James Joyce and Me Against the World | Quotidian Theatre Company

Steve LaRocque

Quotidian Theatre Company commemorates its Fifteenth Anniversary Season tomorrow with a reading of James Joyce’s story “The Dead”, live song selections from the company’s current musical James Joyce’s The Dead, and a performance by the New Century American Irish-Arts Company. Light refreshments will be served. This is a FREE event on Saturday, November 24th at 2pm, held at The Writer’s Center: 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815. Seating is on a first-come basis. Contact quotidiantheatre@comcast.net or 301-816-1023 for more info.

Reading “The Dead” is Quotidian company member Steve LaRocque, who here discusses how Joyce’s story differs from Nelson and Davey’s musical:

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Do you read the book before you see the movie?

I never do – never seem to have the time.  The last time I actually did read a book (say, a novel) and then saw the film was probably Catch 22; now, when was that?  Well, let’s not go there.

And how about reading the book before you see the play?  When do you even get a chance to do that these days, unless you’re a regular at Round House (which does it fairly often) or Lumina (which does it all the time)?  In this day and age, it’s pretty rare to see a novel or short story make it to the stage successfully.

So, when Quotidian decided to take on the musical adaptation of the James Joyce short story “The Dead”, with music by Shaun Davey and lyrics by Davey and Richard Nelson, I figured that I ought to read the text.

Actually, I pretty much had to, because I’ve been recruited to do a staged reading of the Joyce text on Saturday afternoon, November 24, at 2 pm at The Writer’s Center, during the second week of the five-week run.

Not only did I read the text — I edited it, because Joyce’s story, lovely and evocative though it is, is on the long side.  It takes about 75 minutes to read –- longer than people should be expected to have to look at me without some significant diversion.  So I trimmed Joyce’s text down to about 50 minutes, and the organizers of this event have come up with the idea of interspersing interludes of song and dance from the show, as a welcome alternative to listening to me.

“Trimmed” is perhaps too genteel a word for what I did to Joyce’s text; actually, I practiced some fairly vigorous surgery –- not drastic enough, hopefully, to hack away any essential members, but I have to admit that some lovely vignettes are gone.

So, when I walked into Quotidian’s dress rehearsal last night, having immersed myself for some time in my own version of  Joyce’s reality (and, when you are editing somebody else’s text, is there any other version?), I was expecting to see and hear a story approximately (no – significantly) like the one I had in my head (and text).

Wrong. 

Actually, what I should have done was locate a copy of the script of the play (musical, if you prefer) — after all, it’s been around for thirteen years — and read it and realize that the two versions of Joyce’s story are significantly different.  But if we did all the things that we are now convinced we should and could have done, and done them at exactly the right time, life would be a lot different – right?  Mine, anyway.

So, I’m sitting in the darkness of The Writer’s Center, ready to be entertained with the version of Joyce’s masterpiece that I have in my head, and I’m waiting for Lily, the maid, to usher in the guests to the Morkan annual Christmas dance and dinner.  That’s how it starts, right?

“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.  Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest.”

But, instead of Lily, who comes cruising in, but … Gabriel Conroy?  But he’s the central character.  The little intransigent voice in my head says that Gabriel is not supposed to show up until everybody has spent a whole lot of time fretting about where he’s gotten to.  But now he’s talking, and it sounds like exposition; so he’s the narrator.  OK, I can buy that –- I think.

Then Gabriel disappears and other people get introduced to each other (although they all seem to be regulars at this event, so why would introductions be needed? but, hey, it’s exposition), and then Gabriel reappears with his wife Gretta.  Ah, the little voice says, now we’re back on track; Gabriel and Gretta are what the story is all about.

But, wait: now they’re making a big deal about Mary Jane, the Morkan sisters’ niece, and her music pupils. I practically cut Mary Jane out of the script, except for mentioning the fact that she lives with the two sisters, but saying next to nothing about how she got there; and for sure saying nothing about her music pupils.  But, hey, this is a musical (or a play with music, if you prefer), so how else are you going to get a group of very (I mean, very) talented musicians on stage to play for what, it turns out, are a whole lot of great songs?   So I guess I can live with Mary Jane.

But then Mrs. Malins, the mother of the notorious Freddie Malins (and we all know about him, don’t we?), wonders where he is (a lot of this kind of wondering goes on at first, but, hey, it’s exposition), and she says, “I hope he isn’t ______.”  Now, I’m not going to repeat the word here; in fact, it’s the one word that I took out because I thought it might be, well, objectionable, but Mrs. Malins (who seems to be a perfectly proper, nice old lady, although she talks ‘way too much when given the chance, especially about Scotland and fishing) says it, anyway.  And I’m thinking, if it’s coming out of the mouth of the impeccably respectable Mrs. Malins, and if it’s her son she’s talking about, how bad a word can it be?  It was probably a regional expression or something in Joyce’s day, so the Mokran’s company would have no reason to be scandalized, but I’m here to tell you, in modern-day America we use this particular word very differently.  As I said, I’m not going to repeat it here, but if you come to the show, you can find out what it is.

