James Joyce Quarterly
In Bed with “Ulysses,” (review)
by Elizabeth Foley O’Connor Vol. 49.2, Winter 2012, (386-90)
Part performance video and part documentary, In Bed With “Ulysses” intersperses readings from James Joyce’s most famous novel with an in-depth exploration of both the author ’s life and the tumultuous history of the work’s composition, publication, and reception. Beginning with a young Irish woman’s admission in a Dublin pub that she’s “never heard of” Ulysses, the eighty-minute film travels from Dublin to Pula, Trieste, Paris, Philadelphia, and New York, interviewing Christopher Cerf, Michael Groden, Colum McCann, and Edna O’Brien among many others in order to uncover why so many people are still in love with Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece.1
Throughout this odyssey, the film stresses that the novel should not be dismissed as “difficult” and relegated to scholars but instead has a wide appeal. Helen Monaghan, the former director of the James Joyce Centre, gives voice to this sentiment, stating, “Ulysses can be read by anyone even though it’s a difficult book. It’s not the type of book you’d lie down and read in bed.” Kathleen Chalfant, who portrays Molly Bloom in the staged readings, disagrees, avowing that “read- ing Joyce in bed is the best place.” Regardless of the optimal location, In Bed With “Ulysses” exudes a deep appreciation of Joyce’s insight into the human condition, especially the myriad complexities of love. The film’s evident affection for the novel and effortless charm make it worth watching both for those new to the novel and those who can recite passages by heart.
Written, directed, edited, and produced by husband-and-wife team Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna, the film grew out of a 2003 Bloomsday reading directed by Adelson, a self-proclaimed “Ulysses zealot,” at the Center for Jewish History in New York City. Entitled “Bloom,” the staged reading—it is not a recreation—was performed without an intermission in three acts that spanned more than two hours. The excerpts used in the film focus almost exclusively on Bloom and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Molly. Stephen Dedalus is largely relegated to the sidelines. The novelist Colum McCann, however, does assert conciliatorily that “Stephen is harder to get closer to because he’s a dreamer. . . . It would be nice to have a good chat about philosophy and theology and ideas, but you wouldn’t necessarily want him to come home and fix your fridge.” Bloom, on the other hand, “is entirely real.” This focus on Bloom helps unify the film and allows Adelson, who narrates with an endearing earnestness, the opportunity to high- light parallels between Joyce’s relationship with Nora Barnacle and the marital upheavals of Bloom and Molly, whom Adelson terms “the most notorious couple in modern literature.” This decision, though, robs the audience of the benefit of the richness of Joyce’s tripartite structure and, especially for a work focused on Bloom, the important interactions between him and Stephen in “Circe,” “Eumaeus,” and even “Ithaca.” Although Adelson leaves out several other episodes, most notably “Nausicaa,” the performances do much to capture the flavor of Ulysses and bring it to life; this is especially key for those new to Joyce, since the film serves as an excellent introduction to the novel as well as to Joyce’s life and work for both students and other interested readers.
An important component of the success of this film is the general excellence of the acting. In addition to Chalfant’s Molly, the cast con- sists of six male actors: Allyn Burrows, Chris Ceraso, Rufus Collins, Jerry Matz, Paul McIsaac, and Robert Zuckerman, who play Bloom and assorted minor characters. Chalfant imbues Molly with humor, frankness, and an earthy sensuality that make her contradictory joy in recalling her mid-afternoon romp with Blazes Boylan and her love for her Poldy entirely believable. Chalfant gets to the heart of the character so fully that it is easy to forget that she is twenty-five years older than Joyce intended.2 Other standout performances include Ceraso’s nostalgic Bloom as he remembers his picnic with Molly on the Hill of Howth in “Lestrygonians,” McIsaac’s frantic Bloom after he spies Boylan at the National Library in “Scylla and Charybdis,” and Zuckerman’s impassioned Bloom when he is confronted by the Citizen in Barney Kiernan’s pub at the close of “Cyclops.”
Another of the many strengths of In Bed With “Ulysses” is that Adelson does not convert the text into more traditional stage dialogue but has the actors read directly from the novel. This decision helps underscore the beauty and power of Joyce’s language, and many of the individuals interviewed for the film point to a deep love for and appreciation of that language. As McCann sums up, Joyce “left millions of people this extraordinary gift.” While the driving current behind the film is to educate those unfamiliar with the giver and his novel in order better to appreciate its richness, the film also takes pains to humanize Joyce and show that he was not the larger- than-life figure depicted today. Chronically impecunious and given to drinking too much, Joyce was “very fearful and superstitious” and frequently took advantage of those who helped him personally and professionally. These include Sylvia Beach, who published Ulysses under the imprint of her Shakespeare and Company bookstore and later relinquished the American rights to the novel so Joyce could receive a substantial advance from Random House, and Harriet Shaw Weaver, who supported Joyce and his family financially for years even though she knew the funds were being spent as soon as, if not before, they were received. In addition to investigating Joyce’s personal and writing life in detail, the film also discusses the 1921 and 1933 obscenity trials.
