“The Dead” is now playing as an interactive experience in which the audience fully participates at the American Irish Historical Society, the great Irish building in America on Fifth Avenue opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For some reason, watching the superb Irish Repertory Theater‘s production of James Joyce’s short story I found myself wondering what Donald Trump would make of it.
In the time of Trump “The Dead“ – and how it unfolds in quiet but telling moments – is the exact opposite of the world of the motormouth and media monster who doesn't have an inane thought he doesn’t tweet or utter – or misspell.
As for “The Dead,” I have no doubt he'd hate it. The tweet would read, “Some stupid people gather at a Dublin dinner party over a 100 years ago, where nothing happens. BORRING!!
His ADD would rev up into overdrive sitting through “The Dead, where, as Hollywood director John Huston who made the Joycean work his final film in 1987, stated “the biggest piece of action is trying to pass the port.”
Maybe someone could offer the Donald’s brain the title role.
It is as far removed from Celebrity White House as you can get – a quiet, interior, brilliant piece of writing, perhaps the greatest short story ever written and notoriously difficult to translate to the stage as a result because so much is interior monologue in the mind of the main character Gabriel Conroy played superbly by Boyd Gaines.
Conroy is a middle-aged minor Dublin grandee, visiting his aging aunts and their niece with his wife Gretta, wonderfully portrayed by Kate Burton, on January 6, 1904 – the Feast of the Epiphany or Little Christmas, as it is known in Ireland.
Some critics believe Gabriel is Joyce as he imagines how he might have turned out had he stayed in Ireland. If so he must have relished his escape from the small, suffocating world his alter ego inhabits.
The Conroys interact with a host of Dublin characters: Miss Ivors the Sinn Fein fiery lady who unsettles Gabriel, Freddie the drunk trying to pass muster in such august company, Bartle D’Arcy the tenor who can’t sing because of a sore throat, Brown, the mysterious house guest who hovers in almost every scene, to name a few.
Little outwardly happens, but the play takes a sudden twist when D’Arcy is heard off stage singing “The Lass of Aughrim,” a song which greatly disturbs Gretta. Suddenly a darkness hovers and we are brought to the soul of the matter.
The Irish Rep, which continues to stage extraordinary productions, has outdone itself here. Ciaran O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore have proven time and again they have an innovative genius that has allowed them to survive and prosper in a very difficult milieu. They are currently managing two spectacular revivals, Finian’s Rainbow, just extended at their Broadway home, a spanking new theater, and the Joyce play.
As our sister publication, Irish America Magazine reported “The production is the brainchild of the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz who, after attending a reading of Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" at the American Irish Historical Society, was struck with the notion of creating an “immersive” theater experience in that luxe Victorian townhouse built in 1900, a stone’s throw from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She raised the idea with her husband, Paul Muldoon, the Armagh-born poet, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, humanities professor at Princeton University, and poetry editor of the New Yorker.
They decided to collaborate on a script based on “The Dead” and took the idea to Chris Cahill, executive director the AIHS, who enthusiastically replied that if they developed the project, he’d give it a home. “We’d never done anything like this,” Cahill told me. “It’s a large undertaking, but it fits so well into this space.”
Of course, then it had to be the Irish Rep staging it with their stellar record of Irish productions
If you fancy a true artistic experience with dinner and lots of refreshments as well as great acting and ruminations on the meaning of life, then this is it. The only caveat is to read the short story before going to familiarize yourself with the main characters.
The atmospherics of this production are superb. The interior of the Historical Society represents nothing better than a 1904 stately home in Dublin while the final scene acted out upstairs gives an intimate feel to the final interaction between Gabriel and his wife Gretta as she grieves a lost love. You are actually in the bedroom with the couple which is an extraordinary experience.
Joyce wrote “The Dead” when he was about 25 years old, yet its wisdom, especially in the final part, as Gabriel contemplates how the dead continue to surround us and how we change towards them and how we all must face that final journey west is profound and almost eerie in its precision writing, not a word wasted.
The final paragraphs are the finest writing in the English language, yet the most difficult to act as we descend into Gabriel’s consciousness as he contemplates the secret his wife has just revealed to him and its import on their lives and his own soul. Irish Rep director Ciaran O’Reilly succeeds in making it the proper climactic moment of the evening, in which Gabriel’s tortured soul is revealed in a dramatic spoken monologue.
I’d like to tell you to rush out and grab some tickets, but it is truly a sellout. So maybe grab the book and read the story, part of the “Dubliners” collection. Who knows? Given its success it may well be back next year. Here’s the taster from Gabriel’s final scene:
“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.”
As for The Donald, we’ll book something like a "Beauty and the Beast" matinee somewhere for him. He can play both roles with great skill I'm sure, having convinced half the country he’s either one or the other. To me there’s no question which.
The Irish Repertory Theater is at irishrep.org.