But these are only the first of many skirmishes between my text and the play’s.  And remember, my text is actually Joyce’s (just not all of it), so really, when you think about it, I’m on the side of literary authenticity, truth, justice, and the Irish way –- right?  I have a right to be defensive about any liberties taken with the text –- right?  But I can’t help wondering if I shouldn’t have left in Mrs. Malins’ zinger, along with a lot of other things that I excised.  Messrs. Davey and Nelson took liberties; they definitely did.  This is more a reimagination of Joyce’ tale than a literal rendering.  But they also did a lot of very effective things, so I’m, as they say, torn.

To be honest, when I first read Joyce’s short story, I wondered, because the story is so interior –- in Gabriel’s mind and imagination, really, especially toward the end — how can it be translated into performance terms?  Well, it has been, and, having seen how it was done, I’m impressed, but I’m still wondering about it all.

To be positive, there are some great things here: the music, to begin with.  Davey’s melodies are mostly of the traditional-sounding Irish kind, although a few of the later ones are downright operatic, to my ears (and, yes, I do go to the opera).  And the musicians are first-rate, as are many of the singers.

And the plot is actually somewhat more complex than Joyce’s.  Not to spoil it, but the story is largely about Gabriel and Gretta, their relationship, Gretta’s remembrance of lost loves (actually, one particular love).  In Joyce’s version, we don’t get all that until the last third of the story, after the guests begin to depart the Christmas celebration; Gretta lingers to listen to Mr. D’Arcy, the professional singer who has been holding off singing all evening, despite repeated entreaties, owing to his cold-ravaged voice.  As he finally relents, and holds forth mellifluously, Gretta is enthralled, but for a reason that we don’t find out about until the very end.

That’s Joyce’s version.  In the play (musical), this epiphany of Gretta’s is prefigured with a song that she herself sings, much earlier on, as her husband of many years listens to lyrics that he has never heard, sung in a voice that he has never heard before, coming from his wife.  This bit of foreshadowing is nicely done –- quick and effective, giving you an idea early on that this marriage has more to it than meets the eye, and Gabriel hasn’t yet figured out what that is.

But, as I said, I’m still not sure.  Like when Molly Ivors challenges Gabriel about the pieces of literary criticism that we writes for “that rag,” and calls him a “West Briton,” and he takes umbrage.  But I cut that “West Briton” line out!  Would you know a West Briton if you stepped on one, or vice versa?  I wouldn’t.  But maybe it’s reasonable to expect theatre audiences (which tend to include some pretty savvy people) to know what West Britons are like, or at least convince themselves they do.  Methinks, perhaps, I do protest too much –- possibly.

But, as the show ended and the bows were taken and everyone made their way backstage (and, by the way, this is, hands down, the biggest cast that Quotidian has even put on The Writer’s Center stage, and I can only imagine how all of them are going to navigate the claustrophobic circular staircase backstage every night and make it back to their dressing rooms in under half an hour), I have realized that there are so many differences between my text (and Joyce’s, remember) and the play that I am significantly apprehensive that the story I will be reading on Saturday the 24th and the one that are presented on stage between November 16 and December 16 are so significantly different that my listeners could end up convinced that Joyce was living in a parallel universe.  Just maybe?  So I put it up to the organizers of the event.  The answer: not to worry.  Joyce’s tale can hold up to being told from two different perspectives.  And, you know, it probably can.  I mean, the man knew what he was doing; he definitely knew his business.

So here’s where you come in.  If you’re free the afternoon of Saturday, November 24th, come hear the story as James Joyce and I see it.  Then (or before) see the play.  By all means, enjoy the music; steep yourself in it.  Admire the dancing –- amazing energy, complex patterns, actors spinning and circling in a space that seems far too small for it.  And think about how the story is told, in two very different ways, but still the same story — sweet, sad, poignant, powerful.  You’ve got to love that.

I’m going to see it a couple of times, if only to give myself a couple of extra chances to come to terms with the different approaches, and also to figure out some genuine head-scratchers, like whether Aunt Julia really… well, we won’t say what she did, or possibly didn’t do, because it really is ambiguous, so I could use a second opinion here.  Yours, for instance.  Come once, then come again.  I’ll see you there.

~Steve LaRocque

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Quotidian Theatre Company’s production of James Joyce’s The Dead runs Nov 16 – Dec 16. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with one added 2pm performance on Saturday, Dec 15. All performances are held at The Writer’s Center: 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815. There is ample parking across the street (free on weekends), and the theatre is just five blocks from the Bethesda Metro Station on the red line. Tickets are $30, or $25 for students or seniors, paid for at the door by cash or check, please. Call 301.816.1023 or email quotidiantheatre@comcast.net to reserve.

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About Quotidian Theatre Company

Quotidian Theatre Company has been producing honest, moving, realistic, intimate theatre for over 15 years; finding truth and beauty in the everyday. Bethesda, MD near Washington, DC.
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2 Responses to James Joyce and Me Against the World | Quotidian Theatre Company

  1. Pingback: New York daily life and theatre | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Stephanie Mumford says:

    Extremely entertaining write-up, Steve, as we know your reading will be tomorrow!

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