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II. The Irish Short Story

Joycean Drama and the Remaking of Yeats's Irish Theatre in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

Ben Forkner
p. 89-108

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

James Joyce, William Butler Yeats

Texte intégral

  • 1  Letters of James Joyce, eds Stuart Gilbert and Richard Ellmann (New York: Viking Press, 1966), p.4 (...)

1It is easy enough to list the key dates in the history of Joyce's Dubliners, beginning in July, 1904, when George Russell (A.E.) invited Joyce to write something “simple" for The Irish Homestead in order to make a little “easily earned money."1 It is more difficult to explain how the idea of Dubliners took form in Joyce's mind with such clarity and completeness almost immediately once the invitation had been made. At the time, the prospects of the twenty-two year old Joyce could not have been more uncertain and unfocused.  For over a year, having failed in his half-hearted attempt to study medicine in Paris the year before, his day-to-day existence in Dublin after his mother's death the previous August seemed trapped in a chronic crisis of indirection and false starts.

2He attended a few lectures in law at the university, and then in medicine. He cast around for support in his plan to start a new Dublin newspaper, but soon lost interest when he could not borrow enough money to back the venture. He taught a few weeks as a substitute teacher. He took music lessons, and performed well in a singing contest, but was disqualified because he refused to sightread an unfamiliar score.  He did meet Nora Barnacle in June, a meeting that would soon change his life for good.  More symptomatic of his immediate existence were his spells of drinking and cynicism. Having left his father's household, or what was left of it, an outspoken, self-disinherited son, he continued to spin from one impasse to another, always penniless, and often not sure where he could find a room to sleep.

3He never stopped writing, but the strange multitude of forms he experimented with stubbornly failed to reveal the fundamental unity his later works would eventually recognize and affirm.  For the time being, there was far more conflict than coherence in his efforts. His epiphanies, those short symbolical sketches he was collecting in a notebook for the future, divided themselves uneasily between intense prose poems on one hand, and cryptic, undramatic scraps of Dublin dialogue on the other. And at the same time he drifted back and forth indecisively between the delicate lyrical verse he later came to disregard, and the long autobiographical novel, Stephen Hero, which took him ten years to finally transform into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

4Thus when we contemplate the origins of Dubliners, we are left with the mystery of a sudden new decision, undertaken and completed (despite the many obstacles he faced in finding a publisher) with absolute authority and steadfastness of purpose. One possible answer to the mystery may lie in the literary activity of Dublin itself during the summer of 1904, largely due to Yeats's highly publicised campaign to establish a national theater for Irish dramatists. Joyce had followed Yeats's efforts from the beginning, all the way back to the Dublin opening of the movement on May 8, 1899, when the first performance of Yeats's The Countess Cathleen was loudly condemned as anti-Catholic, thus, of course, as anti-Irish. Yeats thrived on popular storms of outraged pieties, especially in Dublin, and so did Joyce who, as readers of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man will remember, refused to sign the petition of protest his fellow students at the university published two days later in The Freeman's Journal.

  • 2  The relationship between Yeats and Joyce as one of “spiritual" father and “spiritual" son deserves (...)

5By the summer of 1904, however, much had happened, and Joyce's initial approval of Yeats's initiative had become far more of a challenge to his own literary ambitions and principles, to say the least.  He felt that Yeats had betrayed his promise of bringing the best of modern European drama to Dublin, especially since Yeats himself had never failed to praise Ibsen (whom Joyce worshipped) as the one great model the new Irish theatre should follow.  In October, 1901, Joyce had raised his own cry of protest, with as much Dublin ostentation as possible, by writing “The Day of the Rabblement," an attack on the revival's conservatism (and failure of will) that Yeats obviously took to heart, and remembered years later. To Yeats's credit, he realized that Joyce's youthful defiance (he was nineteen years old at the time) was also a sort of filial appeal for recognition. Even after their first meeting a year later, when Joyce repeated his attack face to face, Yeats often went out of his way to help him.2

  • 3  I use the term Irish Theatre to describe collectively all of Yeats's successive efforts to create (...)

6As for Joyce in the summer of 1904, despite his protests and public disavowals, he still remained sensitive to Yeats's authority and influence, and to his resounding success in finding a permanent home in Dublin for the Irish Theatre.3 All during the summer the old Mechanics Institute on Abbey Street was being transformed into the Abbey Theatre, with workers busily remaking the interiors, and fitting the windows with the stained glass designed with what was supposed to be a Celtic nut tree. Joyce, though priding himself on standing outside the movement, could not keep away. Not always sober, he attended rehearsals at the temporary quarters on Camden Street, one night creating the scandal that he later commemorated in Ulysses. When George Russell asked Joyce a few weeks later to write something for The Irish Homestead, Joyce knew very well that Russell had been named one of the vice-presidents of the  Irish Literary Theatre. Thus, Joyce's attitude towards Yeats and the Irish Theatre was far from being one-sided or simple. At this stage in the argument, to say that Joyce depended on Yeats in order to define his own independence is perhaps the safest way to state the case.

  • 4  Ben Forkner, A New Book of Dubliners (London: Methuen, 1988), pp. xvii-xxxiii.

