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Winds of Change: Bloomsday, Immigration, and "Aeolus" in Street Theater

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 47-67 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0046

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Those who attended the 2004 International James Joyce Symposium or who happened to be in Dublin for Bloomsday that year might have seen The Parable of the Plums, an hour-long street performance of the "Aeolus" episode of Ulysses, held in front of the General Post Office on O'Connell Street. Featuring eight-foot-tall puppets, live music, and Asian, West African, and Irish dancers, it was the largest Bloomsday observance ever with 170 performers and several thousand people in the audience. It was also a highly anticipated event in the five-month long ReJoyce Festival, occupying the prime-time slot of eight o'clock on the evening of 16 June. But many who saw the performance first-hand, particularly those who know Joyce's work well, left feeling perplexed. Sean Latham, for one, described it as "perhaps the most surreal experience of the week's festivities."1 After all, what do Asian and West African dancers have to do with Stephen's story of two plum-spitting women or Bloom's attempt to sell a newspaper advertisement?2 And what to make of the almost complete absence of spoken text in favor of music and dance? To say the least, The Parable of the Plums did not resemble what one might expect as a stage adaptation of "Aeolus." Nonetheless, it captured the spirit of Ulysses in a profoundly important way. Through a nonverbal parable of music and dance, it told the story of a changing Dublin in the midst of an economic transformation and populated by large numbers of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers,3 a story as urgent today, perhaps more so, as it was in 2004.

Scholars and artists have generally paid little attention to Bloomsday street performances, perhaps because many regard them as kitsch—at best, as a fun and innocuous way of celebrating Joyce's fiction, and, at worst, an incarnation of the staged Irishman supported by Fáilte Ireland and put on display for American tourists. But street theater, not having to operate under the spatial constraints of traditional theater, is often freer to be artistically innovative and rhetorically powerful. In arguing for the importance of The Parable of the Plums for both Joyce studies and Irish performance art more broadly, I will, first, describe a brief history of Bloomsday spectacles in Dublin and, second, discuss the growing prevalence of Irish racism in the context of recent trends in economics and immigration. Establishing the primary contexts in which this performance occurred—the history of Bloomsday observances, on the one hand, and current debates regarding immigration and racism, on the other—is vital to making a case for its importance overall. Finally, I will return to a detailed description of the performance itself in light of these artistic and societal contexts.

I. Bloomsday: Dublin's "Equivalent of the Mardi Gras"4

Senator David Norris, who in the last twenty years has become something of Bloomsday's public face, might overstate the case by equating Bloomsday with Mardi Gras, for, as anyone who has been to both will attest, the differences abound. But Bloomsday and Mardi Gras do have several things in common, probably the most significant of which is that both are large, public festivals featuring music, theater, and dance in the streets. In fact, performance has been a central component of Bloomsday since it was first celebrated in Dublin in 1954.5 In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the events of Ulysses, the first Dublin Bloomsday was organized by John Ryan, editor of the literary periodical Envoy, and Brian O'Nolan, better known today as Flann O'Brien, author of At Swim-Two-Birds,6 though better known in 1954 as Myles na gCopaleen, author of the Irish Times column "Cruiskeen Lawn." Ryan recruited six participants, each of whom performed specific characters from the novel: A. J. Leventhal, who was Jewish and the Registrar of Trinity College, played Leopold Bloom; Anthony Cronin, then a young poet, was Stephen Dedalus; Patrick Kavanagh, because he was also a poet, appeared as the novel's third-person narrator; O'Nolan acted as both Simon Dedalus and Martin Cunningham; Ryan, because he was an editor, represented Myles...



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