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August 20, 1958, Vol. III, No. 43
The Lively Arts
By Gilbert Seldes
No one, I hope would accuse me of using this column for personal gain. But I think it only fair to acknowledge the fact that I own stock — one share — in the production of “Ulysses in Nighttown.” Before it opened I figured that if it ran a long time I’d be getting between five and seven-fifty a week — not in hundreds, in units. It is a success and I flourish accordingly.
But as a professional critic I couldn’t be swayed by self-interest. Indeed I believe that professional theatrical angels are among the most skeptical of patrons. I know I went to a preview of “Ulysses” at the Rooftop Theatre prepared not only to worry about its chanced, but to tell Burgess Meredith exactly what to do in order to fend off disaster.
And I found “Ulysses in Nighttown” to be the most imaginative and absorbing production I’d seen in years.
The sensational success of Zero Mostel as Bloom has been hailed by the critics — and they have all noted the difficulty of the part. My added comment is about the difficulty: Leopold Bloom is one of the universals of literature, which means that every man (and I suspect every woman) knows what Bloom looks and walks and talks like. I thought I knew. Bloom was something like myself plus something else. I knew how tall he was and how much he weighed.
And the moment Mostel appeared all my preconceptions vanished. This is Bloom — and Heaven help whoever plays it in the second company which, it is rumored, is forming (unless maybe Bert Lahr). The utterly complete embodiment of Bloom into Mostel is a totally different thing from Mostel throwing himself into the part of Bloom — and it is a rarer phenomenon in the theatre. It is magnificent!
An parallel to it is the act of imagination by which so much of the multivarious surface of “Ulysses” is rendered and combined with the essence. I have recently read the review I wrote of the book when it appeared — one of the few things I wrote at that time by which I cheerfully stand. I do not want to disavow anything I said then, but I know that I (in good company) missed one of the central points. We critics were all bemused by what we heard of the correspondence of the book to the Odyssey and failed to see that Joyce was writing an anti-Odyssey. It was not only that Molly-Penelope was an adulteress — it was that Bloom-Ulysses was doing his best not to get home. The whole structure of the book rests on Bloom’s double intent — to stay away from home and to avoid meeting Blazes Boylan, his wife’s present lover.
And by a miracle, this is rendered in the production. Boylan appears a couple of times, does a song-and-dance, and is referred to once or twice. But he haunts Bloom and he haunts us.
The first act of “Ulysses in Nighttown” is wildly comic, the second sombre. The only fault of the production is the misguided effort to “correct” Joyce. The long-famous catamenial soliloquy of Molly Bloom was placed by Joyce at the end. When I asked Joyce the purpose of the long Question-and-Answer section before, he told me it was intended to clear everything else out of the way so that Molly could, as he said, “revolve on her own axis.” It was the ultimate necessary ending to the book — and the producers have inserted a bit of it near the opening of Act II. The wrong bit — the final few minutes. If they had made the soliloquy the framework of the whole play or used a less ecstatic portion in one place and kept Joyce’s ending exactly where his superior artistic conscience told him it ought to go, the production would have been perfect.
The second time I saw “Ulysses” was on the anniversary of Bloomsday, which is June 16. It happens that the first time this anniversary was marked, there were only three celebrants, James and Nora Joyce and myself. In 1923 I was in Paris and discovered that Igor Stravinsky was going to conduct at the Russian Ballet and that Picasso would also be in the audience. It occurred to me that if the greatest composer and the greatest painter of our time were going to be in one room, the greatest writer of our time should also be there.
I had met Joyce and took a chance. I called on him and asked if he’d like to go to the ballet on the 16th. He smiled and called out to his wife: “Nora, Mr. Seldays would like us to come to the ballet on the 16th.” What imp of the perverse made her answer as she did, I’ll never know, but it was perfect. “Why on that particular day?” she asked, and Joyce replied in an icy fury: “Because that is the day upon which that book is supposed to take place.”
In any case, they came. I did nothing about it. After the performance I saw Joyce surrounded by friends, including Jane Heep and Margaret Anderson, who had nearly gone to jail for publishing “Ulysses” in The Little Review. It pleased me to have had a hand in an agreeable event.
(I have no program of “Ulysses in Nighttown” with me and am afraid I will get names wrong if I try to work from memory. The man who plays Boylan, the woman who plays Bella, and above all the choreographer who arranged the intricate and revealing movements on the stage deserve all praise, and if Jerry Tallmer doesn’t mind my disagreeing with him about the show, he can add the names here.) [Boylan is played by Swen Swenson, Bella is now played by Susan Steell, the choreographer was Valerie Bettis — J.T.] One name I know from of old: Padraic Colum who lovingly and understandingly put together the pieces from the book for the theatre. He and his brilliant wife, who died last year, have written a book about Joyce which is soon to appear. It is something to look forward to.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 14, 2008