The Dead, the closing story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, is written in simple, direct, ‘unJoycean’ language. It’s a psychological portrait of one man, Gabriel Conroy, on the occasion of his aged Aunts’ musical soirée, held annually on the twelfth day of Christmas. The language may be simple but the result is a beautiful, allusive tissue of feeling, as delicate as a flake of the snow which is “general all over Ireland” on the night of the Miss Morkans’ party.
The emotional impact of the story gradually and gently builds, culminating in the moment when Gabriel realizes that, while he has been full of “tenderness, joy and desire” inspired by his adored wife Gretta, her heart and mind have been elsewhere, dwelling on the loss of a young man who allowed himself to die for love of her many years before. They’re both alone, despite the years of a happy, successful marriage. Time is ineluctably passing, death, with its eternal separation, fast approaching.
Joe Dowling’s production of Frank McGuinness’ dramatisation – which is more of an adaptation – despite the attractive elegance of the staging, is a crude and, to those who know and appreciate the story, bitter disappointment.
The wrong-headedness of McGuinness’ approach is apparent when he writes in the notes prefacing the script that “two events haunt The Dead”: the Irish Famine and the future Easter Rising. The Famine “would be an abiding memory to all the guests at the dinner.” Well, it would if they were all in their forties and fifties (the story is set in 1904), which they aren’t. But apart from that, there’s the sheer presumptiveness of telling us what would be on the minds of Joyce’s neatly, fully drawn characters.
The Famine casts not a hint of shadow over the story, and neither does the Rising of 1916. There is one character, Miss Ivors (Fiona Bell), a nationalist who goads Gabriel because he ‘unpatriotically’ writes a column for The Daily Express. But her real purpose is to intensify Gabriel’s itching sense of isolation from the party itself and Dublin life in general, not to act as some kind of harbinger of political upheaval.
Dowling misses no opportunity to milk the limited action for laughs. From Lily (Charlotte McCurry) who takes the coats and serves drinks, with her unrealistically aggressive attitude to the guests, to Freddy Malins (Lorcan Cranitch) and Mrs Malins (Rosaleen Linehan), the staggering drunk and his excessively, comically disapproving mother. No one is spared. Aunt Julia Morkan (Anita Reeves), described by Gabriel as one of “the three graces of Dublin musical society,” sings ridiculously, clownishly badly; the professional tenor D’Arcy (Morgan Crowley), who later ignites Gretta’s memory of her dead lover with his singing, is a mincing fop; even Gretta’s wholly serious complaint to Gabriel that his mother never forgave her for coming from Galway is delivered for laughs.
There’s no doubt that Joyce cocks a snook at the ingrained pretensions of the occasion, and his characters parochialism, but it barely registers as a sardonic murmur. Dowling goes for the belly laughs.
The all-pervading humour-milking might’ve been more bearable if it weren’t for the seriously, violently miscast Gabriel. There isn’t the faintest whisper of introspection anywhere about the person of Stanley Townsend. And certainly not the faintest, dimmest rumble of McGuinness’ “riot of emotions.” With the unctuous vocal timbre of a radio talk-show host Gabriel’s words are nothing but a thick warm porridge of vapid ineffectiveness. He effectively dies the first moment he opens his mouth, and takes the production with him.
And yet Derbhle Crotty effects a late-flowering, but beautiful burst of dramatic renaissance in the closing, crucial scene with Gabriel in their hotel room. In answer to his dull question about her “strange mood” she becomes transfigured in relating the story of Michael Furey, the boy who died of love for her. Michael appears at the back of the stage, singing the air she heard earlier, and she cries, weeps, though barely moving, and it comes from out of the deepest, tenderest well of her heart. She keens, rather than cries, girlishly vulnerable in her underclothes, whose warmth you can almost feel. Completely lost, she fingers the bedpost and then lies down on the bed, alone, to sleep. It’s a beautiful, powerful, intensely expressive performance made all the more powerful through its contrast with the hollow lamentations that follow from Gabriel, mouthing Joyce’s McGuinness-doctored poetic prose.