Doyle from Dublin to China
Composer Roger Doyle is currently visiting China as part of an Irish cultural delegation. Wonder what sounds will eventually emerge as a result of that excursion. In the meantime this seems an apposite moment to resurrect the guest post by Roger – especially given today’s date. The piece first appeared here on Saint Patrick’s Day two years ago. As this blog began around Saint Paddy’s three years ago, this also seems a fitting time for its end. The blog was a means of sharing some of my delight in living in France; that period of my life is now finished, so must be the blog. But for now let’s revisit a different past.
I can’t think of a better way to mark St Patrick’s Day than by reproducing (with permission) the following piece by my cousin, award-winning Irish electro-acoustic composer, Roger Doyle. Inspired by the breadth of Ulysses, Roger Doyle worked for nine years on ‘Babel’, a celebration of musical language in all its diversity. This magnum opus was released on a 5-CD set in 1999. Since which time, Roger has not ceased to explore and revel in the varieties and possibilities of sound. And his achievement has been marked by awards and prizes, including the Prix Magisterium de Bourges. Now for his own thoughts :
I read James Joyce’s Ulysses in my mid-twenties as a music student in Holland. It remains to this day the book that has impressed me the most, in its vast ambition, its sheer technique, its humour and its range of stylistic invention.
In music there is Stravinsky, born in the same year as Joyce, who shares all these attributes.
I became involved in theatre in my late twenties as an actor. Friends of mine would hire Players Theatre in Trinity College over the summer, as it wasn’t being used then by the students. We would sit at a table in Front Square shouting ‘Lunchtime Theatre!’ This was amateur drama, and very thrilling to be part of. It was the summer of 1980.
I was asked by Peter Gowan and Ken Warren, who ran the Cogitandum Theatre Company, if I would adapt the ‘Sirens’ chapter of Ulysses for the stage. I jumped at the chance, as it is known as the most musical chapter in Ulysses.
The action takes place in the bar and adjoining restaurant of the Ormond Hotel at four in the afternoon. Two flirtatious barmaids serve drinks to a group of men who begin to sing various songs. One of these men is Blazes Boylan, who will shortly leave and call in on Molly Bloom when her husband Leopold is out. They are having an affair. Leopold arrives at the restaurant, overhears the singing and Boylan’s voice and hopes not to be seen – helplessly knowing what his wife and Boylan will be up to later. He writes a secret semi-pornographic letter to an unknown woman ‘Martha’ as he orders his food, just as, by coincidence the aria ‘M’appari’ from Flotow’s opera ‘Martha’ is sung in the nearby bar.
A lot of research had to be done to find all the sheet music of the songs sung in this chapter. I started in Kevin Street Library, but even they were unable to help me with tunes like ‘Love and War’ and ‘Goodbye Sweetheart Goodbye’. No-one seemed to know a thing about ‘Love and War’, but I eventually came across one line of the melody in a book about Joyce, so I added the chords and completed the melody.
Niall Montgomery was a well-known Dublin architect, poet and Joyce expert in those days. I mentioned to him the problem with locating ‘Goodbye Sweetheart Goodbye’. One day as I arrived at rehearsals I noticed an envelope pinned to the notice-board with my name on it.
Inside was the sheet music to this very song and a note from Niall. He was fantastic – I don’t know how he found it.
Joyce structured the Sirens chapter like a piece of music. It begins with an ‘overture’, which looks confusing at first glance, because you get snippets of the text, phrases and parts of sentences that are difficult to follow, being out of context. They read as gibberish for the first few pages. The gibberish stops and the chapter continues normally. As you read through the chapter it slowly becomes clear in small ‘deja vu’ moments what had been going on. Just like an overture in music, all the main themes have been stated briefly in snippets.
In order to make the ‘overture’ work in a theatrical environment, I placed it about half way through the drama, so that for a moment it seemed as though bits of the play were repeating themselves in fragments, to the audience, followed by bits that would appear later. I had a sound linked to each fragment too – a passing street carriage, the banging of a tray of china down onto the counter, a line of a song, the clock striking four, a tuning fork being pinged, Boylan’s squeaky shoes etc.
I directed the show and played the blind piano tuner at the beginning and end of the play. To enhance the overture aspect I played bits from all the music that was to appear in the play at the beginning and again at the end as a kind of ‘underture’. Joyce has the blind piano tuner returning at the end having forgotten his tuning fork.
As is generally known, Leopold Bloom talks to himself silently. This has become known as the ‘interior monologue’. How do you do this theatrically?
I hired a recording studio and we recorded Ronan Wilmot, who played the part of Leopold Bloom, speaking these passages to himself on tape. On stage you saw him responding with amusing facial expressions to these musings, heard intimately through loudspeakers.
Another interesting theatrical problem had to be solved – Bloom and his crony Goulding eat a meal in this scene. We managed to get Solomon Grundy’s which was then in Suffolk Street to sponsor a steak and kidney pie and a plate of liver and bacon for every performance. I collected these meals before each show, walking the short distance to Trinity College, arousing much curiosity from passers-by. There is nothing quite like watching two actors eating a hot meal on stage only a few feet from the audience in a small theatre.
We ran the play for 2 weeks at lunchtime and it went so well we extended it to an evening show with an interval.
I blush as I read Fintan O’Toole’s review in ‘In Dublin’ magazine:
‘The Sirens is an evening of sheer delight, both for Joyce lovers and for those previously frightened off by the elitist pretensions of the Joyce industry. As only a musician could, Roger Doyle opts to plumb the soundscape of Ulysses instead of palely imitating its action as many adaptations have done. Human voices, singing and speaking, the tap of a blind man’s cane, the tinkle of pianos, the clopping of horses, the hum of a tuning fork, sniffles and farts are all woven into the dreamy warmth of the Ormond Hotel. Treating the original with intelligent affection rather than grovelling awe, Roger Doyle has created the spirit of Ulysses superbly and created a hugely enjoyable evening’s theatre. In a fine cast Ronan Wilmot as Bloom and Isobel Mahon as Miss Douce contribute most to another success for Cogitandum’s summer season’.
Miss Douce was one of the two sexy barmaids and Isobel Mahon went on to play the part of
Michelle, the barmaid in the TV soap opera ‘Glenroe’ years later. Ronan nowadays runs the very successful New Theatre in Temple Bar.
After the play closed I sent a copy of the script to the head of Plays, Drama and Television at the BBC, and received a polite note of refusal. This adaptation has remained at the bottom of an old box ever since.
© Roger Doyle 2000-2012
More news of Roger’s latest work HERE.
Roger – that’s Professor Doyle to you, ahem! – has more news (here). Catch it if you can …