A monologue by the late Aíne Szymanski.
An historical note: Aíne had been doing readings on Bloomsday for some years when Bloomsday in Melbourne commenced theatrical recreations of Ulysses in 1994. She had been a powerhouse in Melbourne, writing and performing bowdlerised versions of plays based on the Cuchulainn saga, Táin bó Cuailgne, notably Maeve of Connaught (1889) and Revolt in the Middle Kingdom (1991). She was well known in the Irish community as a thoroughly genteel and modest (in every sense) woman, and an enabling community activist. Aged 74, and feigning old-lady gentility, she performed the monologue below, a formal farewell to sanitised readings of Joyce, at that first Bloomsday at Molly Bloom’s Pub in South Melbourne as a teaser for the main theatrical event. She had a bit-part in the play that followed, that of the Veiled Sybil from Circe, who is a fervent supporter of Bloom until his moral peccadillo (using a condom) exposes his non-adherence to Catholic church teaching, and subsequently, exuberantly and ironically (in Catholic catechetics, suicide is a much worse sin), kills herself. Not long before her death in 2010, she presented the monologue to Frances Devlin-Glass for inclusion in the Bloomsday Archive.
This is the story of an elderly lady who was afflicted with a very delicate conscience. In a way she was rather like the Ancient Mariner who having committed a grave crime in his youth was compelled to confess it to all and sundry for the remainder of his life. Not that the old girl in question had shot an albatross or anything like that, but she too, many years before, had committed the monstrous sin of tampering with the work of one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers of the twentieth century, James Aloysius Joyce. And she, like the Ancient Mariner of old, had a strong compulsion to confess her sin to at least one person each year on the sixteenth of June. It happened like this. More than two decades ago, long before James Joyce was as widely known in Melbourne as he is today, a small group of Joycean devotees had been gathering annually on Bloomsday to read excerpts from his immortal work, Ulysses.
One of these fans, a Melbourne restaurateur, Eddie Hayes, decided to promote Joyce Down Under by organizing a dinner at Bunratty Castle (South Melbourne) in his honour. To enliven the proceedings, he arranged with members of the ‘Fan Club’ to read passages from Ulysses throughout the meal.
The reading allocated to the senior subject of this story was a sizable slice of Molly Bloom’s great soliloquy which brings Ulysses to a close, a wonderful piece of writing which she had loved and chuckled over in private for many years. But a couple of days before the event, she found that she had a serious problem. Try as she might, she could not bring herself to speak Molly’s famous words aloud. Call it her age, her rather puritanical Catholic upbringing or whatever you like, but every time she came to a naughty word or questionable phrase, something surfaced from the depths of her old subconscious and struck her dumb. She panicked. It was too late to back out and spoil what was promising to be a splendid night. She had to act quick smart, and she did.
Armed with pencil, eraser and her copy of Ulysses, she decided to delete all the passages and words that were bothering her. After all, she reckoned, most of the diners wouldn’t know the difference anyway. She scrubbed scrupulously, crossed out, linked up, and cleaned up so thoroughly that after work on the script, Molly Bloom emerged morally sanitized, disinfected, and as near to being sterilized as was humanly possible. In fact, when the exercise was complete, not even a Cardinal could find fault with Molly’s character, behaviour, or reputation. Pure as the driven snow, a more decent specimen of Irish womanhood it would be hard to find in a day’s walk.
Puffed up with pride in her achievement our hero allowed her imagination full rein. She even persuaded herself that had she been around to keep an eye on Joyce when he was writing it, his Ulysses might never have been banned by the State nor put on the Church’s dreaded index of undesirable publications.
Anyway, on June 16, a packed house was delighted with the readings including the cleaned-up version of Molly. But the old dear had not reckoned with the attentions of a huge bloke who, during the meal had been seen lounging nonchalantly against the wall at the back of the dining room. The applause was already waning as he approached the reader and asked to see her copy of Ulysses. Having examined it closely, he looked at her for a full minute before declaring to the now silent room, ‘Missus, you left out all the good bits!’
To make a long story short, the unfortunate victim was publicly exposed as a miserable old fraud who’d had the temerity to alter a great writer’s work. Covered in shame, the poor old soul slunk out by the back door, sacrificing the best and final course of her meal, the pavlova which she loved. But every cloud has a silver lining, they say. The following day, the local bookseller was inundated with requests for copies of Ulysses. Sold out by noon, he appealed to his book dealer friends for help, only to find that they too had a similar problem.
You will be happy to know that in the intervening years, the old ‘Ancient’ concerned was counseled and ‘shrunk’ so thoroughly that she no longer needed to confess her sin each year on June 16. Since that dreadful night, Molly Bloom has been more honestly and sympathetically treated by enlightened readers and uninhibited actors who have restored her to her natural raucous self. Last report on that famous reader was that she became so liberated, conscience-free, and even skittish that she went off Joyce altogether in favour of, believe it or not, William Butler Yeats.
Aine Szymanski (1922-2010)