James Joyce’s The Dead
Directed by Michael Najjar
“The world, I’ve come to think is like the surface of a frozen lake. We walk along, we slip, we try to keep our balance and not to fall. One day there’s a crack, and so we learn that underneath us–is an unimaginable depth.” –James Joyce, “The Dead”
I first experienced James Joyce’s The Dead in August 2000 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. I remember being struck by the warmth and spirit of an Irish holiday party that I, as an audience member, was invited to attend for a few hours. That production must have left a lasting impression on me, for, when it came time to propose a musical for this year’s University Theatre season I instantly recalled that performance. James Joyce’s The Dead has a wonderful blend of rousing patriotic anthems, heartbreaking ballads, and traditional Irish jigs. In addition, there is a strong script (which won the Tony Award for Best Book in 2000) based on Joyce’s characters that conveys the spirit of the time.
Upon re-reading Joyce’s short story “The Dead” in his seminal book Dubliners, the quote above struck me to the core: “…and so we learn that underneath us–is an unimaginable depth.” Is it not so? Do we not go along living our lives on a surface level despite the unimaginable depths we may carry below? So many of our days, our interactions, and our goings on are spent carefully walking across the surface of this frozen lake called life. We rarely stop to think about the enormous wellspring of emotions we all have within us until a crack appears; then there is no denying that we have so much reckoning to accomplish before we finally depart this world.
The play is set during Epiphany, or, The Feast of the Three Kings, January 6th. Although Joyce’s story is set in 1904, we’ve moved our production to the year 1913, prior to World War I (1914-1918) and prior to the Irish “Easter Rising” (1916). It’s fitting that the celebration of this Epiphany coincides with the personal epiphanies of the main characters Gretta and Gabriel. This Misses Morkans’ holiday party represents the end of things: the last party with everyone alive and well after thirty years, the passing of loved ones, the departure of so many from the Irish homeland, and the end of peace in Ireland. It also marks the crack in Gretta’s soul that leads her into the abyss of emotion she’s hidden away for so long. Gabriel has a profound realization that the woman he married, who bore his children, and that he thought he knew better than himself is, in fact, a person that has a profound grief inside of her that he never knew, and never understood. Despite this seemingly sad ending, I believe that the message is quite hopeful. Had Gretta not confronted this melancholia inside her soul, the Conroy’s marriage would never really have been mature or complete. I view Gabriel’s last song “The Living and the Dead” as a paean and not a lament reinforcing that, while we are alive, we must live.
I also wish to acknowledge that this is a truly cross-disciplinary University of Oregon production. We’ve had the great pleasure of working with our colleagues from the UO School of Music and Dance–Brian McWhorter, Walter Kennedy, and Laura Decher Wayte–and the process has been collaborative and enriching. In addition, our talented cast and orchestra is comprised of students from the School of Music and Dance and students of Theatre Arts. We are grateful for all their efforts and feel fortunate to have had this rich artistic collaboration with them.
I was asked recently: is this a musical, or a play with music? The answer is: both. Davey and Nelson have merged Joyce’s prose with the lyrical and lovely music of Ireland. Now we invite you in with us to join this beautiful ensemble as they celebrate family, friends, and one last Epiphany together. As the Irish say, “may you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live.”
James Joyce’s The Dead in the News:
The Emperor of The Moon
Directed by J.K Rogers
The seventeenth century saw a veritable explosion of inquiry into the natural sciences. Galileo’s adaptation of the nautical telescope in the early decades of the 1600s, turning the instrument from distant horizons to the night sky continued the work of Copernicus in the previous century, and led to the eventual adoption of the heliocentric model of our solar system. For the first time, the lunar surface was able to be viewed and subsequently mapped, capturing the popular imagination and creating widespread speculation of life on other planets. However, like any “new” discovery, the trick becomes sifting through the information to decipher what is verifiable from wild speculation. It becomes significant to remember that while a mind like Isaac Newton (a contemporary of Aphra Behn) was writing on the principles of light and planetary movement, he was also writing about alchemy (called chymistry), suggesting a close relationship between what has come to be called “science” and elements of mysticism.
Aphra Behn is widely acknowledged as the first professional female playwright of the English stage. She is a deeply fascinating person, who was widely traveled—especially for a woman—in the late seventeenth century. As a young woman, she spent some time in Surinam, where her father was reportedly posted as Lieutenant Governor, and later served as an English spy against the Dutch during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. After being stranded in what is now the Netherlands, Behn eventually made her way back to England, where she began a professional career as a playwright, poet, author, and translator who was “forced to write for bread and not ashamed to owne it.” Many of Behn’s works seem to interrogate the role assigned to women in her time, questioning not only the purpose of marriage, but also advocating for the rights of women well before “women’s rights” were even a thing. Her play, The Emperor of the Moon (1687), was her second most popular play after The Rover(1677). It was based on a highly popular French farce, that, in turn, combined elements of the Italian commedia dell’arte with the popular astronomical findings of the time. Behn seems to question the role of the male-dominated institutional science within her world, and the ramifications of a public willing to believe everything it reads.
For me, the opportunity to direct a play such as The Emperor of the Moon speaks not only to the historical value of Behn’s contributions to theatre—frequently overlooked in both Theatre History and English literature classes—but also as a way to examine how we view information even today. With the twenty-first century ability to Google just about any topic and the surge of “news” websites that range from satire to outright opinion with little to no basis in fact, the task of filtering out the sound information from the unreliable grows ever more challenging. As such, it grows increasingly more important to learn not what to think, but how to think, lest we be fooled like Baliardo into believing everything we read.