7In the preface to the anthology A New Book of Dubliners, I found it helpful to consider Joyce's writing of Dubliners, from original conception to final form, as a conscious counterstatement of sorts to the type of theater Yeats was trying to bring to Dublin.4Yeats's rejection of Dublin from the very stage he was trying to convince Dubliners to acclaim must have struck Joyce as a remarkable irony that fate had singled him out to challenge and to exploit. Almost at once, he began to explore every possible implication of Dublin as a force in his own development, and in his vision of the world. One implication involved the whole question of “Irishness." The exclusion of the living modern Dubliner (thus Joyce himself) from Yeats's insistence on the heroic, the saintly, and the archaic as the only Irish qualities worth celebrating led the young Joyce to consider the problem of “identity" itself as one of the perverse effects of being Irish. For Joyce, any single identity, glorified or not, national or local, was a death-threat to the individual's vital independence, and to his capacity for change and development. Dubliners can be read, to some extent, as a losing battle between tryranical identities and weak individuals.

8It can also be read as a declaration of dramatic realism (under the banner of the banished Ibsen), as a more honest method of testing the truth of Ireland than Yeats's dramatic idealism. When he began Dubliners, Joyce insisted primarily on the negative demands of Irish identity: historical, religious, and political. These were the forces that helped maintain the Irish character in a permanent state of paralysis. Here too the theater helped Joyce frame his argument. To accept an identity that had been fixed by the past was to accept a role that would diminish the future. The hopeless repetition of inherited roles became the dominant Joycean metaphor of the Irish condition.

  • 5  James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Modern Library, 1961), p. 34 and p. 211.

9And yet the past could not be denied, and Joyce was beginning to realize that the playing of roles was a basic factor in all human development, including his own. In a letter he wrote to Nora Barnacle in August, 1904, a few weeks after he had begun Dubliners, he warns her about false impressions: “Can you not see the simplicity which is at the back of all my disguises? We all wear masks" (L, II, p. 49). Since the wearing of masks is inevitable, Joyce suggests that the refusal to recognize this fact is the primary threat to the inner self, not the masks themselves.  The stage can be seen as a closed circle of endless repetition, or as the privileged place of self-discovery, of the human being acting himself from role to role into a fuller revelation of his individual existence. Stephen Dedaelus in Ulysses, haunted by Irish fatalism, by the fear of being trapped in the “nightmare of history," urges himself to seek new experience, and “to act, and to be acted on."5

10It took Joyce several years before he was able to fully combine these antagonistic perceptions into a complete theory of human character. But when he began writing Dubliners in the summer of 1904, the theatrical possibilities of the Dublin that Yeats and the Irish Theatre seemed to deliberately scorn led him directly into a dramatic vision of the world that his novels, at least, would never leave. Though Dubliners sets forward a bleak succession of Irish failures to counter Yeats's elevated Irish heroes, there are signs all through the collection that Dublin possessed resources of independent life that Yeats and his Abbey friends were wrong to ignore. Otherwise, how was Joyce to account for himself? Even Joyce's organization of the stories into a movement from childhood to maturity implies a half-hidden possibility of human development, a faint blueprint of hope despite all the evidence to the contrary.

11Still, the dominant note of Dubliners is the hopelessness or paralysis that Joyce insisted on in various letters to his brother Stanislaus and to his prospective publishers. Certainly when we turn to “Ivy Day in the Committee Room," Joyce's most deliberate  echo of Yeats and the Irish Theatre, almost all the dramatic or theatrical allusions conspire with the other elements in the story, including the poem, to point to a negation of hope. This anti- or off-Abbey play (across the river in Wicklow Street) takes place in a closed, not an open theater, a theater of entrappment and not the theater of self-discovery that Joyce praised in Ibsen, and that Stephen searches for on the buzzing streets of Dublin in Ulysses. Why is it then, that once the mediocrity and the sordidness of the characters in “Ivy Day" are described, that once their political hypocrisy and ineffectuality are clearly seen to be the butt of Joyce's satire, why is it that the genuine wit of the story's spoken language,  and the odd power of a bad poem, seem to be left out of the equation?  Joyce's divided attitude towards Yeats, I think, may suggest an answer, but before turning back to this problem, I want to consider some of the more obvious ways Joyce adapts the Abbey to his purpose.

12As the first story in the “public" section of Dubliners, “Ivy Day" fully confirms Joyce's early vision of Dublin as an urban theater where everyone is expected to play a role, and where everyone is judged or misjudged accordingly. The side-thrust at Yeats trying to create a taste for theater in a city filled with well-trained but chronically out-of-work actors is one of Joyce's more genial ironies, a wry Dublin solution for reconciling the old stage Irishman with the new Irish stage. At any rate, once Joyce's counter-perspective to the Abbey is admitted, once the reader begins to focus on the ideas of theater and theatricality that pervade the entire story, a number of intriguing associations fall into place.

  • 6  James Joyce, Dubliners, ed. Terence Brown (London: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 117. All further refer (...)

13Even the overall structure of the story, organized around a single room with characters appearing and disappearing through a single door, is obviously intended to reflect the properties and the conditions of an actual stage. Interspersed throughout are the descriptions and stage directions that one would normally find in the printed version of any play. When the two candles are lit early on in the story, just after Mr Hynes enters the room, the whole center stage suddenly comes into view, described simply, with a playwright's visual exactness: “The walls of the room were bare except for a copy of an election address. In the middle of the room was a small table on which papers were heaped."6 When a specific situation depends on a detail, the absent corkscrew, for example, that detail will have been accounted for by a dramatic logic and precision that never falters. The reader remembers that the boy who had been asked to go borrow a corkscrew, once he finished drinking his own bottle, “took up the corkscrew and went out of the door sideways" (D, p. 126).  Every element in that phrase is dramatically and theatrically useful.

