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Jun 20, 2013


Bloomsday, Philadelphia 1913


So it wasn’t a mirage last year. A horseshoe of white folding chairs did indeed fill half of Delancey Place in Philadelphia, and the cradle of democracy gave air once again to the democratization of one of the world’s great works of art – James Joyce’s mighty Ulysses.  Its original manuscript lies in active splendor within the Rosenbach Museum, sentried by Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, who, with horns, spiky fur and terrifying frowns, stand guard over Joyce’s sloping handwriting. 

I had not been dreaming; I went back again to see. And, with some considerable delight, take part. This was the 18th year, I think, that the Rosenbach Museum & Library celebrated its glorious resident, Mr. Joyce, and I was again given the privilege of reading aloud, beneath skies of shifting white clouds. And so, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Before that, Judy Guston, Curator and Director of Collections at the Rosenbach, read, in Greek and English, from the opening words The Odyssey, by Joyce’s literary godfather, the immortal Homer; “Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” As my blood quickened, and my mind’s eye went back to days in Athens and Crete and Cyprus and Corinth, could it be that the skies over Philadelphia became the blue of the Aegean Sea, the same color that Joyce asked for in the bindings of Ulysses? 

As if all that didn’t generate sensory overload, out on the air then floated Mozart - live – and we heard the duet that sighs through Joyce’s Dublin on Thursday the 16th of June 1904, the day that Philadelphia and increasingly all the world celebrates as Bloomsday, the day of Mr. Leopold Bloom. Là ci darem la mano, they sang, Là mi dirai di sì. Here we’ll entwine our hands dear, here you will say “I do” and Don Giovanni, the rake, and Zerlina, the maid, were off to the races to enjoy the sweets of sin, what true Dubliners have always termed “carnival knowledge.”

More than eighty readers and singers took part in this year’s Rosenbach Bloomsday. We saw the polished and the unrehearsed, the passionate and the timid, the thoughtful and the fierce, the whimsical and the serious, the hesitant, the sincere, the involved – and all of them committed. A father and son read, the Fitzgeralds. A father and daughter read, Bill McLaughlin and Morgan McLaughlin, and as though directed by some great stage manager somewhere, late bronze sunshine arrived and lit them from the side. William Dreher, not yet two years old, punctuated the readings of his father, the Rosenbach’s Director, Derek Dreher, by pounding the microphone with his little toy car, perfect accompaniment in a book where non-verbal sound is part of the deliberate music. The Simpson brothers read again in Braille, they read heart-achingly the heart-aching, slow descent of Mr. Bloom into sleep, sleep, sleep.

Once more Drucie McDaniel performed the lioness’s share of Mollie Bloom’s soliloquy, and once more we saw the woman, not the literary character. Mollie became flesh (lots of it) and blood (some), and we saw her as narcissistic and bipolar and really real as though she were heaving and strutting her way down the steps of the museum and into our lives. Carl Gustav Jung wrote to Joyce regarding this Penelope episode, “The 40 pages of non stop run in the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches.” In Delancey Place, we plucked every one. 

Since my first appearance there last year I’ve ben trying to analyze what it is that makes the Rosenbach Bloomsday so special, so different. Is it the rapt people in the horseshoe of white chairs, beneath the leaves of the calm trees, the bark wearing the badges of time and street life? Or the flicker of a curtain here and there from a tall window as a Philadelphian listens from behind a high brick wall? Or the young, man, all in black, who looks like Alice Cooper cleaned up, withdrawn behind his shades, his Gabler version of the text falling apart as he murmurs every word to himself in time with each reader? Is it the woman with the hat as exotic and lovely as a Pullman car clasping her hands to herself like a girl when she hears a phrase she knows and loves? Is it the couple in their tender eighties, each helping the other with fingers on the text? Is the twenty-something girl in the summer dress, fingers to her mouth in awe at Mollie’s daring? Or the dog who barks at every round of applause? How frequently he barked.

For me it’s the democracy of the thing. Last year I was struck by the conjoining of art and civics. Joyce wrote an extraordinary novel full of ordinary people; Philadelphia, an ordinary city, gave birth to an extraordinary idea in the Continental Congresses. In Delancey Place, the celebration of the human being’s thought process and our general mastery of ourselves met, and embraced, and spoke it out loud, in public, under the June skies that only rained once, and didn’t in any way faze the seamless management and the warm volunteers. They and the city had already been tested by parked cars; never before have I heard a tow-truck being applauded.

Which also spoke to the demotics of the day – this was great art shared, brought to us by the voice of Everyman and his wife. The city and the world are much the better for hearing it, and I myself even more so, for the word-music it has left in my mind, and the pictures that will shimmer there – like a mirage - for another year and beyond. 


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