100th anniversary of Bloomsday


By Erica Stein

Discovering fellow Ulysses fans, sort of

Reading “Ulysses” was a lot like being in a relationship. I occasionally despised it, I couldn’t ever stop talking about it, it made me laugh, and I may have loved it.

Having just spent last semester at college living with the book, I was delighted to discover “Bloomsday on Broadway,” the marathon reading of this James Joyce classic held each year at Symphony Space. It’s also broadcast on WBAI radio.

“Most of the audience hasn’t read the book. Some of the actors haven’t either,” said host and producer Issiah Sheffer, who founded the event 23 years ago.

The production is an institution, beloved by many downtowners. McSorley’s Old Ale House, the oldest bar in the city which is located in the East Village, donates free ale and sometimes even sends staff to participate in the readings.

“We know almost everyone involved in Bloomsday,” said bartender Steve Zwaryczuk. The bar is frequented by Bloomsday actors and participating NYU professors. This year, in particular, was an important one for Ulysses fans. It was the Bloomsday centennial. The date, June 16, 1904 is when Ulysses is set and its characters “Mr. Bloom” and “Stephen Dedalus” wandered around their native Dublin and their thoughts. The event was very big this year in Dublin where 50,000 people gathered.

At Symphony Space, at 95th and Broadway, there was a a bare stage with folding chairs occupied by actors, professors, critics and authors who read from selected portions of Ulysses. Most actors were dressed in street clothes, with the exception being Malachy McCourt performing as Bella Cohen, the brothel owner from the “Circe” section of Ulysses. He dressed in drag.

The novel is so difficult that I required the help of seven other books, 15 classmates and one professor to find it somewhat intelligible. I wondered what kind of people pay $18 to sit and have this book read to them.

The theater has 800 seats and always sells out, although the crowd ebbs and flows throughout the day. There were teenage boys in shorts, young executives on lunch break, neighborhood regulars and senior citizens. Some were tourists, including a couple from Miami who have attended for the past seven years. Bloomsday marathoners, from the Metro area, showed up at noon with backpacks and stayed past midnight, periodically moving to the rear to stretch.

I only came across three people who actually read “Ulysses.” The rest came because they thought it would be interesting or had always meant (but never quite got around to) reading the book, or because it was hot outside.

Given the crowd, I was surprised by the intensity of the program. There was more than an hour devoted to the contemporary critical reaction to Joyce. The afternoon readings concentrated on Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego. The sections dealing with Mr. Leopold Bloom – the middle class, advertising salesman protagonist who is the definition of mensch – tend to be written in more traditional prose. He’s a nicer guy than Stephen; it’s easier to identify with him and his story of everyday life. Stephen’s thoughts are crammed with the remnants of his Jesuit education – Aristotle and Aquinas.

But when Stephen Lang began to read Dedalus’s theory of “Hamlet,” the auditorium filled. Sheffer and his director, Caraid O’Brien, usually staged scenes with one person serving as narrator and each character’s speech and thoughts read by an actor. This method is used to make dense sections comprehensible. But here, Lang read every line himself.

His voice and gestures, alternating between hesitant and emphatic, expressed the divide between Dedalus’s thoughts and words – the internal doubts, backtracking and self-deprecation (“what the hell are you talking about?”). Lang’s speech captures the feel of a brilliant mind working at capacity and almost tripping over its ideas.

Whatever reason they had for coming, that is why everyone stayed. And why I’m glad I did. An author who could articulate such a theory and a book that could prove it are worth a relationship, whether two hours, one semester or 23 years.

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