When Marcel Duchamp drew a goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, adding the mildly lascivious legend “L.H.O.O.Q.” (“She’s got a hot ass”), it was the vandal’s impulse that had gotten hold of him: a personal disavowal of the work’s power over the public imagination and, somewhat paradoxically, an acknowledgement of his inability to impress his will on it by other means.
The playwright Sheila Callaghan has not been so brash in approaching one of our greatest novels, an increasingly publicly possessed work in its own right, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Her new play Dead City, a “highly designed” production with intriguingly “non-realist moments” (e.g., a flying taxicab), does not confront the book. In fact, perhaps understandably, Callaghan has gone so far as to insist that it is not an adaptation but, as its press release says, “a riff.” To hear her tell it, her reasons for taking Ulysses as her model seem disarmingly casual and willfully innocent.
Callaghan first read the book in 1998 with a few friends, after they saw that it topped the Modern Library’s list of the best 20th-century novels written in English. She returned to it, creatively, as a way of “getting ownership of [her] reading.” The play, she says, is a “personal reaction.”
One theme she responded to was the death of a child: “I’m in my thirties, so mother stuff is on my mind a lot.” Throughout the day that Ulysses encompasses, Leopold Bloom tenderly mulls the loss of his son, who would have been nearly 11 but died 11 days after birth. Here it’s forty-something Samantha Blossom—mother of a sports-minded, Disney-loving Vassar girl to whom she can’t relate—conjuring up a romanticized punk-poet son who would have been 22, but also died as a newborn. Enter our Stephen Dedalus, a 22-year-old poet named Jewel Jupiter. She idolizes Patti Smith, has been canned from her tutoring gig, and recently had an abortion. (Per Joyce, the two characters cross paths throughout the play.) According to Callaghan, the gender flip wasn’t, in her words, a “feminist” revision (à la Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote); she simply thought it would be easier for her to write female characters.
A dead city is, of course, a cemetery, but the title (also the name of a bar in the play) comes from a Smith song in which she laments both the death of her husband (Fred Smith, guitarist for the MC5) and a culture of constrained expression, where “scenes are built on empty dreams”—which could describe the New York, circa 2004, in the play. It is a loss felt subtly by even Blossom, who tells Jewel about attending a legendary Smith concert at CBGB. Blossom is based on women Callaghan has met at temp jobs, whose youthful dreams, while not dead, have undergone rapid attrition as they’ve moved further into adulthood. Callaghan admits that “Samantha has very simple notions of what it means to be a poet,” but that does not invalidate her attempt to connect with the idea of a poet through Jewel.
Jewel is an easily identifiable type, a burr in a smoothed-over world, but her allegiance to Smith, a “revolutionary responding to cultural uproar” in the ’70s, is partly a result of that smoothing over. “I don’t know who that idol is now,” Callaghan says. She believes it’s a problem that includes gender bias, particularly in the theater world. The Voice, she wrote me, “just awarded an Emerging Playwright Obie to a woman who has been operating with some level of recognition in this field for 20 years, while another playwright (male) won with his first and only play, fresh out of school. If there are any female heroes, the tastemakers of our generation certainly aren’t looking for them.” But Callaghan remains optimistic: “I see this as an opportunity. We are ripe for some foundation-shaking in the arts. Hopefully it will be explosive, and come free of narcissism or savvy marketing. It will burn people’s eyebrows off! Like bad pyrotechnics at a hair-band concert.”