Although the majority of the biographical material the film imparts is well known, those familiar with Joyce’s life and work will appreci- ate the location shots, the interviews, and, especially, the home-video footage of the Joyces. In Bed With “Ulysses” relies primarily upon archival images, interview footage, and present-day locations for visual elements, and the production quality can occasionally be a bit amateurish. Highlights include a sun-drenched early-morning visit to the Martello Tower in Sandycove, Dublin, and the Rosenbach
Library in Philadelphia. Joyce spent six nights in the Martello Tower with Oliver St. John Gogarty in 1904 and chose it as the setting for the opening of Ulysses. Standing on the tower ’s parapet and looking out at the Irish Sea, Robert Nicholson, the Curator of the Joyce Tower Museum, states that Joyce “got the exact feel of the open air and the sea stretching out and you realize that the novel could never have begun in any other place.” The film invests this visit with an almost religious solemnity, and Adelson, making one of his relatively rare on-camera appearances, comments: “What a place to feel the gift and wonder of literature.” This sense of reverence is also present in the film’s visit to the Rosenbach Museum, which houses a hand-written manuscript of the novel. The camera lovingly records the procession of the pages to the table that ends with Adelson’s admission that he’s “in awe” upon seeing the opening pages of “Calypso,” term- ing Joyce’s barely legible scrawl “beautiful” and stating that “you can almost see he loves what he was writing.” While such sentiment could easily stray into the ridiculous, the film, as a whole, maintains a healthy mix of admiration and critique.
Other notable interviews include O’Brien’s assertion that “Joyce’s tenderness towards women . . . [,] his identification with women and his way of knowing them is uncanny” and the extended conversa- tion with Raphael Siev, the now-deceased former Curator of the Irish Jewish Museum. Siev contends that the anniversary of Joyce’s first date with Nora was not the only reason Joyce chose to set the novel in 1904 and make his chief protagonist a Jew.3 In that same year, Father John Creagh, a Roman Catholic priest from Limerick, called for the removal of all Jewish residents from the city. Creagh’s campaign resulted in escalating violence against Jews both in Limerick and throughout Ireland before he was exiled to Australia in 1906.4
The most fascinating component of the film for experts, however, is the inclusion of rare home-movie footage of Joyce. Shot by Robert Kastor, the brother of Helen Joyce who was married to Joyce’s son Giorgio, the approximately minute-and-a-half of footage was in the holdings of both the libraries of Southern Illinois University and the Museum of Modern Art but believed to be lost. The first sequence was shot in Paris on the Boulevard Raspail and shows Joyce and Nora walking toward the camera, followed by a close-up of the two talking together. There is no audio. The second, shot in 1937 in the garden of the Villa Scheffer in Passy, depicts a five-year-old Stephen Joyce romping with his grandparents.5 The fascinating clips, which are believed to be the only movies of Joyce ever taken, are interspersed throughout the film, with the haunting 1937 footage of an aging Joyce and a stoic Nora serving as its closing image. A labor of love that stretched over nine years, In Bed With “Ulysses” premiered at the Brooklyn Film Festival in June 2012 where its run was extended by popular demand. The film does not currently have a distributor but has had more than twenty screenings around the country during the past year, including one at the 2013 James Joyce Conference in Charleston. For more information or to arrange a screening, visit the film’s website.
[IN BED WITH “ULYSSES,” produced and directed by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna. Jersey City, New Jersey: Rosner Educational Media, 2012. Premiered at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema, Brooklyn, New York, on 11 June 2012.]
Reviewed by Elizabeth Foley O’Connor
1 Michael Groden also serves as literary advisor for the film.
2 Kathleen Chalfant was born on 14 January 1945, making her 58 on 16 June 2003. Molly was born on 8 September 1870, making her 33 on 16 June 1904.
3 Richard Ellmann notes that Joyce may have decided to make Bloom Jewish after his random encounter with Alfred H. Hunter, a Jewish Dubliner who got him on his feet and home after a street fight fueled by a night of drinking (JJII 162).
4 Louis Hyman first brought the Father John Creagh connection to light in 1972, and, more recently, several scholars have delved into the Limerick anti-Jewish campaign in more detail—see Hyman, The Jews of Ireland: From the Earliest Times to the Year 1910 (Shannon: Irish Univ. Press, 1972); Dermot Keogh, Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust (Cork: Cork Univ. Press, 1998); and Cormac Ó Gráda, Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2006).
5 See Alan M. Cohn, “Joyce in the Movies,” JJQ, 4 (Summer 1965), 317-20.