14As for the action of the story, or the inaction, it is rendered primarily through the act of speaking, culminating in the portrait of Joe Hynes “rehearsing" in his mind the poem he then “recites" from memory.  Appropriately, much of the story consists in characters telling, or repeating what they've heard or said themselves outside the committee room. These stories within the story, or plays within the play, often seem to possess more authority and purpose than anything the individual speakers can muster when speaking to each other directly in their own voices. The real action of “Ivy Day" takes place off-stage, and the only way most of the characters are able to assume even a semblance of self-importance is through mimicry and impersonation.

15Certainly when they are not speaking, they tend to disappear into mere theatrical types, usually derived from the lowest, or at least the most rigid traditions of popular theater. Old Jack is bent over when the story opens, and then straightens out like a puppet, casting his shadow on the wall. His features are also puppet-like, mechanical and disjointed, almost as if they function independently of each other, pulled into action by an outside force: “The moist blue eyes blinked at the fire and the moist mouth fell open at times, munching once or twice mechanically when it closed" (D, p. 115).  There is something puppet-like too about Father Keon, with his eyes and mouth apparently manipulated by the same string: “He opened his very long mouth suddenly to express disappointment and at the same time opened wide his very bright blue eyes to express pleasure and surprise" (D, p. 122). Whether Father Keon should be described as an actor in search of the right role, or a lost body in search of an acceptable identity, is merely a matter of emphasis. Joyce describes him explicitly as a “poor actor," with the two possible meanings of “poor" clearly in mind. His clothes seemed to have been picked up at random in an obscure dressing room, and thrown on in a hurry. The disguise, if it is a disguise, does not fit, and his face gives the impression of having been painted over so often and so thickly that it has lost all semblance of human flesh:

A person resembling a poor clergyman or a poor actor appeared in the doorway. His black clothes were tightly buttoned on his short body and it was impossible to say whether he wore a clergyman's collar or a layman's because the collar of his shabby frock-coat, the uncovered buttons of which relected the candlelight, was turned up about his neck. He wore a round hat of hard black felt. His face, shining with raindrops, had the appearance of damp yellow cheese save where two rosy spots indicated the cheekbones. (D, p. 122)

16When Mr Crofton and Mr Lyons appear, they are presented as comic opposites, paired off as music hall clowns who would have been right at home in one of the popular nineteenth-century theaters of London. Their Unionist, pro-English politics are thus fully in keeping with their theatrical pedigree:

Here two men entered the room. One of them was a very fat man, whose blue serge clothes seemed to be in danger of falling from his sloping figure. He had a big face which resembled a young ox's face in expression, staring blue eyes and a grizzled moustache. The other man, who was much younger and frailer, had a thin clean-shaven face. He wore a very high double collar and a wide-brimmed bowler hat. (D, p. 127)

17Gestures (as well as language) often give the impression of having been learned by rote for the occasion. In the very first scene of the story, Mr O'Connor seems to be practising the proper rolling of a cigarette. Here we have one irony multiplied by another. The whole scene is theatrically exaggerated, with Mr O'Connor concentrating far too much of his attention on the accomplishment of a minor task. And since he has already mastered the process, there is little need to repeat himself unless, as Joyce suggests throughout the story, repetition has become an end in itself:

Mr O'Connor ... had just brought the tobacco for a cigarette into a shapely cylinder but when spoken to he undid his handiwork meditatively. Then he began to roll the tobacco again meditatively and after a moment's thought decided to lick the paper. (D, p. 115)

18In a later scene in “Ivy Day," all vestiges of individual personality are abandoned, and three men become one. They all repeat exactly the same gestures, acting and breathing as a single chorus:

The old man distributed the three bottles which he had opened and the men drank from them simultaneously. After having drunk each placed his bottle on the mantel-piece within a hand's reach and drew in a long breath of satisfaction. (D, p. 126)

19There is a fine touch of irony in the phrase “within a hand's reach," and in Joyce's suggestion that in Dublin the mystery of the trinity is illustrated every day by the simple act of opening three bottles of stout at the same time. This is the modern Dubliner's city-wise improvement on St Patrick's rural Irish shamrock. Actually, given the lighting of candles and the drinking of stout in “Ivy Day," we are reminded that Joyce's theater is at the same time a pub and a church. All three are public places where the individual risks being ritualized out of existence.

20The mere fact that the story ends with a ceremonial declamation of a death, of the betrayal of possibility, would seem to confirm Joyce's vision of Dublin, and of Ireland, as an oppressive theater of limited roles, idle words, empty gesticulations, and endless repetitions.  But to read “Ivy Day" as an absurdly theatrical Irish funeral to mock and challenge the birth of the Abbey is, as I have suggested earlier, a partial reading of the story at best. There remains the vitality and the wit of Dublin speech, even when it is mimicked or misdirected. And above all there remains the bedrock of stubborn individuality honored in Parnell's resistance to conform, or to play the standard Irish roles, even when that resistance is expressed in wholly conventional patriotic verse. Both these questions lead us back to Joyce's divided attitude towards Yeats, especially during the early years of Joyce's career.

  • 7  The Critical Writings of James Joyce, eds Ellsworth Mason and Richard Ellmann (New York: The Vikin (...)

