Fans of James Joyce celebrated “Bloomsday” around the world this past week on Thursday, June 16th and New York was no exception.
Bloomsday is named for Leopold Bloom, the chief protagonist in Joyce’s groundbreaking groundbreaking novel Ulysses, to whom a lot happens over the course of one day – June 16th 1904. It’s believed that Joyce chose this day for his epic work because it marked his first date with Nora Barnacle, the Galway woman who became his life-companion and lively muse. Nora would serve as a model for his female characters, including Molly Bloom whose soliloquy is the eighteenth and final “episode” of Ulysses.
The day began early (7:30 a.m.), as it does for Bloom, with Origin Theatre’s annual Bloomsday Breakfast, at the appropriately-named Bloom’s Tavern on East 58th Street.
Sausage, eggs, and black pudding were served – but thankfully no kidneys, Bloom’s preferred breakfast. (Kidneys were in [Bloom’s] mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray, Joyce writes in the first episode of Ulysses.)
There were prizes for best Edwardian costume and many of the females in attendance turned out in period costume and bonnets while the men wore straw boater hats and waistcoats, adding to the atmosphere. The space was at full capacity, with the readings taking place upstairs being simultaneously transmitted to the bar downstairs, and to a wider audience over the web.
This was the 3rd annual Bloomsday Breakfast put together by George Heslin the founding director of the Origin, the theatre company that has brought the work of over 100 young Irish playwrights to New York audiences over the past seven years.
As expected, the performances were outstanding.
Jim Norton, currently on Broadway in The Crucible, recorded the audiobook of Ulysses back in 1994 and his familiarity with the work was evident, particularly in his interpretation of Reverend Conmee, who in real life was the rector of Clongowes Wood College when Joyce was a student there. Alfie McCourt, with a nod towards the 1916 centenary commemoration, noted that one of the Rising’s leaders, Patrick Pearse, had been Joyce’s Irish teacher at Clongowes. And Malachy McCourt sang “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” the song that the novel’s Molly Bloom is sing on her upcoming tour arranged by Blazes Boylan.
The eminent portrayer of James Joyce’s female characters, Fionnula Flanagan, read from chapter 18, the first of Molly’s internal monologues where she recalls Bloom back in their courting days, and meditates on her various other admirers, and her lover Blazes Boylan.
Flanagan is always a treat to watch. She played Gerty MacDowell in the 1967 film of Ulysses, and went on to play Molly Bloom in the 1973 Broadway production of Ulysses in Nighttown, and again in “James Joyce’s Women,” her one woman show which she also adapted for the screen.
Photos from the Origin Theatre’s Bloomsday Breakfast
For over the past 25 years, or so, Flanagan, who is currently working on a project for the BBC, has also performed Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Bloomsday.
The Symphony Space performance, directed by Jim Culleton, began at 7 p.m. with a welcome by Malachy McCourt, and musical direction by soprano Lisa Flanagan (niece of Fionnula). Many of the actors who had earlier taken part in the Bloomsday Breakfast at Bloom’s where on hand to bring Joyce’s characters to life, including Malachy McCourt as Buck Mulligan and Alphie McCourt as Bloom.
As was the tradition, the last performer, going on near midnight, was Flanagan. Relaxing back on a chaise lounge the legendary actress gave the tour-de-force presentation of Molly’s soliloquy that the audience had waited to see. Over the next 80 minutes or so we would see Molly emerge as a thoroughly real person. Flanagan’s masterful interpretation gave her real flesh and bones and made one think of Nora Barnacle, the woman who inspired the words and who, when asked if she was Molly, famously quipped: “No. She was fatter than me.”
Backstage Photos from Symphony Space
Various other events commemorating Bloomsday also took place in New York City and boroughs. The 13th annual Bloomsday celebration at Ulysses Bar, on Stone Street in the Wall Street district, was put together by writer Colum McCann, and included several writers and musicians. This celebration kicked off at 11 a.m. and continued throughout the day. While, in Brooklyn, borough President Marty Markowitz proclaimed Leopold Bloom an honorary Brooklynite, and a literary pub crawl took place on Saturday, June 18th, where selections from Ulysses will be read aloud at bars throughout the borough on Saturday June 18th. ♦