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A Bloomsday reading of Gerty MacDowell by Maria D’Arcy

This sequence starts at the Shakespeare & Company festival organised by Sylvia Whitman and introduced by John A. Kirby, an ex-radio presenter, June 16th 2005. For a once-upon-a-time effect David Henry, the talented Paris photographer, mixed it with a more intimate performance at home, shot by the surrealist artist Mick Cusimano. Many thanks also to Jean Richard for his live recording. Alas, I’ve discovered the obstacles in obtaining a flawless performance—sometimes there are technical difficulties, other times it’s me who stumbles over a phrase. All the same there are versions out there better than this one—so if you have a good recording of one of my shows please get in contact. People are forever recording and photographing. In the meantime I continue my pursuit of perfection—a mission and a pleasure for all and anyone!

It was June 16th 1992 that I, personally, discovered the Bloomsday celebration in Dublin (Ireland), the annual date when literary lovers dress up in the garb redolent of the James Joyce era, that is early 1900s. At dawn, the faithful go by horsedrawn carriage out to Sandycove, where in the Martello Tower mentioned in the book, they eat grilled mutton kidneys and other such peculiarities described in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. This is downed with readings from the adulated book, and the pilgrimmage continues on to other esteemed places mentioned in the text—mostly watering-holes or what could now be interpreted as a pub crawl!

Me, I met up with the procession in The Ormond Hotel, situated by the River Liffey, at 4 pm, which symbolically is when many of the characters cross trails in chapter 11. But this I did not yet know, because shame on me, this first time, I had not yet read the book! However, after a feast of extracts read or performed by talented actors and scholars, I was fascinated, and between drinks at the bar I ran out to the nearby Winding Stair bookshop and bought the book. I was no longer a fraud.

It was the beginning of the summer and I spent many long afternoons on Dollymount Strand, near my home in Clontarf ploughing through the book. I say ploughing because the first three chapters are interlaced with Greek and Latin references, then in Chapter Four, happily, daily life dawns when we meet Mr Bloom. Most readers of “Ulysses” either study under a professor at university or buy themselves a literary guide to grasp the nuances and genius of the acclaimed author of the century. Then I started to notice plaques around the fair city, mostly embedded into the pavement, with quotations from the book—like a treasure trove. All very motivating.

While reading on, it was chapter 13 that captivated me. I found myself in there, in the form of Gerty Mac Dowell—a young woman carried away with romantic notions and rather fixated on her outwardly appearance. I’m sure those who know me from Dublin or Paris, where I now live, would testify that I like to dress up or, as the French phrase it, that I’m “coquettish”. What also appealed to me was this paradox about sexuality in holy Catholic Ireland, that one imagined eroticism happening but didn’t actually sin. (They tell me that while the Celtic Tiger ravished the economy Dubliners started liberating themselves sexually—but that began around 1998, a year after I moved to Paris).

What magnificent dreamy, creamy prose but when I attempted to memorise it the complexities sunk in. Who was actually saying which sentence, for Joyce jumps from the consciousness of one character into another’s, or it could be the voice of a philosophical observer or even that of old-wive’s-tales. How could I do justice to the wit of the master? When I first started performing the extract I relied on entertaining, mostly thanks to the implicit orgasm line. It helped to watch the film “When Harry Met Sally” the night before… Yet each year I recorded the text to analyse the subtleties more and more, and with or without due modesty I feel I have reached the mark. That’s 10 years now I’ve been performing the extract, mostly at the Shakespeare & Company bookshop on the left bank of Paris, facing Notre-Dame. What a joy it is to embody and relive this magic moment.

My interpreting Molly Bloom was the request of literature-loving George Whitman, the owner of Shakespeare & Company, before his radiant daughter Sylvia took over. To note Sylvia is named after Sylvia Beech the founder of Shakespeare and Company, and the one who risked publishing the book in 1922 when all others were wary of it. Well, the Molly chapter represented a totally different challenge since it is written as one long, rolling, strolling, winding sentence. No punctuation at all. This time prudery is thrown to the wind and carnal sexuality is explicit. Yet, the outcome of the chapter and indeed the book suggests the dissolving of barriers between the Bloom couple and terminates in the most sumptuous “Yes” of all times. Up to now I’ve only performed the final page of Molly Bloom with its irresistible flavour of nostalgia and sensuality. What more do we need than to leave everyone on a high…

Maria D’Arcy and the Oscar Wilde gems. (to come)

Maria performing “Tam O’Shanter” by Robert Burns. (to come)

One Woman Show at Irish Cultural Centre, Paris (to come).

—Maria D’Arcy

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All images, video and text are © 2017, Maria D’Arcy, all rights reserved. Written permission is required for any use.