21Whenever studies of Joyce evoke the influence of Yeats, Joyce's 1904 broadside, “The Holy Office," is usually cited as representing a definitive break in their relationship. Joyce wrote “The Holy Office" just a few weeks after beginning Dubliners, during the first days of August.  Like “The Day of the Rabblement," written three years earlier, “The Holy Office" is a grand public declaration of difference. “The Day of the Rabblement" had attacked Yeats and the Irish Theatre for not being modern and European; in “The Holy Office" Joyce attacks them again, this time for their fear of the physical world and for their evasion of unpleasant Irish realities. Yeats and his followers are all denounced as “mummers," one of Joyce's favorite terms of abuse at the time for artistic falseness: “But I must not accounted be/One of that mumming company."7

22Though Joyce defended his position in “The Holy Office" again and again, going to the trouble of having it printed and delivered in Dublin a year later when he had settled on the Continent with Nora, his attitude towards Yeats was too complex to be contained in a single text. Otherwise, it would be hard to account for the trouble he took to stay informed of the Abbey's progress, or for his need to bind himself, even at a distance, to Yeats and the Irish Theatre. Once again, it is important to remember that Dubliners  was begun at the suggestion of George Russell, a co-founder of the Theatre, and one of Yeats's closest friends. Joyce wrote “The Holy Office" within days of sending Nora one of his favorite Yeats poems on a postcard. During this same period he continued to hope that two Hauptman plays he had translated for the Irish Theatre in the summer of 1901 would be finally accepted by Yeats. Several weeks before he left with Nora, Joyce wrote Yeats about the plays. Typically, he added a request for money to help pay for his trip.

  • 8  James Joyce, p. 267.

23Joyce in exile constantly referred to Yeats and the Abbey in his letters. He followed every step of the Playboy riots in 1907, and complained to Stanislaus that “Synge is a storm centre: but I have done nothing" (L, II, p. 215). That same year he claimed that Synge's art “is more original than my own," and began making plans for a public lecture in Trieste to be called “The Irish Literary Renaissance."8 Joyce had met Synge in Paris in 1903 and had read with grudging admiration Riders to the Sea when Synge showed him the manuscript. In 1909, still in Trieste, Joyce translated Riders to the Sea into Italian, and later that year visited the Abbey Theatre in order to see the costumes used for the Dublin production of the play.

  • 9  The Letters of W.B. Yeats, p. 356.

24In 1911 Joyce translated Yeats's Countess Cathleen into Italian. In 1912, almost exactly eight years after he had written “The Holy Office," Joyce wrote Nora from Dublin telling her he would like to take her to the Abbey to see plays by Yeats and Synge: “You have a right to be there because you are my bride: and I am one of the writers of this generation who are perhaps creating at last a conscience in the soul of this wretched race" (L, II, p. 311).  Most readers of Joyce will recognize that this statement anticipates the last lines of A Portrait, but they may not know that Yeats had used almost the same terms in a public letter printed in a Dublin newspaper in 1901.9

25In 1916, Joyce was asked by Harriet Shaw Weaver to send her a short account of his literary career. In his answer he makes a point of listing the “Irish Literary Theatre" along with his books, and adds the following information:

I refused to sign the letter of protest against Countess Cathleen when I was an undergraduate. I was the only student who refused his signature. Some years later I made the acquaintance of Mr Yeats. He invited me to write a play for his theatre and I promised to do so in ten years. I met Synge in Paris in 1902 (where I went to study medicine). He gave me Riders to the Sea to read and after his death I translated it into Italian (for Mr Sainati) with Mr Vidacovich of Trieste. With him I also translated Mr Yeats's Countess Cathleen but the project failed as we had translated the first version and Mr Yeats did not wish that version to be offered to the Italian public. (L, I, pp. 98-99)

26In 1917, having heard from Ezra Pound that Yeats had praised A Portrait, Joyce sent him his play Exiles for the Abbey. Yeats rejected it politely, in words perfectly designed (however innocent the intention) to rankle Joyce's memory that as a Dublin writer he still remained, ironically, outside the pale: “It is too far from the folk drama..." (L, II, p. 405).  Nonetheless, Yeats's rejection did not deter Joyce from creating an English-language theater company in Zurich the following year which began by producing Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and went on to include a performance of Riders to the Sea with Joyce's wife Nora playing a minor role. In so doing, Joyce transformed himself into a kind of unofficial ambassador of Yeats's Theatre, since this was the first time an Abbey play was performed on the Continent.

27These are not the actions of someone who had turned his back on Yeats and the Irish Theatre for good in the summer of 1904.  There is, in fact, a great deal more to say concerning Joyce and Yeats, and the impact each had on the other's work. For the sake of “Ivy Day," however, and my focus on its theatrical (and Yeatsian) subtext, it will be enough to turn back to a single episode in their relationship, the famous first meeting in Dublin in 1902 when Joyce was twenty years old.

  • 10  James Joyce, pp. 101-104.

