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2003 Writerly Joyce: Who We Are


 at the State Library of Victoria and the Celtic Club 2003

Five accounts of what happened in Melbourne in 2003

1. From Philip Harvey, writer, seminar-convenor, and committee member.

2. Another viewpoint, Di Silber’s 

3. From Peter Kiernan (17 June 03), a long-time attender at Bloomsdays in Melbourne

4. From Deirdre Gillespie, director of Terry Dinger

5. From a committee member, Roz Hames, with bit parts and organisational duties

1. From Philip Harvey, writer, seminar-convenor, and committee member.

Bloomsday, the 16th of June, this year fell on the most awkward day for a literary festival, Monday. Nonetheless, fans of James Joyce turned up at the Celtic Club in larger numbers than ever to listen, to enjoy, and participate in the Day’s theme of Writerly Joyce.

This year’s seminar brought together three well-known Australian novelists. Michael Meehan talked about how Joyce had scared him off writing for years, because of the sheer size of his achievement. It was by going back to Joyce though, that Meehan discovered how style is as important in writing as what an author is actually saying.

Carmel Bird took a different tack, puzzling over the hidden meanings of her home state as used in Finnegans Wake: ‘Van Demon’s Land’ or ‘Tossmania’, for Joyce an archetype of Hell. Bird asked why it is that so many people laugh at the very mention of Tasmania. Answers may appear in her next novel, entitled Cape Grim.

Rodney Hall reminded the audience that Joyce is an influence, but Joyce himself had many influences. We were invited to read Joyce with the same pleasure that Joyce himself took in such writers as Rabelais, Vico, and James. Influence is all around us, if only we open the right book.

Bloomsdayers then retired for a hearty dinner, with plenty of the black stuff on tap. Entertainment was provided by a bawdy pastiche of the lowbrow Jerry Springer Show. Leopold Bloom, the main character of Ulysses, is a man with guilty secrets. Having these sprung on him by Springer is exquisite torture; hilarious for everyone else though. Several characters spilt the beans on Bloom (played by the perennial Jim Howard), leaving us in no doubt that he had feet of clay.

The main performance was reserved for the State Library of Victoria. Newly refurbished and in its opening week, the Library was the ideal place to be dwell upon the act of writing. Bloomsday in Melbourne bravely transmuted the most consciously overwritten episode in Ulysses – the riotous scenes in Holles Street Maternity Hospital – into comprehensible theatre. A mock processional through the Domed Reading Room was the foretaste of the strange antics and brilliant English to come.

Indeed, English became a character in itself, changing shape as the night went on. For in this episode Joyce parodies and revels in every style of written English since its origins in the Dark Ages. Lewis Fiander and Beverley Dunn, troupers extraordinaire, narrated the life of the language with aplomb. By contrast, a group of medical students got progressively drunk while a wailing woman delivered her thirteenth child behind a hospital screen – the only action of the chapter. If giving birth could possibly be called ‘the only action’.

The Bloomsdayers were enraptured, following every single line, every double- entendre, every triple reference. The heady mix of high learning and low behaviour is familiar to Joyce buffs, who come back for more each year. Bloomsday’s cult status in Melbourne is firmly entrenched. It even inspires punters to read the book. For others, each year’s gigs help widen awareness of the bewildering dexterity of Joyce’s written world.

Next year, the centenary of the setting of the novel, will draw many more into the orbit of this 20th century Irish comic classic. Once more we will imbibe the spirit of that marvellous European city, Dublin, just as James Joyce intended by writing the book.

2. Another viewpoint, Di Silber’s  

The Seminarians were rich and varied: Michael Meehan spoke first and was entertaining, academic, personal. Carmel Bird was her eccentric self, and spoke about trying to spot Tasmania in novels and lo and behold, there it was in Finnegans Wake. Rodney Hall opened up a really interesting issue relating to the prior influences on Joyce as well as to the influences of Joyce on our culture, and the tragedy of the abandonment of such texts by the ‘literary industry’ including academic. He also talked about why Ulysses was his personal favorite (rather than Portrait, which is obviously Michael’s), about the right of novelists to write eccentrically to meander, to delve, not to be driven by narrative or literary fashion, to go artistically where the material and the psyche demands. Made the punters think about several important personal and cultural issues.

Dinner was well-presented in an elegantly dressed room, scheduled to the max, portions were substantial and of good quality – enormously good value.

Bloomsday's theatrical Oxen was a triumph. Lewis and Beverley offered subtle, powerful counterpoint to each other and to the boyos, who were quite simply brilliant – articulate, outrageous (Jeff Keogh actually took down his trousers at the end, quite unscripted, and began to wipe his bottom on the script – it was a ‘masterstroke’), hilariously funny, intensely physical, never missing a beat. They’d got it entirely and did it proud. Beverley and Lewis actually laughed along with the audience at some points – they couldn’t help it. Mina and the Nurse did their bits in appropriately contrasting style.

The sperm balloons were minor works of the balloonmakers art. We had three on sticks for the boyos to ballet with and six helium jobs for the procession and for releasing to float to the ceiling when Buck Mulligan’s condom broke right on cue, etc. They were white, with the nozzle facing the way they swam, with tiny clusters of white mini balloons at the opposite end from which trailed a meter and a half long white balloon about 4cm in diameter. Couldn’t mistake them and they caused much merriment, and guffaws when they floated upwards and hit the ceiling. The Powerpoint worked brilliantly until quite near the finish where it didn’t matter that much –  the irony was that the two slides that the narrator fluffed were the ones that Danny and I worked on for hours – Dublin by night after rain took us hours to achieve, and the sigh of Alpha on the horns of Taurus was a work of Danny’s genius and was missed altogether. Greg and Elissa [musicians] did music and thunder with much style and power and humour. Bill brought down the house as Haines and got a round of applause on the spot. His Alexander J Dowie was beyond description – I thought he was going to have a seizure and the audience became convulsed with helpless laughter. Roz floated down one aisle, across the stage and up the other aisle as the Everlasting Virginal Bride in bridal headgear, a wedding dress, and trailing a white silk scarf, her bare feet and legs laced up in gold ribbon (sandals). Gillian Hardy, the director, gave more than anyone could reasonably have expected, artistically and in sheer hours and grit, against enormous difficulties, including the challenges of the venue.

(One of the sperm balloons lodged in a spot on the ceiling where the shadow of the tail trailed down over the Powerpoint screen like a giant equine phallus. Matt and I watched in horror as the shadow came to rest on the flies of Leopold Bloom as young man (Lamb section) making him appear to be very well-endowed indeed, then with even greater horror and finally helpless giggles as it appeared on the slide of Bridie Kelly pointing straight into her mouth. It was one of those unforgettable Bloomsday bloopers! One of the best.)

3. From Peter Kiernan (17 June 03), a long-time attender at Bloomsdays in Melbourne

What a day Leopold had in Melbourne! Packed houses, Guinness, Lots of crude language and vulgar talk, and luvly hot beef pies to go with the red. Then, to top it all, the magic of the La Trobe reading room, as its now named, and as for the dome and the vast space!

Di Silber read your greetings from the Kobe crew and it brought loud applause and some guffaws, particularly from our table. The Oxen of the Sun was really well done and all the highly testosteroned men behaved suitably obnoxiously. The stars however were the real pros, Fiander and Dunn. They were superb and really added the polished element.

4. From Deirdre Gillespie, director of Terry Dinger.

Overall, it was well received which could lead one to believe that there were not too many purists in the audience!  They would have been horrified at the cavalier fashion in which JJ’s words were bandied about.  The plebs, however, loved the mixture of old and new.  The script worked well, bouncing between the actual words of JJ to 2003-speak.  And Eugene and myself reciting The Hail Mary, while Mrs. Bellingham is whipping an estatic Virag, cracked the audience up.

The cast in general were very happy with the quality of the script and did it justice.  Petula, in my view, stole the show as she interpreted and presented her character to perfection. Gandharvo, Bonnie and Premda rose to the occasion magnificently.

5. From behind the scenes, an account by Roz Hames, with a bit part and organizational duties

There was never a dull moment this year. I am always completely flat for weeks afterwards and this year has been no exception, so if I’m spriteless in my reminiscences, it is not due to lack of enjoyment and satisfaction of the event.

My highlight of the day came early this year. I just love having my brain teased out by the likes of our seminarians. Michael Meehan wondered about the intimidating effects Joyce has on the could-have-been novelist,  and suggests that there is a danger in reading Joyce’s work way too seriously as he believes he did living his own life as a portrait of a young artist. One wonders what bit? He also read a passage from his new novel – the name escapes me – that bears more than a passing resemblance to Stephen’s bird girl epiphany. The moment ended with an Australianised exclamation to equal Stephen’s cry of ‘Heavenly God’. Meehan’s protagonist utters ‘Streuth’, which got a big laugh.

