Culture is Ireland's superpower and James Joyce is perhaps our biggest-ever cultural export. After all, Bloomsday is celebrated now from Dublin to Tokyo and its footprint is only growing.
Having written not one but two doomsday books of the Irish, one to record and represent the people and streets of Dublin ("Ulysses") and the other to capture and convey the spirit of the Irish themselves ("Finnegans Wake") James Joyce is not to be approached lightly, but it's essential his works are approached.
We are still trying to catch up with him, in other words. But that's okay, he anticipated our struggle and he tried to make it fun by writing two great books so dense and so, in his own words, funferal (fun for all) that the process is immediately rewarding.
This June the Irish-born and now Toronto-based actor Richard Harte, 50, of the One Little Goat theatre company will read all but one of the seventeen chapters of Joyce's most challenging book Finnegans Wake before live audiences in a filmed reading series.
It's the culmination of almost two and half decades worth of work, since the Dublin-born Halifax, Nova Scotia-raised actor has found his creative life almost taken over by the towering figure of Joyce.
“Well first of all, if you didn't know, Nova Scotia has got a very Celtic flavor. The music and the arts there are heavily influenced by Irish and by Scottish culture,” Harte tells the Voice. “It's a very maritime place, there's lots of connection to the sea. Lots of seafaring culture, you know?”
This is Harte's way of saying his connection to the Dublin and Ireland of his birth were more easily nurtured than many might suspect. It's also a reminder of just how important those connections to Ireland are to those who make a new life in North America.
“Like a lot of people, I tried reading Ulysses when I was young I didn't really get into it. What happened for me was when I moved to Toronto in 2000 my partner at the time, introduced me to the Toronto Bloomsday Festival, of which she was a part. Once I saw it, and it was a bunch of actors reading parts of Ulysses that were put together like a script, they brought it to life in a way that was so immediate and so powerful to me that I just I really wanted to be involved.”
The following year in 2001 Harte took part in his first Bloomsday reading, playing Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's fictional alter ego from Ulysses) and now he has been with the group for over 22 years. “By now I'm directing the Bloomsday festival that I was once helping to put on with my own theatre company.”
One Little Goat, the theatre company in question, will soon begin its most ambitious project to date, presenting a 17-episode reading of one of the most funny and challenging novels of the 20th century, Joyce’sFinnegans Wake in a first-of-its-kind filmed reading series.
Chapter 1, which was filmed in front of a small audience in Toronto during the pandemic, will premiere in Dublin at the 69th annual Bloomsday Festival, on Bloomsday, Friday, June 16, for two screenings at the James Joyce Centre’s Volta Room.
Harte will be on hand on the day with director and editor Adam Seelig. Chapter 2 will be filmed in front of a live audience on Monday June 26 at Noonan’s Irish Pub in Toronto. Both chapter will be made available for screening internationally via the One Little Goat web page.
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“We have become such a family and among the people who come out here to see it every year, we can see the same faces,” Harte explains. “There's such power and such humor in the books and characters are so vivid and the people who are performing the scenes have been doing it for donkey's years and they're great at it. So it's surprising but it's a bit like coming home.”
Having seen him in performance I was surprised that someone who had left Ireland at a tender age could still act and sound like a native. Harte has found a way to crack the private code and maintain the original voltage. In fact, onstage he sounds like he grew up in Dublin and not just in Dublin, but in the back streets of Dublin, as though he knew the characters, the local girls and boys knocking around. How did he do that, I asked.
“I guess it's a special energy for me, I mean as a kid I always held on to my Irishness,” Harte explains. “You know, I lost my Dublin accent and I have grown up in Canada mostly but I always felt a real special energy with identifying as Irish. And once I started acting, after I went to theater school and I did a bunch of Shakespeare, it became a real pleasure to for me connect with things that let me work in an Irish accent. So when it came time to join the Bloomsday group here, that sort of stuff was sort of already there and I just love stepping into it. I just love it. I just love doing it.”
Is he ever intimidated by the density of a work like Finnegan Wake? “Oh, I'm plenty afraid of it,” he replies. “I'm really delighted to hear you think the accents sound authentic Irish because I base them on the voices in my head. I hear my family because my family is still all over in Ireland. So those guys, my uncles and aunts and the people that I knew there, those are people in my head. But that was a long time ago. “Otherwise, it's the people with the Bloomsday festival who are mostly ex-pats and still have the Irish accent. I've heard their voices and those too are in my head. But when I when somebody Irish like you say, oh this good, this is accurate, I'm very gratified.”
Thanks to the global strength of Irish culture, and Irish literature in particular, it can feel like the world is shrinking. Add to that the power of the internet to create communities and the connections run deeper still. Would Harte agree?
“Lately it seems like it's all Joyce all the time for me and it's kind of reawakened these connections. I just returned from a family trip to Ireland, which had been the first in a long time, at least 12 years. So those connections for me are waking up again. That's part of the power of his work to maintain a conversation.”
The Finnegans Wake readings and film are made possible with support from the Emigrant Support Program from the Government of Ireland, who know a good thing when they see it.
“We've been invited to go as part of the Bloomsday Film Festival, which is run by the James Joyce Center in Dublin. So my director and I will go over and we'll join in and meet people and show the movie. And we're tremendously excited about getting the chance to do that.
Chapter 1 of Finnegans Wake will be presented at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin on Bloomsday, Friday, June 16, and at the 69th annual Bloomsday Festival celebrating the life and works of James Joyce. To watch it online in June, visit onelittlegoat.org.