28The meeting was arranged by George Russell whom Joyce had sought out during the summer of 1902, not so much to ask for help or advice, or to discuss literature, but more to announce himself to the leading lights of the revival as someone to be reckoned with (just in case they had missed or forgotten “The Day of the Rabblement"). Russell was impressed, and passed the message on to Yeats in London. On his next trip to Dublin (in October) Yeats met Joyce outside the National Library and they went to a nearby café to talk.  At the end of the meeting, when Joyce got up to go, legend has it that he asked Yeats how old he was. When Yeats told him (Yeats was thirty-seven at the time), Joyce declared that Yeats was too old for Joyce to help. The anecdote is amusing, but it should not overshadow the substance of what was actually said during the conversation itself. Yeats himself was so affected by the meeting that he wrote down a full account in a notebook that he never published, but kept all his life among his private papers.10

29According to Yeats's notes, Joyce objected that Yeats had weakened his work by writing too often about Irish politics, history, and folklore. In general Joyce's remarks fit in perfectly with his argument in “The Day of the Rabblement" that Yeats and the other revivalists had betrayed the spirit of dramatic realism and faith in the individual that Ibsen, above all other modern writers, affirmed. This is the same argument we can find two years later behind “The Holy Office" and the idea of Dubliners, and the same argument expressed in the evasive Irish theatricality of the characters in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room." Yeats apparently felt little need to reply to all of Joyce's objections, but he did vigorously defend his interest in Irish folklore. Most of his notes, in fact, are devoted to his counter-argument that in the cities (Dublin among them) the “impulse towards creation" has become weak, largely because of the “sterility" of modern speech. Only in the Irish countryside does the language still possess vitality and abundance. Without this richness, there would be no creative source for an Irish revival.

  • 11  W. B. Yeats, Explorations (London: Macmillan and Company, 1962), p. 80.
  • 12  Ibid, p. 166.  It is interesting to note that Synge criticizes Ibsen in almost exactly the same te (...)

30For Yeats the distinction between country and city in terms of language would become one of the major tenets of the Irish Theatre. The “modern" language of Ibsen's plays, for example, was to be shunned.  Perhaps not too surprisingly, Yeats's debate with Joyce seems to have corresponded with a change in Yeats's public attitude toward Ibsen. In 1901, in one of the numbers of Samhain, the official journal of the Irish Theatre, he refers to Ibsen as “the one great master the modern stage has produced."11 Three years later, in 1904, the year of Dubliners (need it be said) and two years after meeting Joyce, he writes in Samhain that he could not rank Ibsen with the greatest dramatists because he lacked “vivid language."12 Could it be that Yeats deflects into a statement of dramatic principle an answer to Joyce, just as Joyce, I believe, deflects into Dubliners (and into “Ivy Day" in particular) an answer to Yeats and the Irish Theatre. Certainly, as far as richness of language is concerned, Joyce clearly devoted the rest of his life to demonstrating that Dublin had resources the rest of the English-speaking world, Irish countryside included, could only envy.

31Given the hopeless inactivity of the characters in “Ivy Day," the liveliness of their speech might easily be overlooked or undervalued. Yet it is surely the wittiest and most humorous of all the stories, and one of Joyce's favorites, largely, I think, for these same qualities. Much of the wit lies in a kind of wholehearted contempt and freshness of phrase that go back to the Swiftian satire of 18th century Dublin, when the standards were high. I have always enjoyed Mr Henchy's attack on the traitor's heart of the “little nobleman with a cock-eye:" “That's a fellow now that'd sell his country for fourpence--ay--and go down on his bended knees and thank the Almighty Christ he had a country to sell" (D, p. 122).  Then there is Old Jack's report of his exchange with Keegan, the porter at the Mansion House:

I was talking one day to old Keegan, the porter.  And how do you like your new master, Pat? says I to him. You haven't much entertaining now, says I. Entertaining! says he. He'd live on the smell of an oil-rag. (D, p. 125)

32Mr Henchy, an early avatar of Joyce's father, is the source of much of the story's humor. Simon Dedalus in Ulysses could not improve on Mr Henchy's portrait of himself as City Father, or on his barbed (and wholly voluntary) play on words:

--Driving out of the Mansion House, said Mr Henchy, in all my vermin, with Jack here standing up behind me in a powdered wig--eh?
--And make me your private secretary, John.
--Yes. And I'll make Father Keon my private chaplain. We'll have a family party. (D, p. 124)

  • 13  The Critical Writings, p. 174.
  • 14  Ibid, p. 225.

33The genuine wit of these lines cannot be denied, despite the dominant mood of tragic loss that pervades the entire story.  To some degree, the contrast between the two, between what Synge called the “power of talk" and the inability (or unwillingness) to act, is an obvious Joycean (and typically Irish) irony.  It looks forward (two years later) to Joyce's public lecture in Trieste, “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages," in which he quotes Oscar Wilde as saying “we Irishmen have done nothing, but we are the greatest talkers since the time of the Greeks." Joyce goes on to add that “though the Irish are eloquent, a revolution is not made of human breath and compromises."13 On the other hand, Parnell was a poor speaker whose “short and fragmentary speeches," Joyce was fond of pointing out, notoriously “lacked eloquence, poetry, and humour."14This same distinction, between act and word, resolution and evasion, could be applied to Hynes's poem, weak as far as poetry is concerned, but direct and unswayable in its keeping of the faith, and in its celebration of the right man.

34Still, I think it would be a serious misreading of the story to dismiss the richness of Mr Henchy's tongue along with his poverty of will and character. It is the disparity or disengagement between the two that is attacked, not the language itself. With this distinction in mind, it is easy enough to see that the verbal satire in “Ivy Day" serves Joyce in more ways than one. By displaying Dublin's ripeness of speech he is able to counter Yeats's condemnation of the modern city-dweller's language as sterile and pallid.  But at the same time he uses that ripeness to suggest that the language of Dublin, the one gift of Dublin's past that Joyce never failed to affirm, is more fully developed that the Dubliners who speak it.   

  • 15  James Joyce Oeuvres, Vol I, ed Jacques Aubert (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), pp. 1535-1537.

