Considered one of the most influential works in literature, Dublin native James Joyce published the novel “Ulysses”—and the day-long journey of protagonist Leopold Bloom—in 1922. Some 92 years later, it’s still considered the starting point of the modern novel. Thus, across the world on June 16th—an important day in the novel, as that’s when Bloom begins his journey in 1904—the literary world celebrates what has become “Bloomsday.”
Inspired by Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey,” “Ulysses” exists within fascinating historical context. “The poem was memorized and recited before it was written down and became one of the oldest stories to be preserved,” Gwenyfar Rohler, owner of Old Books on Front Street, says.
Each year, as folks gather to read passages from the novel during Bloomsday, something communal evolves. “To share a literary experience and performance, to be in a moment of connection not only with the people in the room, but also with the people in the story, and the people who have shared the story for thousands of years, is deeply powerful,” Rohler continues.
The Irish were not the first to begin observing the novel officially. In fact, the French started the tradition after the 1929 release of the translation “Ulysse.” In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of Leopold Bloom’s adventure, a lunch was held at the Hotel Leopold near Versailles. It would spawn future celebrations in the area.
The very first so-named “Bloomsday” occurred in 1954, on the 50th anniversary of Leopold’s adventure in Ireland. Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien (both writers), among a few others, toured the city and visited different locations that coincided with the book. Members of the party were assigned roles to read parts, all while drinking along the way. Their commemoration established itself worldwide.
Old Books on Front Street in downtown Wilmington will celebrate Joyce’s literature on Monday with its first marionette show. The novel will come to life thanks to Nina Bays-Cournoyer and her husband, Bryan who were approached by Rohler to create the marionettes.
The Cournoyers created the puppets for the show in complete tandem, with Nina sculpting and costuming and Bryan stringing them. Nina first started working on puppets while attending the Rhode Island School of Design. Her fascination was heightened as she spent a winter session during her college career under the tutelage of an artist from the esteemed Jim Henson Company. It has only been this past year, though, that she has focused her attention to specifically on marionettes. “I really enjoy learning how to combine the sculptural aesthetics of a piece with the mechanics of movement,” Bays-Cournoyer says. “Ulysses is quite a tome to tackle in its entirety, so Gwenyfar gave us a specific passage to work with. We narrowed it down to three seminal characters: Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Mrs. Breen (Leopold’s childhood love).”
Character personalities are demonstrated in each of the marionettes, which capture aspects of the story in their appearance and movement. For example, Bays-Cournoyer dressed mismatched pants and coat for Leopold because in the book he had to borrow the jacket. Likewise, Dedalus appears disheveled with a lipstick-stained handkerchief—a sign he had recently visited a brothel. Bays-Cournoyer researched the characters and the clothing of the time period to ensure accuracy.
“Each marionette is an exploration in mixed-media sculpture, using modeling compound, fabric, wood, acrylic paint, and various skulls to convey both a corporal sense intertwined with a bit of humor,” she adds. “Hey, it’s 20th century Ireland—they need a laugh.”
After finishing the marionettes, the two get to sit back and watch local actresses Gina Gambony and Christy Grantham bring the characters to life. Gambony has been a puppeteer for many years, though she does not generally get to work with marionettes. She carefully has prepared to properly represent “Ulysses” Episode 15: Circe. Basically, in the midst of the plot, the reader comes across a play within the novel itself, which the marionettes and their puppeteers will perform.
“It is nearly painful to watch a puppet show where the puppets are not speaking, interacting, or making meaningful movement for any length of time,” Gambony notes, “so that has been the biggest thing—focusing on keeping it dynamic and interesting to watch. Strong voices and actions that tell the story: That’s the simple recipe. Not an easy recipe but a simple one.”
There is an upright acoustic piano at Old Books that resident pianist James Jarvis will occupy throughout the performance. He has scored a piece for the show, entitled “Monuments.” It will help foster the ambiance and bring audiences into the time frame of “Ulysses.
“It started as an inspired tribute to composer Aaron Copeland and his piano works,” Jarvis explains. “However, there are elements of composer Maurice Ravel, 1875-1937, that fit nicely in the timeline of writer James Joyce.”
As well, there will be Whiskey cakes with Irish cream frosting offered and beer and wine for sale. The Bloomsday festival at Old Books will be held on June 16th, marking the 110th anniversary of Leopold’s journey. All are invited and encouraged to attend.
Saturday, June 16th,
7:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Old Books on Front Street
249 North Front Street