The human species is incredibly diverse, with intense variety of culture and lifestyle. One universal thing however is that your predilections of the various cultures around the world are probably wrong. No better demonstration for this phenomenon exists than my viewing of a theatrical production of James Joyces’ Ulysses. Ulysses had been described to me before I had even knew about the play: it was a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, as he goes throughout the city attending to business at the closing end of the 19th century. As such, walking into the play I had the prediction that is was going to be a very straightforward, dower, melodrama. A day in the life of a man living an imperfect life at an imperfect time. The title, Ulysses, no doubt a reference to the latinized name of Odysseus and relating to some structural reference in the book to the story of Ulysses, or a topic of conversation in the book that mentions Ulysses. On top of my expectations about the book I had heard good things about Irish theater. This made sense to me, what with the great importance the culture seemed to put on literature. Based on this, when I went I expected something dignified and professional, a community of theatrics that took itself seriously as a matter of national pride, not bothering with silly things like comedy or musicals.
I right about the bit about the title, but other than that all of my predictions were stupid and wrong.
The weirdest play I’ve ever seen was a Philadelphia Fringe Festival production called I Promised to Live Faster which can be best described as homosexual space Opera. It starred gay bachelor from earth who is sucked into space and roped into helping a closeted space bishop of an evil star empire go on a quest to find the power source of an entire planet of gay people called the Eternal Gay Flame. This stage production of Ulysses was the second weirdest play I’ve ever seen.
Running against my expectations, it took an oddball comedic tone, which fit given the source material bore no resemblance to what I expected either. The first thing you have to understand about Leopold Bloom is that the man is an old pervert, luckily for the people of Dublin however he also lacks the initiative to do anything harmful with his proclivities. He frequents brothels, keeps a secret correspondence with a mistress he’s never met, with his worst offense against his fellow countrymen being one sequence where he masturbates through his pants after seeing up a women’s skirt. There are also musical numbers. Full fledged stage musical numbers. All built around a character who is having sex with Leopold’s wife. And did I mention the puppets? The play had puppets. There in the audience I had sat, not expecting puppets, and then, boom, puppets.
I didn’t particularly enjoy it. The story felt disjointed with bizarre staging making the plot hard to follow. The general comedic tone caught me off guard, with the musical numbers making me outright cringe. I was left confused. What is this story? Who is Leopold Bloom? Is this story a dream? Is it reality? I left the theater with these questions unanswered and another tacked on. This production had been so successful that the staging I saw was advertised as being back by popular demand. This confusing thing was popular. How is this the production of Ulysses that they decided to stage at the Abbey Theater, the national theater of Ireland? Either reality was falling apart around me or someone had made a mistake.
Someone had made a mistake, and it was me. This play was daring, inventive, deeply understanding of it’s source material, and not meant for me. In Dublin, Ulysses is revered on the same pedestal as something like To Kill a Mocking Bird is in America. Leopold Bloom, a fictional character, has his own real world holiday on his in-book birthday. I, a foreigner who had not read the book, was expecting to go and see something that stood on it’s own. A melodramatic story like the American pastoral novels they rant and rave about back home. A production like those straightforward Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller plays every American theater addict pretends to adore. But the play didn’t care about what I was expecting, it’s audience knew the book, and wanted to see it told in an original way. Which in this case is a comedy with musical numbers, on stage masturbation, and puppets. It goes to show how much perspectives can differ, and how important it is to realize when yours isn’t the one being catered to.