35The question of development, or the failure of development, is of course a central theme of Dubliners, and once more, in “Ivy Day," may bear looking at in the context of Joyce's debate with Yeats and the Irish Theatre. In an early manuscript version of “Ivy Day," Joyce first tried to represent Dublin speech with phonetic spellings, exactly the sort of literary condescension and quaintness he had denounced in the folk dialect used by Yeats and Lady Gregory in their peasant plays15 Perhaps Joyce wanted to bring the ironies of his Wicklow Street theater more thoroughly in line with the Abbey Street opposition, but whatever his reasons, he quickly changed his mind.  In his final version, a few Dublin expressions are retained, but the phonetic signs of a sub-English Dublinese dialect have disappeared. Otherwise, the language would have been reduced to the same child-like stature of the characters who use it, and for Joyce the distinction between the two was vital.

  • 16  The Letters of W.B. Yeats, pp. 335-337; p. 338.
  • 17  W. B. Yeats, Uncollected Prose, ed John P. Frayne and Colton Johnson (New York: Columbia Universit (...)
  • 18  Ibid, p. 304.

36The memory of Parnell, of course, provides the very image of substance, authority and independence the lesser actors lack, content as they are to cast insubstantial shadows on the wall while talking to kill time, waiting for the bottles of stout. Parnell's central role in the story (and in Joyce's life) has been widely discussed elsewhere, but once again, rarely in the context of Yeats and the Irish Theatre. Most readers of “Ivy Day" would know that Yeats shared Joyce's conviction that Parnell was the one great Irish leader of his time, and seldom missed an occasion to sing Parnell's praises (and curse his false friends).  Later in his life Yeats wrote several fine bitter poems on Parnell's betrayal, including “To a Shade" and “Parnell's Funeral."  But readers might not remember that two years before October 1902 (the time of “Ivy Day") Yeats had written public letters condemning Queen Victoria's visit to Dublin in April 1900.16 And in an essay written at the same time for The United Irishman, he proleptically condemns her son's future visit as King Edward VII.17 When the visit did take place, as “Ivy Day" reminds us, in 1903, Yeats again protested, again in a public letter that Joyce would have read.18

37If there is an allusion to Yeats the loyal Parnellite in “Ivy Day," if Joyce has given his Abbey elder a prize role to play on the rival Dublin stage, Yeats the artist is nonetheless made to pay the cost. In the essay for The United Irishman, Yeats had asked the Irish to choose between the English Queen and “Kathleen Ny Hoolihan," between an “ignoble" and “noble" loyalty. In 1902 Yeats transformed a political choice into a theatrical one with his play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the Irish Theatre's first major success. By the time Joyce wrote “Ivy Day," Cathleen Ni Houlihan had become Yeats's most popular Irish heroine. For Joyce, such popularity was a clear sign of artistic failure, evidence that Yeats (despite his high-sounding claims to the contrary) could not resist the sentimental nationalism Joyce had first attacked in “The Day of the Rabblement."

  • 19  The Critical Writings, p. 173.
  • 20  Ibid, p. 192.

38It seems to me that Hynes's poem to Parnell is divided along the same lines. On one hand, the praise of Parnell is genuine, a heartfelt tribute to a man who even in death, towers over his petty contemporaries. On the other hand, the poem in every other respect is mediocre, proof of the theory that art and nationality (according to Joyce) do not easily mix. That Hynes's elegy (in the world of “Ivy Day") had become a popular Dublin tradition makes its final curtain recital even more suspicious. The hypocrisy of the Irish lamenting their past, but doing nothing to change it, is a constant complaint of Joyce during his first years of exile. He refers to the “childish spirits" of the Irish, “full of idealism and unable to yield to it," and to their natural “love of grief."19 Writing in 1907 on the death of John O'Leary, Joyce notes that the old Fenian had been ignored during the last years of his life, but “now that he is dead, his countrymen will escort him to his tomb with great pomp. Because the Irish, even though they break the hearts of those who sacrifice their lives for their native land, never fail to show great respect for the dead."20

39In 1891, when Parnell died, hundreds of Hynes-like poems were written in Ireland. Joyce, nine years old, wrote one himself. It was printed by his father and distributed among his father's friends, but all copies have been lost. Joyce, who knew it by heart, willed it into oblivion when he grew up.  For the adult Joyce, sentimentality is perhaps excusable in the boy poet and the amateur versifier, but for the artist it is deadly. One typical poem of 1891 begins with these lines:

Ye on the broad high mountains of old Eri,
Mourn all the night and day,
The man is gone who guided ye, unweary,
Through the long bitter way.

  • 21  The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W.B. Yeats, eds Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (New York: (...)

