An appreciation for Irish modernist literature is not one of the things Kansas City is generally known for. But for the past 14 years, a small community of lit lovers has been celebrating James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, every June.
A worldwide literary day of note, Bloomsday refers to June 16,1904, the date on which all the action of Ulysses takes place. The main plot thread follows the novel’s hero, Leopold Bloom, as he sojourns drunkenly across Dublin, encountering, among others, Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s literary alter ego.
Since the first Bloomsday, in 1954, Joyce fans have held celebrations around the world. In America, events take place all over New York, as well as in Philadelphia at the Rosenbach Museum (which owns Joyce’s handwritten Ulysses manuscript) and Buffalo (home to the Finnegan’s Wake notebooks), to name a few.
In Kansas City, Tom and Nancy Shawver, proprietors of Bloomsday Books, organize the event with help from a band of supporters who enjoy getting together, drinking some Irish stout (preferably the excellent variety produced by the local Boulevard Brewery) and interacting with a text that is long, obscure and baffling to most readers — but beautiful and true to its devoted fans.
A bit of history about the event: Until Bloomsday Books closed its brick-and-mortar doors in 2008 and went web-only, the shop traded and sold used and rare tomes. More importantly, it was an enclave of local literary culture. (Full disclosure: I worked there for the better part of 2004.)
The bookstore’s Bloomsday celebrations have ranged from a few people holding a marathon Ulysses reading, to a street performance on the Country Club Plaza. In its tenth year, tom and Nancy organized an all-day festival complete with an outdoor stage and tent under which Irish bands and dancers performed and the traditional reading of the one-act adaptation Bloomsday, Dublin: 16 June was staged.
This year, the festivities were held in the lovely Irish Museum and Cultural Heritage Center in the lower level of historic Union Station.
The one-act play has been the main event at most of the recent Bloomsday celebrations. Opera singer and thespian Sylvia Stoner assembles a crew of professional actors and rank amateurs (including yours truly) to read the hour-and-a-half script, which condenses the novel to a tip-of-the-iceberg jaunt that includes some of the story’s most memorable scenes.
It’s not your standard dramatic narrative, however. Ulysses the novel is a massive stream-of-consciousness journey that takes place as much in its characters’ psyches as in the real world. And because the play preserves Joyce’s original dialog, it tends to read like a combination of free-verse poetry and obscure but highly animated soliloquies.
The bulk of the play’s action takes place during Bloom and Dedalus’ boozy trip through the shady part of Dublin, consorting with prostitutes and barely escaping multiple bruisings. There’s more bawdiness and rapturous tomfoolery in this short play than you’re likely to get at most nights out at the community theater. And with talented, exuberant actors at the helm, the play is absorbing, fun, delightfully disorienting, and, particularly during Molly Bloom’s famous monologue at the end, transcendent.
The cast of the reading this year included familiar faces from years past: Sylvia as narrator, Erin McGrane (who recently appeared on the big screen in Up in the Air), the inimitable Richard Buswell in multiple roles, including the vociferous Mrs. Purefoy, Larry Greer as Bloom and Cynthia Hyer as Molly.
As a Bloomsday regular for the past six years, I noticed a lot of new faces at this year’s event — and the newbies were noticeably engrossed. A middle-aged Asian man I’d never seen before even shushed a friend and me for talking too loudly by the refreshments table during the play. We sheepishly obliged.
The Bloomsday phenomenon truly is a rarity in the practice of studying literature. What is it about Ulysses that continues to inspire people to keep coming back, to connect with it, to reinterpret it? Recently, a serial digital comic called Ulysses “Seen” gained attention by being rejected from the Apple iPad app store because a few of the panels depicted nudity. (Apple has since lightened up.)
Ultimately this shows that great literature never dies, becomes irrelevant or loses its power — so long as there are people willing to remember it and bring it into a dialogue with their own creative selves.
And it was bloody good fun, too.