Monday, January 3, 2022

Ulysses in Nighttown

James Joyce is known for his prose fiction, not for drama, though he did pen the 1918 play Exiles, rejected by W.B. Yeats for the Abbey Theatre.

A more famous play by Joyce was not intended as a play at all. When he wrote the "Circe" section of his novel Ulysses, Joyce decided to craft it in the form of a play, complete with character headings, dialogue, and stage directions.

That "play" never meant for performance has been staged, however, most famously in Marjorie Barkentin's adaptation Ulysses in Nighttown. Jonathan Greenberg gives an excellent account of the 1958 premiere of the play in a recent issue of PMLA.

Apparently, the producers of Ulysses in Nighttown originally wanted to cast Irish actors in the play "to insure fidelity to Joyce's characters and atmosphere," according to a press release. When stars of the Dublin stage proved unavailable, Barkentin instead offered the leading role to Burgess Meredith.

Meredith instead wanted to direct the play, bringing John Astin on board to assistant direct. (As Greenberg slyly notes in his article "Springtime for Ulysses," that means "for fans of the TV show Batman, the production was in the hands of the Penguin and the Riddler.") To play the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, Meredith hired Zero Mostel, a move that reinvigorated Mostel's career.

Both Meredith and Mostel had been blacklisted following their uncooperative appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Mostel--in a loud stage whisper--had referred to the chairman of the committee as a "schmuck" during the hearings.) This would be their chance to do on stage what Hollywood no longer allowed them to do in front of a camera. The venue was the Rooftop Theater on Houston Street. Yes, the theatre was literally on the roof, with the ground floor of the building being a cinema that had previously been home to a prominent Yiddish theatre company. (The second floor was the headquarters for a bagel workers union. Only in New York....)

The play featured not only Mostel, but also Carroll O'Connor as Buck Mulligan, Anne Meara as Mrs. Breen, and Bea Arthur as Bella Cohen. Mostel received an Obie Award for his performance. The broad comedy of his acting fit with the source material, since Joyce frequently referenced popular entertainers in Ulysses, including Marie Kendall, Jenny Lind, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

Success in Ulysses in Nighttown allowed Mostel to work again after years of being blacklisted, and it also endowed him with a new reputation for interpreting avant-garde absurdist drama. He played Estragon in a television adaptation of Waiting for Godot by Joyce's former research assistant Samuel Beckett, and was in Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros.

In 1962, Mostel played Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and then in 1964 he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Those who never saw him on stage probably remember him best, however, as Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks's 1967 film The Producers. The name of the other producer in that movie? Leo Bloom.

This was no coincidence. As Greenberg points out, Brooks himself has said he chose the name Leo Bloom in tribute to the Leopold Bloom of Joyce's novel. Sometimes, influences pop up even where you least expect them.