A Portrait of the Rebellious Artist – foretastes of a stage adaptation of Joyce’s novel

Brooding poet, Stephen Daedalus, played by Matt Dorning. Photo by Bernard Peasley.

Brooding poet and conflicted religionist, Stephen Dedalus, played by Matt Dorning. Photo by Bernard Peasley.

Behind the Scenes at Bloomsday, by scripters Frances Devlin-Glass and Bruce Beswick.

2016 is the centenary year of the publication of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the enduring popularity of the novel will be celebrated in Melbourne from 15 to 19 June with performances of an original theatrical adaptation at fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane. Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, is the modernist prototype of the rebellious artist hero, a character who has inspired artists and writers throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Today, with record numbers of young people enrolling in creative writing courses, the Künstlerroman, or artist’s coming-of-age story, is more popular than ever.

Joyce’s Portrait was a very long time in the making: he worked on it from 1904 to 1914, and it was not published until December 1916. He began while he was in Dublin in early 1904, even before he eloped with Nora Barnacle to live in Europe, and impressively penned Chapter XI of the apprentice novel, Stephen Hero, on his de facto honeymoon in Zurich, during the tumultuous weeks before he found work in Pola and Trieste. As its title suggests, the first draft was an unalloyed romantic celebration of the artist as hero, but Joyce hurled it in anger into the fire, and began again with a keener eye and a harder edge, under a title his brother Stanislaus originally suggested for an essay: A Portrait of the Artist. Jim added the rest.

The novel’s midwives – those who brought it to publication – were an unlikely trio: W. B. Yeats, who recommended Joyce’s poetry to Ezra Pound, a young man intent on redefining poetry in the modern age, and – the real hero of this exacting publishing event – Harriet Shaw Weaver, a Quaker feminist and freethinker, and the editor of The New Freewoman (which later, under Pound, became The Egoist). To publish the work, Harriet faced off Zeppelin raids in London, and – much fiercer – the Society for the Suppression of Vice, which cowed writers, put publishing empires into liquidation and even printers in jail. While the Portrait was never as contentious as Ulysses, plenty found it objectionable and could not admire its call to arms to the new century. Its satire and comedy at the expense of all the systems that bind the individual into society – some of which are fundamental to functioning as a social being – were not evident to all readers.

Joyce was determined to go where Victorian novelists writing about emancipation of the individual had not. How does the child understand and negotiate his own body? What role do religion, morality and literature play in the way a child lives in his body? Should they have a role? Joyce’s own story was one of institutional brutality, teenage rebellion, and eventually, freedom through self-expression. He rebelled against his family, his school, his church, his country and finally, his language, becoming the most creative, challenging and celebrated novelist of his time. In Stephen Dedalus, he gives us a mind that is acutely observant, loves to play with language, is critical of its uses, and is continually in motion – even as a tiny boy, Stephen is a rebel without a pause, a rebel with a cause: thinking, testing, revising, and experimenting with reality. Even in this early fiction, Joyce’s awareness of the New Sexology – the ground-breaking rise of what we now think of as the Psychiatry movement – is brought into the mix: infantile sexuality, the pain/pleasure borderland, the agonies of erotic guilt.

This stage adaptation of the novel, written and produced by Bloomsday in Melbourne’s scripting team, with Hoy Polloy’s Wayne Pearn directing Matt Dorning as Stephen, captures both the enduring relevance of the story and its self-critical edge, bringing it into the postmodern era with a few contemporary innovations. Audiences can expect to see a production that is tailored for its time but utterly true to the enduring spirit of the original. The scenes in which the author’s innocent younger self is caned by a cruel teacher and the story of his use of prostitutes and subsequent confession by age 16 have lost none of their shock value.

Joyce’s engagement with the Jesuits – they recur as characters in the novel – was a study in the equivocation that is their popular stereotype. Jesuits oversaw almost the whole of Joyce’s formal education, from his early years at Clongowes Wood College, where he went to board aged 6, to Belvedere College in central Dublin, and finally the Jesuit-run Royal University (which would become University College Dublin) on Stephen’s Green, which he left in 1902, just before he turned 21. There is little of that education he forgot – even the subject matter of exam papers finds a place in the novels. He learnt much, avoided the subjects that weren’t useful to a poet, and independently read writers who subverted the Jesuits’ syllabi – Alexandre Dumas (author of The Count of Monte Cristo) and Lord Byron. Though the ‘cursed Jesuit strain’ may have been ‘injected the wrong way’, as Buck Mulligan claims in Ulysses, Joyce may be in more senses than one a ‘jejune Jesuit’. Despite his formal rejection of Jesuit tutelage, he was indebted to their traditions, and admired the rigour and consistency of the Jesuit and Catholic world-view. Indeed, a Jesuit’s imaginative invention of hell may have been as important to his poetic and literary formation as anything in Shakespeare, in its focus on embodiment and its systematic deployment of the senses – techniques Joyce took to a high art in Ulysses. Scholars have come to understand that Jesuitry is an essential ingredient in his understanding of the world – as significant as his reading of Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Homer and Irish mythology – but also something from which he would seek to free himself.

In this dramatization, as is usual with its productions, Bloomsday in Melbourne reserves the right to have its own debate with Joyce, and the nuns are the most exotic and un-Joycean import into the play. The novel is rich in inner speech, and makes many allusions to Catholic tradition, and the nuns usefully dramatise those traditions and function as an expressionist theatrical device, and  at times as a chorus. Although Stephen’s development is presented as a dialogue between religion and sexuality, for his real-life counterpart, poetry emerged directly out of his experience of religious language. Even his experience of his body as erotic owes much to ecclesiastical language, in particular the litanies. In Joyce’s case, poetry came with baptism, and was entrenched by Ignatian meditative practices. Notions of moral adversarialism (inspired by heroic saints) and independence also came with the territory, along with scarifying moral dilemmas which brought him into collision with the pious and unquestioning.

On a local note, in 2007, Richard O’Sullivan, one of Bloomsday’s patrons, discovered that two real-life Jesuits (on whom Joyce based characters) spent time in Melbourne. One – Fr Francis Browne SJ – all but bankrupted Xavier College. He posthumously acquired fame as a photographer, and that legacy lives on. The other – the courtly John Conmee SJ – tantalizingly wrote a report on Jesuit education in Australia (at Xavier and Riverview, in particular). He arrived in Melbourne in October 1907, while Joyce was writing about him, no doubt. So far, Jesuit archivists around the world have failed to find his report. From what we can discern, it was not flattering.

More information about the play and its accompanying seminar is available at on the Bloomsday website.

Frances Devlin-Glass  heads the script team of Bloomsday in Melbourne (an organisation which annually celebrates Joyce’s fiction on 16 June), and Bruce Beswick is one of several script-writers of this year’s adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.



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