150+ essays on literary topics
I prepared for my holiday in Dublin a few weeks ago by re-reading James Joyce’s Dubliners. I had read it first when I was only about seventeen and remember being less engaged by it than I thought I should be. It was just the same this time, except that now I realised that it was not me who was disengaged but Joyce. He knows all about his characters, more than they know themselves, but keeps his distance. The young James Joyce knows that he is too good for Dublin. Paris is the place for him. Which writer who knows his worth wants to stay any longer than he has to in the place he grew up in? Joyce’s purpose in writing Dubliners was to show that he knew everything there was to know about Dublin and the types who lived there and it was time he was off.
The studied detachment of these short stories was, perhaps, modelled on Maupassant. But Joyce, imitating the manner, misses the man. Maupassant’s detachment is the opposite of Joyce’s, an acknowledgment of ignorance rather than knowledge. The Maupassant style of narration is to tell part of a story, just the facts as he knows them, not to claim greater knowledge than anyone else might have. As a narrator, he is anything but omniscient. It is a rather old-fashioned way of telling a story, rather like Chaucer’s in The Canterbury Tales.
Dubliners is not the best of Joyce, but it gives us a clue as to the kind of writer he wants to be when he gets to Paris. Its publication was overtaken by Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, whose subject is much closer to Joyce’s heart.
I was in Dublin for four days, one of them Bloom’s Day, but that turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. The central event was four hours of readings from Ulysses, held in the open air and compered by a well-known drag artist. I stayed for an hour, then left, baffled by what the point of it all was. But then the same is true of Ulysses. What is the point of it all? What was Joyce trying to do, other than to give free rein to his genius?
Dublin was also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.B.Yeats, glad perhaps that it doesn’t have to do it every year. One of its theatres was staging a rare performance of three of Yeats’s short plays. The performance at the New Theatre, Temple Bar, included The Pot of Broth, The Cat and the Moon and Purgatory and lasted less than an hour. The Cat and the Moon, though written in English, had been (unhelpfully for me) translated into the Irish language. I missed the jokes but was no less impressed by the performance, which, as in the other plays, was passionate and powerful. What was striking about all three was how much they owed, not to other Irish or even British writers, but to one from Bengal and another from Belgium.
Yeats’s admiration for Rabindranath Tagore is well known. Tagore’s Nobel Prize and knighthood both owed much to Yeats, though it was Tagore’s decision to give up the knighthood after the massacre at Amritsar in 1919. Less was heard of Tagore in Britain after that. His plays, like those of the Belgian, Maurice Maeterlinck, are performed as rarely as Yeats’s. Better known, though not necessarily any better understood, are the plays of another Dubliner who preferred Paris, Samuel Beckett.
Between them, these four present an enduring challenge to contemporary theatre, which continues to work largely within the conventions of realism. Their medium is not dramatic action, but words. All of them, at one time or another, find even words inadequate for what they want to say. Tagore’s later plays are in effect ballets. Some of Beckett’s are mimes. The New Theatre should follow up its Yeats evening with an evening of plays by Yeats, Beckett, Maeterlinck and Tagore. Two hours with an interval would do it.
At the Abbey Theatre, I saw a production of Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman. It was the first production I had seen for a long time in which the playwright did not suffer at the hands of the director and the designer. Perhaps Ireland has the advantage of not having enough money to spend on things like that. It was Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman exactly (or so I imagine and have no reason to doubt) as it was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1923. What struck me here was its similarity to The Government Inspector. Mistaken identity is the device on which both plots hinge, comedy and tragedy in both come uncomfortably close, both invite the audience to identify with ordinary people whose experience reflects conflicts and divisions in the world they inhabit.
“What are you laughing at?” Khlestakov asks, confronting the audience in the closing moments of Gogol’s play. “You’re laughing at yourselves!”
The line is a real coup de théatre, funny and shocking, jolting the audience out of its complacency. That is what O’Casey was aiming at too and what, perhaps, comedy does best. Lulled into a false sense of security, the audience is made to realise that it has been looking the wrong way.
My next post on 19 August will be about ‘Yesterday Will Make You Cry’ by Chester Himes.