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Review: A new attempt to waken The Dead 

by D.R.O’Connor Lyaght

24 December 2012

The Dead is arguably James Joyce’s finest short story. Thanks, in part, to John Huston’s directing his adaptation as one of the most successful film versions of the author’s work, it is certainly the most famous. Now the Abbey Theatre, aided by the adaptor Frank McGuinness has placed it on the live stage over the Christmas holiday, including Twelfth Night, the 109th anniversary of the fictional dinner the story describes.  Two questions must be asked: how far does this attempt succeed in conveying the message of the work and what is its relevance today, particularly since the centenary of the fictional event described occurred without its staging. 

The first question must be answered at some length. The Dead is the last of a collection of stories linked by the theme of the refusal of the members of the Dublin petit bourgeoisie to act to liberate itself. They are presented in order corresponding to human growth usually, but not always reflected in the story’s central character but also tending to reflect an increasing objective potential for that character to achieve change. In The Dead Gabriel Conroy is shown to have all the qualities necessary for the task save for the will. The story traces his discovery of his failure, climaxing in that of the one thing he believes he has shown initiative and commitment, his marriage. There is an obvious inspiration for it in the last play of Henrick Ibsen on which the young Joyce had written an essay; it was called When We Dead Awaken, its last words being “when we dead awaken, we will know we have never really lived.”  

How this is shown off the page depends on the adaptor. Here McGuinness’ presentation must be compared to the screenplay of Tony Huston, with the original story as referee. What is notable about that work is the way that it gets into Conroy’s mind whilst showing the inadequacy of the philosophy of life that mind justifies. This involves leaving a number of fascinating loose ends in connection with the supporting characters. Why is Lizzie so hostile to men? Why does Miss Ivors have to leave early?  Is Bartell D’Arcy’s hoarseness the product of a slight but persistent cold or of something more serious? In comparison, the reader is told a great deal about Conroy and his family and provided with clues as to the cause of his consciously unadventurous life: that his mother was able to save him from the ruin of her family’s business by a good marriage and a formidable will that got him through University College and into a teaching job, it is hinted at Blackrock College, compensating for loss of economic status with cultural status and at the expense of her son’s willpower, save, and, as is shown, only partially, in the matter of his marriage.

Joyce adaptors deal with this in similar ways, sticking to the text with various diversions. Huston is more inclined to stray, with unfortunate results. It is he who explains Miss Ivors early departure as being to attend a meeting addressed by James Connolly at Liberty Hall (In 1904, the assumed date of the party, Connolly was in America and Liberty Hall still the rundown Northumberland Hotel.). Bartell D’Arcy’s role is expanded to demonstrate the limited acting talents of Frank Patterson at the cost of destroying the function of D’Arcy in the story (He is not the romantic would-be seducer of the film, but a serious artist, far more dedicated to music than Conroy can be about anything.). McGuinness is more subtle. For him, Miss Ivors departure remains a mystery and, though he hints more than Joyce did, about D’Arcy’s romantic inclinations, he does not allow them to overshadow his professionalism. At the same time, he allows Conroy slightly more interest in Lizzie’s problems than either Joyce or Huston.

Where both adaptation fail is at the end. Neither Huston nor McGuinness can accept Joyce’s conclusion, that Conroy overcomes his shock at finding himself only a second-best lover to his wife and resigns himself to living, essentially as a “dead man walking”. Both adaptors seem hypnotised by the magnificence of his last speech, and it is, in its way, a shorter precursor of Mollie Bloom’s soliloquy, that they fail to notice its defeatism. Indeed, in his programme notes, McGuinness, hints that the work as an whole (not just through Miss Ivors) foreshadows the Easter Rising, with an implication that Conroy would have been in the G.P.O. He wouldn’t. 

Yet this hint improves the politics of the play precisely because it betrays the intentions of those who commissioned it. Today, unlike in 2004, the attitude of Gabriel Conroy is very useful to the powers that be, if they are to continue to rely on the quiescence of the exploited and oppressed in their subordination of economic policy to the needs of the banks. The Abbey production plays a role, if minor compared to Enda’s cover grin, in reassuring people that all is for the best, all people are islands and they should not try to interfere with the life of others outside the family. How far this message is likely to be popular outside today’s Gabriel Conroys or indeed among anyone other than the rich as the recession continues is, of course, very doubtful. Nonetheless, it is a message useful to the ruling classes. Gabriel’s horn must be sounded that the dead remain the dead. They are so much less troublesome than the living.    


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