For those drama lovers among you, fear not. You thought Ulysses was just a novel? In the great tradition of something for everyone literature, or, the smorgasborg that is Ulysses, we have, (two-thirds of the way through the novel, just as you thought you were through with the tricky bit, ie. Oxen of the Sun), a play!
And not just any play, a DREAM PLAY. For those, like me, who needed to refresh your university knowledge of Dream Plays, think Strindberg. Any Joyce fan worth their salt knows that Joyce had a hero-worship going for Ibsen. But less commonly know is the influence of Strindberg.
Really, Strindberg is less commonly known altogether. I discovered this on a recent visit to Stockholm when I spent an hour at the Strindberg Museum, where I startled a very polite and helpful young staff-member/volunteer (who can say if the place makes enough to pay someone, though one would suspect the impressive State of Sweden might just support the museum regardless of whether they get any visitors, ever), by coming to visit the museum.
I can understand how the ABBA Museum would be more popular, but still I’m betting the Ibsen Museum over in Oslo is getting more attention. Everyone knows A Doll’s House, but name one Strindberg play?
That’s just it. After Miss Julie, there’s A Dream Play. While I’m not a Nordic drama scholar, or any kind of scholar, I can say from the enthusiastic lay-person’s point of view that A Dream Play dramatizes the unconscious and also paved the way for expressionist and surrealist playwrights to come.
This seems exactly what Joyce is attempting in his play-within-a-novel. In my text this play takes up 134 pages. So, quick synopsis:
We find our two heroes in Night Town, the red light district. Bloom is separated from Stephen and finds a snack in a pork shop, after which, let the hallucinations begin! Bloom goes on public trial accused, among other things, of being a cuckold. This is the nightmare portion of the play. He then eventually finds Stephen at Bella Cohen’s brothel. Many hallucinations later, including images of Bloom briefly becoming a woman and the appearance of both Stephen’s dead mother and a lucky potato, the episode ends with Stephen being punched in the face by a British Army officer. The father-son relationship becomes complete as Bloom, caring for Stephen, sees him as an apparition of his dead son Rudy. How’s that for a six-sentence synopsis!
If it wasn’t clear before I’ll say it now — I did not enjoy Circe. I’m sure in many ways it is the most ambitious and experimental portion of Ulysses, and if we aren’t here for experimentation than what are we doing here? Still, perhaps it came too late in the novel for me to have patience with it. Maybe the whole exploration of Bloom’s virility was lost on me when he “became” a woman and this was a degradation. (I understand it was avant-garde for the male character to morph into a woman, but in the post-trump era we are living in I’m not so keen on indulging passages on the humiliations of “becoming” female. if we were reading the same passages of a character “becoming” black … well point taken and not trying to be PC-cop but just, Trump.)
All that said, I can see the importance in a book focused on the inner monologue delving beneath the surface of thought into the subconscious. Also, as I dove into the whole thing further myself, I learned that this chapter was written following the censorship of earlier episodes — namely Nausicaa — and allowed Joyce a reaction to this as well as the current war for independence. As the ever-trusty Declan Kiberd explains: “Because the episode was completed during the final phase of the Anglo-Irish war, he also offers an attack on the Anglicisation of the Irish life, via the brothels, the soldiers who patronised them, and the English songs which they made current. Joyce joked that ‘Circe’ was the most realistic episode of Ulysses, but he was stretching realism to the limit, as one way of responding to charges of obscenity.”
Putting aside readability, there are other interesting aspects of the episode. The ability the dream-state allows for time to stand still in a novel organized around the clock is pretty facinating and also just practically why it is fun to read novels. In addition to Ibsen and Strindberg, Joyce was also obsessed (apparently) by Einstein’s newish theory of Relativity (1905), which is all explored in this episode.
So time is a perception which itself can slow down depending on the relation to the person observing it? Such was my experience with Circe.