Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Ulysses - Dermot Bolger Dramatises James Joyce

When Dermot Bolger was first approached to write a stage adaptation of 
Ulysses, James Joyce's epic free-form novel set on the streets of 
Dublin, the playwright and novelist's immediate reaction was one of 
“sheer palpable terror,” as he remembers it some eighteen years later. 
“The novel is 265,000 words long, so to adapt something like that for 
the stage is a huge thing to do. But I remember that I was initially 
terrified of writing plays and poems at all, so I try and do the things 
I'm terrified of.”

Bolger has had to wait until Andy Arnold's forthcoming production at 
the Tron to see a full staging of his terror-induced take on Joyce's 
modernist classic, which charts a life in the day of Leopold Bloom via 
an experimental stream of consciousness technique that both scandalised 
and revolutionised contemporary literature. Bolger's original 
commission from the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, where Joyce's 
original manuscript is stored, came at a time when the novel was 
presumed to be out of copyright, and subsequently free of any 
restrictions imposed by the keepers of the Joyce estate.

“It came about at a period of time when copyright law in Britain and 
Ireland were different,” Bolger remembers. “Then the European Union 
harmonised them, so Ulysses was briefly out of copyright, then it went 
back in. but plays are like greyhounds. They can lose momentum on the 
second bend, but then they have a way of coming back.”

Up until now, although originally mooted for a major production at the 
Abbey Theatre in Dublin, what was eventually published as A Dublin 
Bloom only ever received a performed reading at the University of 

“It was at 9 0'clock in the morning,” Bolger remembers. “I wanted an 
audience of two men and a dog, but could only find two men.”

Even so, Greg Doran's mini production only just about managed to avoid 
a skirmish with the Joyce estate.

“They're quite rigid,” Bolger says of the official keepers of the Joyce 
flame. “Between the Joyce estate and academics, a whole industry has 
grown up around Ulysses, which in many ways has put  his work out of a 
lot of people's reach. The Abbey were refused to do Joyce's play, 
Exile, for instance, and on Bloomsday,” he says of the annual 
celebration cum pub crawl of all things Ulysses, “it's said that they 
have people going about trying to impose restrictions on readings of 
the book, so it's important that the book's given back to the people.”

“The book seems terribly contemporary to me. I can hear the voices of 
my city in in. But this industry of academics have created so much 
mystique about it that they've taken it away from ordinary people, so 
the people who Ulysses is about are afraid of it. James Joyce used to 
joke that he was going to write a book that would keep scholars in 
work, and so it's proved. It's a difficult book, but it's a very human 
book, and the basic story at its heart is easy to get hold of.”

Even so, it was with “an enormous amount of trepidation” that Bolger 
took on Ulysses. “I knew I had to be respectful, and I also knew that 
no playwright could do justice to Joyce. It's a big, complicated novel 
which over eighteen episodes journeys into different styles, but 
they're incidental, and I knew there was no way I could do all eighteen 
episodes, because they're not all theatrical, so this version is a lot 

“By the standards of Eugene O'Neill, it's a haiku. As a novelist 
myself, I recognise how a novel can derange. It's this huge tree that 
can go off in different ways, whereas a play is very linear, and has to 
be like a time-bomb to keep the audience guessing and cut things back 
to the emotional heart. No woman ever existed in literature like Molly 
Bloom, and at the end it's just molly talking, but as a playwright I 
have to reimagine that. I think originally when writing it, it was like 
trying to write with one hand tied behind my back, having to keep one 
eye on the Joyce estate, but going back to it fifteen years later, I 
just want to get to the emotional heart of the story. On the end, 
whether the play is any good or not is down to me, not Joyce, but 
experts won't like it.

Now properly in the public domain, “Ulysses is almost like a lake you 
can swim in, and go as far out as you want to go. If you're a deep-sea 
diver you're going to go out further, and if you want to be an expert, 
you can go in twenty or thirty times and still find something 
different, but you don't have to do that. There's a humour and a pathos 
and a humanity there that anyone can recognise.”

The Tron production of Bolger's play, presented in association with the 
Project Arts Centre, Dublin, and The Everyman, Cork, came about after 
Arnold, a long time aficionado of Irish literature and drama, heard 
Bolger on a radio programme while visiting family in Ireland. Having 
already directed major works by Samuel Beckett, Tom Murphy, Sean 
O'Casey and other greats from the Irish pantheon over the last two 
decades, Arnold had long been on the look-out for someone to adapt 

“He thought I sounded interesting,” says Bolger, “then he went onto my 
website, and he saw that there was already an adaptation, and he got in 

Although Bolger's original work has rarely been seen in Scotland, 
Arnold was running the Arches in Glasgow when 7:84 Scotland presented a 
production of Bolger's 1989 debut play, The Lament for Arthur Cleary. 
With 7:84 then under the post-John McGrath directorship of Iain Reekie, 
Bolger recalls the company's 1992 production well.

“There was an awful lot of kissing, I seem to remember,” he says. “It 
was a very good production, but it had the most liberal interpretation 
of the stage directions. I remember sitting with a map with all the 
places they were touring to marked on it, and each day I'd look at 
where they were, while I was at home in front of the fire, which is 
where writers should be.”

Having written eleven novels, fourteen plays and eight volumes of 
poetry over the last thirty-odd years, the production of Ulysses 
arrives onstage at a time when Bolger has only recently returned to 
writing following the death of his wife, Bernie, in 2010. a new play, 
Tea Chests and Dreams, opened in Dublin in April. Bolger's latest 
project, The Fall of Ireland, is about “the catastrophe of the economic 
collapse of the last half decade, but it's also about a civil servant 
in China.”

With people on his Dublin doorstep affected by the recession in all too 
real ways, this too seems to relate to Ulysses in some way.

“The staged reading back then was really great,” he says, “but seeing a 
full production will be something else again. That's what happens. As a 
prematurely bald middle-aged writer, you find out that life's a bit 
like Halley's Comet, and that things tend to come around again.”

Ulysses, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 12th-27th, before touring to 
Belfast, Dublin and Cork.

The Herald, October 2nd 2012 


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