolger knew he could not indulge Joyce’s breadth of vision and style. “I remember the best piece of advice I got was during my first play, The Lament for Arthur Cleary,” Bolger says. “There was a speech the director had a problem with. I couldn’t understand what he was talking about until he said, simply, ‘this piece is beautifully written, but this bit here is where the guy in the third row is wondering if his Volvo is safely parked’.” Bolger had digressed too far, allowable in a book but not in a play. “The book reaches out to the horizon, it’s an entire social history of a city, the psychological feel of a city,” he says. “Plays are different. If you divert or digress too far from the central thrust, that’s pulling the audience forward, it loses the taut electricity.”
Bolger’s solution was to channel Finnegans Wake, with its logic of dreams. His play begins where Ulysses ends: with Molly and Leopold Bloom in bed at the close of a long day. That last chapter is home to Molly’s famous soliloquy, which Bolger calls “a play in itself, the most brilliant one-woman show ever conceived”.
Whereas Joyce uses Molly’s speech as an anchor for what has gone before, Bolger uses it as a point of departure and return. “I thought I could begin the play with Bloom getting into bed, falling asleep, and have the actual cast of characters come on stage, waken Bloom and draw him back to re-enact the day. You could have Molly’s soliloquy going on in carefully picked extracts that actually comment on what’s going on, so Molly could be an integral part of the play. Because she’s there throughout the book, even when absent. Bloom is thinking about her, knowing that Boylan is going to visit her at four o’clock, knowing that he can’t go home. A play has to have peaks and troughs; you have to build certain moments and break certain moments. Molly’s soliloquy is a counterpoint to the play: you can move into a scene and Molly can bring you back out,” Bolger says. The four-star reviews in the Scottish press have borne out Bolger’s central insight. The play premiered at the Tron Theatre earlier this month and the co-production, between the Tron, the Everyman in Cork and the Project in Dublin, begins its Irish run at the Project this evening (Nov 6).
The audience reaction in Glasgow has pleased Bolger, whose aim is to penetrate the book’s mystique. “My ambition is to take away some of the intimidation, to give one line through the main preoccupations of Bloom and Stephen on that particular day. Hopefully, people will go from that back into reading the book, having a sense of where the book is going.”
Bolger came to Ulysses as a Dubliner, but from a different part of the city, the working-class suburbs that remained largely unwritten until his generation. “I saw a generation of writers before me who were destroyed by Joyce,” he says, “in the sense that they felt they could only write masterpieces.”
Bolger identified more with Bruce Springsteen than with Joyce. Yet he lives in the shadow of Joyce, or did: his house backed onto the house in which Joyce lived during his college years and where many scenes of Portrait of the Artist were set. “There was a wonderful old guy who lived there, who was a printer, quite an eccentric man. In the shed that backed onto my garden, he printed the first Irish edition of Bungalow Bliss. So, I used to always think it was astonishing that the two most important books in Irish culture, Ulysses and Bungalow Bliss, came together in my back garden.”
Bolger’s irreverence towards Joyce informed his adaptation, but Joyce still rang true to Bolger’s ’Dublin. “I found much that is contemporary in Joyce’s work,” he says. “In Barney Kernan’s pub, the people who don’t really regard Bloom as Irish are the same people who don’t regard black taxi drivers as Irish, that same prejudice is there. But it’s a funny thing about Dublin, that the people we wind up celebrating most as the epitome of Dublin are outsiders, like Phil Lynott, who was black, and Paul McGrath, and Micheal Mac Liammoir, whose real name was Alfred Wilmore, from London. It’s very clannish, yet the people who most represent it are outsiders.”
Listening to Bolger talk Joyce, his admiration for a fellow, albeit extraordinary, craftsman is obvious, as is his love of Joyce’s characters. There is none of the dry academic tone that blights discussion of Joyce. “I loved Bloom’s humanity,” he says. “He’s the most indecent decent person there every was. I love the contradictions in him. I love that there’s that extraordinary contradiction, too, within Molly, who is carrying this grief for a dead child, which has changed her life. Bloom is carrying that as well. Even someone as unpleasant, in many ways, as Simon Dedalus, is broken by grief. You have all these people and all their histories and contradictions making them act in a certain way. Joyce could be a very arrogant writer, and a funny writer, too, but he was willing to understand people, to understand what made them tick.”
These characters are Bolger’s way into the book. “My ideal audience is someone who’s never read it,” he says. “But once you know who these characters are, that when you’re reading the book, you’ll know how they fit. If you get lost, you can understand why this person is doing that. They all serve a purpose, they are all part of Bloom’s world.”
* Ulysses, by Dermot Bolger, is at the Project Theatre, Dublin, Nov 6-10; Everyman Palace, Cork, Nov 12-17.