How It’s New York:  Seems to me after doing my round-up that New York has it going on.  Three events– at least!  And Bloomsday on Broadway, hitting its 30th anniversary at Symphony Space, revels in its identity by insisting actors use their own accents, whatever they happen to be.
How It’s Irish:  What could be more Irish than a celebration of James Joyce?  Irish people get together all over the country and of course in Ireland to act out and read from Ulysses.  The 1st Annual Bloomsday Breakfast in Bryant Park was inspired by the way Bloomsday is celebrated in Dublin, beginning early and in Edwardian dress.

Here’s my round-up/write-up for WSJ’s Speakeasy.

Bloomsday: How to Celebrate James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

By Gwen Orel

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection
James Joyce in 1904

At 8 am, there will be top hats in Bryant park, as people in Edwardian dress gather to hear some of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses.” Downtown at Ulysses’ pub, there will be readings, complimentary drinks, and music. And from noon to 1 am, 85 performers will read from in 135 slots from Joyce’s novel at Symphony Space for Bloomsday on Broadway’s 30th anniversary.

And that’s just New York. People will be reading from the difficult 1904 novel in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Boston, Berkeley and more.

Today is Bloomsday, the day fans of Joyce celebrate his greatest novel, “Ulysses.” All the events of the book take place on a single day, June 16, 1904.

Bloomsday celebrations take place all over the world, including, according to the James Joyce Center, Croatia, Australia, Shanghai, Norway and Argentina. And Dublin, of course.

What is it about Joyce’s novel about a day in the life of a fictional Jewish denizen of Dublin, Leopold Bloom, that has inspired an international literary event cum pub crawl cum Halloween parade ?

“It’s a celebration of life, love, language, literature—everything’s in this book,” says Isaiah Sheffer, Founding Artistic Director of Symphony Space and MC of the marathon day, which is presented with the Irish Arts Center . “I remember when I was in college identifying with Stephen Daedalus, a thoughtful, studious, little depressed fellow.” Readers include Kathleen Chalfant, Denis O’Hare, Marin Ireland.

None of the readers are paid for the event. And the diversity of the actors is the point. “If you were born in the Bronx, or Rumania, or Paris, or Tel Aviv, I want you to sound like yourself. That’s the meaning of Bloomsday on Broadway,” Isaiah says.

Of course, Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan, who does the Molly soliloquy (the event is telecast on wnyc, and can be listened to at the symphony space site as well) sounds authentic, because she is.
When asked to participate, Flanagan said, “Yes, I said, yes, I will, yes. I will and I can and I do,” quickly riffing on the famous passage.

Culture Ireland’s Communications Director Nik Quaife explains that the 1st annual breakfast is part of a “journey of the imagination,” encouraging people in America to “imagine Ireland the same way Joyce did in Trieste, when he was writing it in self-imposed exile.” There is a downloadable self-guided Bloomsday tour for five cities in the U.S. that recreates Leopold Bloom’s journey. In Los Angeles, Sandy Cove is replaced by Santa Monica Pier. “In D.C., they’re doing it on bikes,” Quaife says. 1500 people have already downloaded the map.

In Philadelphia, Patrick Fitzgerald, recently seen in New York in The Shaughraun at Irish Repertory Theatre, is performing his Ulysses based two-hander, Gibraltar, at the Plays and Players Theatre. Around the corner, Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library is holding their 19th Bloomsday reading. Their 75-80 readers include politicians, nuns, rabbis, arts leaders and actors. H.E. Michael Collins, ambassador from Ireland is traveling to Philadelphia to kick the readings off. “It’s important to him to share Irish culture with the world,”  “Reading [Ulysses] is like trying to read a crossword puzzle. But listening to it, the linguistic fireworks come alive,” says Rosenbach Executive Director Derek Dreher.

Brida Courtney, the Dublin-born Executive Director of Wilde Irish in Berkeley, agrees that a lot of people are intimidated by “Ulysses,” but Joyce “is just a Dubliner; he uses our language.” Their performance, which also includes a wine tasting, will place at the Berkeley City Club, a historical building designed by Julia Morgan (who designed Hearst Castle).

Los Angeles has at least two events going: the LA Irish Film Festival will hold its second Bloomsday event at Finn MacCool’s pub in Santa Monica. Lisa McLaughlin, the Festival Director, explains that all 11 actors will recite from the Molly soliloquy, which replicates the stream of consciousness style of the prose. The Hammer Museum’s second annual Bloomsday features five actors, and will play to about 500 people. The band “The Sweet Set” will play before and after, during the Guinness happy hours.

There’s free drink to be had too at Ulysses Pub downtown. Bloomsday is also the pub’s eighth anniversary tomorrow; it opened on June 16th, 2003. “The first pint of Guinness I poured that morning was for Frank McCourt at the reading,” says owner Irishman Danny McDonald.  Usually Colum McCann coordinates the readings that start at 1 p.m., which, unlike the ones at Symphony Space, are ad hoc, dependent on who shows up. Black 47 rocker/author Larry Kirwan, and playwright Barbara Hammond will call on people and try to avoid 10 Molly soliloquies in a row. Past readers have included Frank and Malachy McCourt, Peter Quinn, Pete Hamill, Sam Shepard and Stephen Rea.

At the Bryant Park breakfast, theme-based food courtesy of Tommy Moloney’s is also on offer. “Bloom’s Beasts and Fowls” is really black pudding, white pudding and sausage. It’s all free. The event, which is part of Culture Ireland’s year-long Imagine Ireland program, is presented in association with Irish Arts Center. Literary Curator Belinda McKeon had wanted to do it since she took the position last year. “In Dublin, Bloomsday always begins early in the morning, with breakfast,” says the now-New York based author (her book “Solace” came out on Scribner in May). In addition to the free breakfast, there will be music and original Edwardian inspired dance from Darrah Carr Dance.  Stanley Goldstein, founder of the American Friends of James Joyce, will be there, but not in costume, unlike Nik Quaife, who’s planning to wear a red and white pin-striped suit. “I don’t have the right hat,” says Goldstein. And besides, “you have to be a little bit plump” to get the Edwardian look.

Joyce’s book comes out of copyright on January 1, 2012. Which means next year it will be free as air. Writers and performers are already looking forward to that.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.