- Attending a performance entitled
James Joyces The Dead carries with it certain associations
and expectations. This review will reflect upon James Joyces
The Dead as a literary adaptation, examining the ways in which
the musical uses Joyces text, "The Dead," a short
story in Dubliners, for its script. To be honest, loyal
Joyceans will most likely find the show disappointing. The creators
of the musical took many liberties with Joyces work, and
in the opinion of this reviewer, the end-result is dissatisfying.
This pronouncement is not a point-blank condemnation of the show.
On the contrary, the musical provided an evening of entertainment,
but ultimately, James Joyces The Dead contains little
James Joyce and audience members expecting more will likely leave
the theatre unfulfilled.
- For many people, the title "The
Dead" immediately conjures up images of corpses and graveyards.
One might expect the storyline to be depressing, if not downright
morbid. The subject matter might strike many potential audience
members as an odd choice for a Broadway musical. Moreover, the
music typically associated with death: dirges, funeral marches,
and songs of mourning, seem much more appropriate for somber postures
and weeping faces than for the lively singing and dancing most
audiences have come to associate with stage musicals.
- Of course, anyone who has read James
Joyces short story "The
Dead," the work on which the musical is based, knows that
Joyce does his best to present his audience with a joyous, genial
occasion, but careful readers might notice that the occasion is
not as warm and inviting as it appears. Through several finely
nuanced descriptions and bits of dialogue, the author undercuts
the celebratory nature of the evening: Gretta Conroy looks "perished
alive" and all evening her husband Gabriel had "a gloom
cast over him." (Gretta and Gabriel pictured) He lacks any
semblance of spontaneity, quoting himself in the after-dinner
toast and later in the evening when he considers professing his
love for his wife. Even such "moments of ecstasy" as
this lack all enthusiasm and exhilaration. In fact, the only character
who seems to have been able to sustain any semblance of passion
or feeling is the one character in the story who is already dead,
- By obscuring the boundaries that
separate life and death, Joyce ultimately criticizes those whose
lives are devoid of intimacy, emotional connection, and passion.
The title "The Dead" not only refers to the already
deceased Furey, but also to all of the living characters in the
story who have allowed themselves to become content with a dull,
repetitive day-to-day existence. There is no magic, no spark,
nothing at all to motivate anyone to take a risk, or break out
of their humdrum routine. Such a lack of interest and vitality
dooms these characters to lives that are not really life at all.
Underneath the Aunts apparently convivial, joyous feast,
there is a deeply ironic subtext which suggests that once people
reach a certain point in their lives, everyday existence becomes
routine and regimented. For Joyce, there seems to be no viable
alternative to such a dreary fate whether we, like Gretta Conroy,
fantasize and mourn for what could have been, or we long to lose
ourselves in the pure oblivion of the snow, like her husband Gabriel.
- The musical version of "The
Dead" fails to capture this tragic message or convey the
subtle melancholic undertones that permeate Joyces work.
The relationship between Gabriel and Gretta is one of the most
problematic aspects of the show. On stage, the couple is very
affectionate and loving. They hold hands, share private moments
and even sing a happy duet together. For his part, Joyce certainly
wanted to create the outward appearance of a happily married couple,
but for most of the story Gretta does not play a prominent role
and Gabriel is preoccupied with other things. There is a sense
of distance and remoteness in this relationship underneath the
Conroys' affection that the musical does not communicate. To be
fair, I certainly liked the relationship on stage much more than
the one in the pages of "The Dead." It is much closer
to the kind of harmonious marriage most playgoers would like to
observe, but it does not offer an accurate depiction of the Conroys
relationship as Joyce represented it.
- Another problem with the musical
is the happy, upbeat nature of the dinner party. As noted, although
this feast was intended to be a festive occasion, the author presents
us with numerous suggestions to the contrary to undercut this
celebration. The stage version of the dinner is lively and all
of the guests seem in high spirits. There is no hint of anything
wrongeven the disagreement between Gabriel Conroy and Molly
Ivors over Irish politics is downplayed as Miss Ivors (unlike
in the story) does not leave the party after dinner. She and Conroy
even seem to reconcile their differences. Furthermore, the shows
creators/adaptors pull their trump card far too early in the show;
in effect, they force the viewers to read the last page of the
book first. By revealing that Gretta is pining away for another
man at the end of Act I, they rob the final scene of its dramatic
impact and significance.
- In the shows defense, the Artistic
Director/Producer of the Los Angeles Center Theatre Group claims
that the creators of this show have "ignored nearly every
rite of musical theatre" because they employ "song and
dance to darken the evening and sharpen the ache of loss"
(Program, P-2). Despite these intentions, the evening does not
seem dark or melancholy. The guests all sing cheerful songs, the
dancing is jubilant, and the dinner is full of mirth. Grettas
solo is one of few exceptions, as is Gabriels nod to those
no longer present from dinner parties past.
- The final exception is elderly Aunt
Julias song "When Lovely Lady." Her unhappiness,
however, stems from the musicals claim that she has lost
her voice in her old age. Part of the problem here is that the
actress who portrayed Julia in the Los Angeles production was
a strong singer. Moreover, in his text, Joyce tells us that Julias
voice is "strong and clear in tone." In the story, Julias
unhappiness comes not from the deterioration of her voice, but
from the song the elderly spinster chooses to sing, "Arrayed
for the Bridal." By changing the song Julia sings from the
bridal melody to "When Lovely Lady," the shows
creators distort the nature of her sorrow and detract from the
scenes poignancy and its ironic undertones.
- James Joyces The Dead
contains many other revisions. Some modifications, such as the
addition of song and dance seem benign. Other changes, such as
the added deathbed scene near the musicals conclusion, are
heavy-handed and effectively destroy the delicate web of subtlety
that Joyce labored to create. The story aims at confusing the
differences between life and death. To append an actual death
destroys any vagueness and could not make the distinctions clearer.
- The production seems a bit overdone
from the cheerful songs before dinner, to the thunderous chorus
of the finale. The ending of the story should be a poignant, intimate
moment: Gabriel has learned that his wife has loved another man.
When the story closes, the snow has started to fall again outside
the window, and we leave Gabriel ruminating over his marriage,
life, and death. In the musical, it is at this point that the
music swells and the entire cast rejoins the Conroys onstage to
sing a rousing finale, spoiling the intimacy of the whole scene.
Gretta awakens, and she and her husband share a moving embrace.
In the shows defense, perhaps Gretta and Gabriels
final reconciliation is added to make the show a guaranteed crowd-pleaser,
and from my experience, it worked. If this tendency toward exaggeration
is par for the course in stage musicals, then perhaps the piece
was ill-conceived from its inception, at least from a literary
- This review has been perhaps too
harsh, for the evening was an enjoyable one, and the audience,
to judge from their applause and standing ovation, was quite satisfied
with the experience. The problem lies in calling the musical James
Joyces The Dead. This title implies a definite fidelity
to Joyce and his text. This musical, as I have tried to demonstrate,
took great liberties with "The Dead." Instead of acknowledging
the striking differences in their finished product, they encourage
audiences to equate this show with the original story. This show
is not James Joyces "The Dead." It is a separate
and independent creation. As such, it has its own merits, but
from the literary perspective, it must, unfortunately, come up
University of California, Los Angeles