40The poem continues, much in the same vein, for three more lifeless four-line stanzas. Any one of them could be slipped into the poem by Hynes with little shock to either effort.  It was written by Yeats, and was printed by the newspaper United Ireland on October 10, 1891. Yeats allowed it be be reprinted in 1893 in The Irish Weekly Independent, but then suppressed it for good.21

41For Joyce, I think, the artistic immaturity of Hynes's poem throws into stark relief the father-like authority of the betrayed leader. Fatherhood is a complex concept in Joyce's work, but symbolically it represents both independence and self-knowledge. His own father was conspicuously lacking in fatherhood, one reason Joyce placed it in such high esteem in his own life and work.  Parnell, however, radiated Joycean fatherhood to perfection. He embodied a sober realism and a determined individual will that could not be contained by the usual Irish roles. Thus, according to Joyce, a figure like Parnell could not easily find a place in the Irish Theatre Yeats had brought to Dublin. In a letter Joyce wrote in 1919, he explains that Yeats had not accepted Exiles for the Abbey because the Abbey had “become too specialized in the Synge-Gregory etc. genre. But Irish types like Berkeley, Sterne, Parnell and Swift are of a totally different stamp" (L, II, 407). Parnell is Irish (despite his Protestant upbringing and his English accent, Joyce would have added) but he is above all an individual who can finally accept no other voice (or character) but his own. Joyce was thinking not only of Parnell, but of himself as well, another Irishman who did not fit the Irish Theatre's pattern of what an Irishman should be. For Joyce, in the midst of writing Dubliners, an independent Irishman was a greater proof of Irish independence than those who insisted on repeating the same old traditional roles. Joyce knew that Yeats the poet would not have disagreed, and once more may have been using “Ivy Day" ironically, putting one Yeatsian theory on the Dublin stage to challenge another. Struggling to define Irishness in 1904 (here we are again), in the Irish Theatre's newsletter, Samhain, Yeats had explained that the purest Irishman is the one who is most completely himself.

  • 22  Explorations, p. 147.

It is only in the exceptions, in the few minds where the flame has burnt, as it were, pure, that one can see the permanent character of a race. If one remembers the men who have dominated Ireland for the last hundred and fifty years, one understands that it is strength of personality, the individualising quality in a man, that stirs Irish imagination in the end.22

42A final Parnell paradox that Joyce uses to rouse Yeats and the Abbey from their dream of old Ireland (or should it be young Ireland?) turns on the idea that in “Ivy Day" the “father of the country" is surrounded by perpetual sons, incomplete adults who will never reach fatherhood themselves. There are a number of false or failed fathers in the story, and several aging sons, such as Mr O'Connor, a “grey-haired young man," and King Edward VII himself, who grew old performing the role of his mother's son. Old Jack nostalgically recalls the days when he was strong enough to beat his son. Nowadays, the son has the upper hand, especially when his father is drunk. The son, predictably enough, has turned to drink himself, thus in both cases father and son have fallen into the fate and fatalism of each other's past and future. Sons are expected to repeat the sins of their fathers. Mr Henchy attributes Dick Tierney's duplicity to the fact that he is his father's son: “But Tricky Dicky's little old father always had a tricky little black bottle up in a corner" (D, p.120). Mr Henchy does not mention his own children, probably out of indifference. Certainly, like Joyce's father, he cannot provide for them. He owes money all over Dublin, and fears going home to find the bailiff standing at his door. He dreams of being a City Father, and having a “family party" with Old Jack, Mr O'Connor, and Father Keon, the falsest father of all, despite his habit of speaking “as if he were addressing a child" (D, p. 123).

  • 23  The Critical Writings, p. 103.

43All these allusions to aging sons and childish fathers may owe something to Joyce's 1903 review in the Dublin Daily Express of Lady Gregory's collection of Irish folk stories Poets and Dreamers. Joyce complains that Lady Gregory's storytellers and their characters, by resisting the natural process of human development, have perverted both childhood and adulthood, thus announcing an Ireland filled with Rip Van Winkles of all sizes: “in the future little boys with long beards will stand aside and applaud, while old men in short trousers play handball against the wall."23 For Joyce, in the summer of 1904, Yeats's insistence on Irish legends and myths was symptomatic of a similar regression, of using the Irish Theatre to artificially prolong the past, of escaping into childish dreams instead of confronting, as Joyce proposed in “The Holy Office," the real world of men and women.

  • 24  James Joyce, pp. 204-205.
  • 25  Fatherhood may have inspired Joyce with even greater visions of patriarchal status and responsibil (...)

44The writing of Dubliners was Joyce's first step in making good the proposition, a step that he commemorates (along with his meeting of Nora Barnacle) by setting Ulysses at the time of the Abbey Theatre's beginnings, and one month before he begins Dubliners. Ulysses is of course Joyce's great Irish testament to fatherhood, and to a non-Abbeylike dramatic action based on the individual's necessary search for self-completion. Richard Ellmann has suggested that Joyce's theory of fatherhood in Ulysses (as well as the process of human gestation that underlies the book's structure) goes back to the birth of his first child, his son George, on July 27, 1905.24 This was obviously a crucial event for Joyce, a double confirmation of his life with Nora, and of his decision to leave Ireland. “Ivy Day in the Committee Room" was Joyce's first work written after his son's birth, and there is no question that the failure of fatherhood in the story, both symbolically and physically, resonates strongly against the sense of his own fulfillment.25

45It would not have failed to cross Joyce's mind at the time that Yeats and all the other senior male members of the Irish Theatre were notoriously childless and unmarried. The patriarchs of the movement in this respect were more like patron saints. Yeats would not marry until 1917 when he was fifty-two years old. Edward Martyn, George Russell, and George Moore remained childless and never married (though Moore was known in Dublin for his young female servants). For Joyce, this fear or doubt or indifference (whatever the private source) reflected the same stubborn refusal to engage reality that he had criticized in the Irish Theatre.

46In Ulysses, Joyce signals the regressive sterility of the older Irish writers by having Buck Mulligan mock their fear of mature sexuality. During the “Syclla and Charybdis" episode in the National Library, where Stephen explains his biographical theory of Hamlet, appropriately based on Shakespeare's fatherhood, Mulligan announces that he and Haines have just visited the Abbey.  He then recites a lewd parody of one of Yeats's love poems, concluding with the following two lines:

Being afraid to marry on earth
They masturbated for all they were worth.