Carmel Bird flew the coop with a totally left-field talk about her obsession with collecting references to Tasmania in all the great works of literature, as though to affirm her place of birth as a existing, even as an exotic non-place. Joyce got a mention with Shem having the Tasmania. For the most part, though, Joyce was absent. Rodney Hall was stellar with a reverie upon the use and effect of mythical form in Joyce and beyond. He is most practised. He then talked about his thoughts on the experimental mode of writing, when it is used badly, and why Joyce used it well, in such as a way to gain muscle to write beyond realism. I ached for a bit of literary study afterwards.

Then the ball really started to roll for me with my behind-the-scenes list of tasks. First port of call was the rollers in the hair, foolishly placed before my costume. Bonnie Truex had to help me get my hideous costume over my massive head circumference, but we got there in the end. As you know, I was the Modern Guru, and I played her as a dowdy spinster in complete disguise. Once-upon-a-time I was thoroughly into acting and performed at the drop of a hat. I performed numerous theatrical monologues, and even did some television. I suppose I got a touch of the old skills back for a moment as the Guru, but generally in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘why am I doing this?’ I find acting fascinating to watch, but I feel immensely uncomfortable doing it, and much prefer to write and direct. I feel like I’m letting the team down. Anyway, I got through. Petula Clark was a wonder as Girl on the Hotline. Her mobile phone advertisement was hilarious, even though I couldn’t see it. She played it as a wind-up doll, like prime-time television people with too-shiny teeth. The others kind of heaved and lolled from Bloom’s seduction beyond the control of poor Terry Dinger, who got caught up in a plastic bag making his entrance. Premda worked wonders with the crowd, running backwards and forwards with dummy cards signalling ‘Boo’, ‘Terry, Terry, Terry’ and ‘Sharp intake of breath’ (the audience loved that one).

I had enough time to gorge down a piece of cheesecake before the race was one to get the balloons to the Library. You have to imagine these balloons: a large, central piece the size of a large cantaloupe surrounded by a cluster of smaller balloons forming the base from which a 120cm tail swung. Hank and I then charged up Queen Street with these things, tails flying in all directions, to find the car park locked up for the night. Complete disaster! The roller door was just closing from a departing car, so we ducked underneath it, commando style, tails making it just in time. I ordered Hank to find a way out while I got the car, which was full of costumes and props, including the crucial bodhran drum needed to lead the procession. All I knew was that we would get out, even if I had to smash through the roller door. But I didn’t need to be a vandal because Hank had found someone, a permanent car park lessee, to kindly swipe their security card and let us out.

I’ll have to wrap it up as it is getting late, but from carpark follies it was madness to the end. We raced to the Library, and the next thing I knew I was dressed as an Irish lass in a cloak and an Oxen mask, beating the drum beautifully so that it echoed around the dome, leading the procession whilst sweating like an ox and peering through a tiny nostril hole and listening to Deirdre’s stage-whisper to me, ‘Watch out for the chair’. I had to interrupt my drumming momentarily to remove the damned mask as I couldn’t see, breathe or think. The Oxen script went off stunningly. I fell in love with each and every boyo as their antics became more eccentric with each rehearsal to reach a kind of behavioural meltdown on the night. The narrators, our nurse and Mina, the baby with racing glasses, and the musicians and tech crew made the script mystical, not unlike Ithaca. Gillian [the director] stood behind me, and from her laughing, I take it she was happy with the final performance. Everyone would have been delighted with how their bits came to life from the page. I felt that the sperm ballet and ensuing dialogue reached my goal of absurdly playing out the pain and release of birth and the peak of language evolution, that I had so intended but found it difficult to articulate when the time came. My bit as the everlasting virginal bride was blipped, once again, because I couldn’t see through the spotlight-lit veil. Bill was brilliant and generous in his character spots. There is so much more.

2003 Writerly Joyce: Get Involved

Trupetters from Methodist Ladies College herald a birth

2003 Writerly Joyce: Welcome

Beverly Dunne and Lewis Fiander as narrators of Oxen

2003 Writerly Joyce: Welcome
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