Aphra Behn was the first professional female playwright, living in the early-to-mid 1600s. With that in mind, it might be a surprise to see characters dance to contemporary songs like “Gangnam Style,” and “Hound Dog.” Dismissing such a performance may be easy, to say “that isn’t the real Aphra Behn play.” Easy, but unfair and inaccurate.
Emperor of The Moon comes from an Italian theatrical style called Commedia Dell’arte. Commedia is rooted in improvisation; during fast-paced performances, actors would perform improvised skits and jokes, called lazzi. These comic moments were essential in making the Commedia the popular form we still recognize today.
To recreate these jokes as they were over four-hundred years ago wouldn’t be fair; such jokes would depend upon a culture we are unfamiliar with. In order to maintain the fast-paced traditions of the Commedia, we have updated the show. Behn’s original script remains almost entirely intact, but we have taken the liberty of making adjustments to keep the humor reasonably relatable.
This gets at the nature of theatre: plays change over time. Scripts may go untouched for centuries, but a script is only a blueprint, and every performance will be distinct. What you are about to witness shares many great similarities with performances from four-hundred years ago, including some plot and characters; but this performance will be unique among history.
-Ben M. Jones
Emperor of The Moon in The News:
New Voices 2017- Winners of a UO Playwriting Competition
Directed by Joseph Gilg
You are witnessing the birth of theatre. We have planted the seeds of these scripts with the intention of nurturing them into plays. You are an important ingredient in this process, some would say the final and most important ingredient, as theatre does not exist without an audience. It is what I love about directing new plays, being here at the moment of birth. Thanks for coming and helping us complete this task. It is going to be fun to see how these scripts mature and grow.
Theater offers us a space to question.
My great-grandfather, Anjaneyulu Kodali, to whom this play is dedicated, was jailed for writing plays against the British occupation of India. The British were terrified that theater could sway the masses to question.
This play is the uncomfortable conversation on race that everyone in America is afraid to have—because it questions our faith in this country’s supposed values. But this play is a space for self-reflection. As we watch four political players share their beliefs and experiences, we should also examine our own.
Is it always better to take the safe, easy path? Or should we struggle down the harder one that may not end so well?
— Sravya Tadepalli (The Fruit Stand)
“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.” –Arthur Conan Doyle
What happens to childhood friendships as we age, move physical and emotional distances apart, then return to one another? Where is the line between health and illness, between normality and abnormality? What does it mean to be haunted?
At its heart, this play is a ghost story. As children, we are seduced by nighttime tales told in basements, around campfires, at sleepovers, in moonless woods. But scary stories are no less compelling when we grow into adulthood. It’s just that, as adults, we are haunted by different kinds of ghosts.
As you watch this play, I invite you to ask the question: What are your ghosts?
–Cora Mills (On the Street Where We Used to Live)
New Voices 2017 in the News:
Directed by Christina Allaback
Cinderella Waltz is a freaky fairy tale that combines several versions of the Cinderella story: Charles Perrault’s charming version of Cinderella which inspired Disney, the Brother’s Grimm’s darker version, and Shakespeare’s King Lear. It is a waltz between these different versions of Cinderella, twisting, spinning, and challenging our expectations.
While Cinderella Waltz combines only three accounts of the story, understand that this is a story that has been told countless times. The first telling of the Cinderella story we know is from Ancient Egypt entitled “Rhodopis.” The next? “Ye Xian” from China 860. And on and on through the years, this story has been told and retold and changed and told again. It is almost as if the story has no time or place anymore. It represents many cultures and times, yet no culture in time. And tonight we tell Don Nigro’s version from 1978.
At the heart of Nigro’s Cinderella Waltz, is really the question “How do we find happiness?” As a society we are told that money through working hard will bring us happiness, success, and perhaps, fame. As we continue to work day after day, and scrimp and save, it becomes difficult to attain that which is unattainable, and increasingly so in today’s economic climate. Rosey Snow and her family see the glistening castle from afar and wish to be a part of that spectacle to find happiness. Perhaps that is all the castle is, merely an empty spectacle. And Rosey learns this in a difficult and trying manner. Is this a happy ending? Is she in the right fairy tale?
“One writes fables in periods of oppression.” -Italo Calvino
— Christina Allaback
Cinderella Waltz in the news:
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Directed by Tricia Rodley
You may be wondering how we created this production of a work that calls itself a “post-electric play,” spans over 82 years, disrupts its own through-line, features a musical third act, and exists in one playing space. We have embraced theatricality on many levels. We have asked many “What if…?” questions. We have laughed a lot, cried sometimes, grumbled occasionally, sung, and danced. We have researched our history, talked about our present, and pondered our future.
Anne Washburn and her collaborators created a delicately interconnected event with Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. We have joined that collaboration, tromping around in our muddy boots (literally) to bring you a unique, challenging, and shared experience in our theater.
We welcome you, audience and fellow theatrical risk-takers, to our telling of these stories! As you proceed, please detour at will through your own responses to post-apocalyptic survival, nuclear catastrophe, memory, nostalgia, music videos, melodrama and its good vs. evil fisticuffs, misinformation, loss, grief, hope, and The Simpsons (but these characters do not look or behave quite like the versions you know).
If you come from Springfield, Oregon, you deserve a special welcome and thank you – we love the mural!
I’m taking the liberty to speak for our production team when I say that we hope this theatrical entertainment celebrates our shared communities as well as our complex questions. Personally, I invite you to “breathe, when breath is useless” and “love when love is gone.” And then, cause a little (or big) hullabaloo if you can.
— Tricia Rodley, Director
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play in the news: