Bloomsday 2020 in Melbourne: Ulysses in Plaguetime
Updated: May 26
Welcome to Bloomsday Downunder in the year of Plague, 2020. Last year in mounting Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, we delighted in the exchange at the end of Act I where the war hero Henry Carr taunts Joyce with ‘What did you do in the Great War?’ and Joyce insolently replies, ‘I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?’
War was not the only global catastrophe that is part of the background and the rich texture of Ulysses: Joyce was in Zurich and Trieste during the worst of the Spanish Flu pandemic. It is a small footnote to history that Joyce biographers seem not to have noticed.
In his wartime asylum in Zurich in the second half of 1919, he witnessed two waves of cases of influenza, with some 83,211 deaths (16.5% of the 1910 population). An estimated 2m people succumbed to the disease, but reported cases of the disease were greatly under-reported (by an estimated 66%). Zurich was by far the worst afflicted part of Switzerland.
These were the years when Joyce was composing and sending publishable (first draft) copies of (the more elaborately worked and inventive) Aeolus, Lestrygonians, Scylla & Charybdis, Wandering Rocks, Sirens and Cyclops to Ezra Pound, and Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap were publishing them in the Little Review. He and his family were lucky to avoid the virus, but given the volume of work completed might have been practising social isolation without knowing it. He was well known to medics in Zurich, and that too may have afforded some protection.
Joyce and his family moved to Trieste briefly in November 1919 before decamping to Paris early in 1920. Both Trieste and Paris had also been hard hit in the second half of 1918 and the first half of 1919 by the virus. By the time he reached Paris, the virus was in retreat, and good first drafts of the remaining chapters were finalised between February/March 1920 and October 1921, starting with Nausicaa which prompted the most notorious pornography case in the history of literature. One could surely argue that surviving the virus was a major achievement in productive isolation.
To return to Bloomsday in Melbourne’s predicament in late February 2020: with a play cast and ready to start rehearsals (watch out for Love’s Bitter Mystery in 2021), we were disappointed to be confined to quarters and socially isolating. Far from assuming there would be no Bloomsday in Melbourne, we’re pleased that our 27-year tradition will undergo the most radical metempsychosis of its history, reincarnating itself not as a theatre event but as a film festival of Ulysses: 18 short films (created under Covid19 disciplines of social distancing), to be made available on Facebook according to Joyce’s timetable for the events of each chapter. If the second wave of Corona virus happens, and let us pray it does not, and assuming we are still self-isolating to some serious extent, please sit (in bed, in the jakes, in your kitchen cooking kidneys, in a deserted restaurant where the diners are at least 1.5 metres apart?) and enjoy this astonishing novel in a medium that is new to us, and a medium that lends itself to playful breaking of its conventions.
The aims of the project are simple: not to let a Bloomsday pass without engaging memorably with the novel (Bloomsday in Melbourne is proud to present strikingly new original plays on the novel annually); to produce a ‘slam’ version of it that does not compromise its variety, its cleverness, its playfulness, and its poetry, and comes in under 90 minutes; and to celebrate each chapter at its appointed hour. Bloomsday in Melbourne used to celebrate the novel from 8:00am until very late, but it’s hard to fit it in in different (appropriate) locales, and when municipal councils became fussy about horse-dung removal (yes, there’s a reading for that!), the streets ceded to comfortable theatres and seasons rather than the peripatetic extravaganza that could be rained upon (it hardly ever happened in mid-winter in Melbourne) but it had to be planned for.
We owe warm thanks to our scripters who turned on a sixpence and produced 18 ‘film scripts’ suitable for 2 actors at a time at an appropriate distance from one another and the camera operator, and to our redoubtable director, Jennifer Sarah Dean, whose bravery is legendary (her first job with Bloomsday was bringing Oxen of the Sun to the stage), and her enthusiastic home-bound actors who are currently locked out of their stages.
On 16 June 2020, films will be posted on FaceBook according to the following timetable (Joyce’s until we reach Nausicaa, when timetable will be * compressed and speeded up), and Bloomsday in Melbourne’s website will post a corresponding blog which will tell why those scripting chose the passages they did and provide useful context, and also what else in the chapter may be of interest.
In following Joyce's timetable, the order of the first six films is different from their order in the novel, and *after 18:00 pm, the timetable will be speeded up):
1. Telemachus: 08:00 Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST)
2. Calypso (4 in the novel): 08:30 AEST
3. Nestor: 10:00 AEST
4. Lotus Eaters (5 in the novel): 10:30 AEST
5. Proteus: 11:00 AEST
6. Hades (6 in the novel): 11:30 AES
7. Aeolus: 12:00 AEST
8. Lestrygonians: 13:00 AEST
9. Scylla and Charybdis: 14:00 AEST
10. Wandering Rocks: 15:00 AEST
11. Sirens: 16:00 AEST
12. Cyclops: 17:00 AEST
13. Nausicaa: 18:00 AEST (see* above)
14. Oxen of the Sun: 19:00 AEST
15. Circe: 20:00 AEST
16. Eumaeus: 21:00 AEST
17. Ithaca: 22:00 AEST
18. Penelope: 22:30 AEST