47Mulligan then announces that he has a proposal of his own for an Abbey play, much in the same spirit as his parody:

  • 26  Ulysses, p. 216.

Everyman His own Wife
A Honeymoon in the Hand
(a national immorality in three orgasms)
Ballocky Mulligan26

48Though Joyce (and Stephen) distances himself from Buck Mulligan's need to mock at everything at all times, the idea that the Irish Theatre had been founded on sexual fear and escapism is exactly what Joyce himself had boldly affirmed in “The Holy Office." It does not take too much straining of the imagination to hear echoes of “The Holy Office" and of Mulligan's mock-Abbey play in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room," especially when we consider the spectacle of a stage filled with adolescent men popping their collective corks over a dying fire. The implications are even more telling when we contrast these men with Parnell, who had been crucified because he had committed himself fully to the woman he loved. A few months before Joyce finished “Ivy Day," he wrote to his brother that “heroism" (one of Joyce's favorite synonyms for idealism) was “a damned lie and that there cannot be any substitute for the individual passion as the motive power of everything--art and philosophy included" (L, II, p. 81).

49However thoroughly we care to test Dubliners, and “Ivy Day in the Committee Room" in particular, for signs of Yeats and the Irish Theatre, it is best to keep in mind that in Joyce's works parallels and intersections are never haphazard. The day of Ulysses (we have seen) occurs during the same summer the Abbey Theatre was announced, and Joyce takes pains in his novel to present a Dublin, Ireland, that is much greater than a single Irish building, even a national theatre. Ulysses not only includes, but encloses the Abbey.

50More to our point, Ulysses seems to proclaim the beginning of Dubliners one month later, and does so with a sly reference to the Irish movement that Joyce felt he had to counter before he could conquer. As Stephen Dedalus leaves the offices of the Freeman's Journal with Professor McHugh, walking over to have a drink at Mooney's, he improvises a story. He calls it “A Pisgah Sight of Palestine or the Parable of the Plums." There is a great deal to be said about this performance. For our purposes, though, it is enough to note that it is an ironic portrait of Dublin sterility, thus making it (in the typical Joycean manner of fusing fictional and biographical time) the first short story of Dubliners. But it is also spoken out by Stephen in the Dublin streets, proving Dublin  to be as good a source of the oral folktales prized by Yeats and Lady Gregory as the Irish countryside. At this point in Ulysses, Stephen has decided he must act, and speak, but he has to find ways of spurring himself on. As he walks along with Professor McHugh he thinks to himself “Dublin. I have much, much to learn." They then turn into a street and Stephen, suddenly inspired, announces his story:

  • 27  Ibid, p. 144.

They turned to the left, along Abbey street.
---I have a vision too, Stephen said.27


1  Letters of James Joyce, eds Stuart Gilbert and Richard Ellmann (New York: Viking Press, 1966), p.43. All further references to this edition will be indicated by the letter L, followed by the volume and page number, and placed in parenthesis in the text.

2  The relationship between Yeats and Joyce as one of “spiritual" father and “spiritual" son deserves more space than I can afford.  See The Letters of W.B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), p. 399, and Richard Ellmann's James Joyce (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 119.

3  I use the term Irish Theatre to describe collectively all of Yeats's successive efforts to create a national theatrical movement, from the Literary Societies he organized in London and Dublin (1891, 1892) up through his direction of the Abbey Theatre during and after its founding in 1904.

4  Ben Forkner, A New Book of Dubliners (London: Methuen, 1988), pp. xvii-xxxiii.

5  James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Modern Library, 1961), p. 34 and p. 211.

6  James Joyce, Dubliners, ed. Terence Brown (London: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 117. All further references to this edition will be indicated by the letter D, followed by the page number, and placed in parenthesis in the text.

7  The Critical Writings of James Joyce, eds Ellsworth Mason and Richard Ellmann (New York: The Viking Press, 1964), p. 150.

8  James Joyce, p. 267.

9  The Letters of W.B. Yeats, p. 356.

10  James Joyce, pp. 101-104.

11  W. B. Yeats, Explorations (London: Macmillan and Company, 1962), p. 80.

12  Ibid, p. 166.  It is interesting to note that Synge criticizes Ibsen in almost exactly the same terms in his 1907 preface to The Playboy of the Western World.

13  The Critical Writings, p. 174.

14  Ibid, p. 225.

15  James Joyce Oeuvres, Vol I, ed Jacques Aubert (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), pp. 1535-1537.

16  The Letters of W.B. Yeats, pp. 335-337; p. 338.

17  W. B. Yeats, Uncollected Prose, ed John P. Frayne and Colton Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), pp. 211-213.

18  Ibid, p. 304.

19  The Critical Writings, p. 173.

20  Ibid, p. 192.

21  The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W.B. Yeats, eds Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966), pp. 737-738.

22  Explorations, p. 147.

23  The Critical Writings, p. 103.

24  James Joyce, pp. 204-205.

25  Fatherhood may have inspired Joyce with even greater visions of patriarchal status and responsibility. Fifteen days before the birth he had written to Stanislaus (L, II, p. 97) about his idea of all four of them (Stanislaus included) taking a cottage near Dublin, where Joyce would be head of the household. And of course Joyce did eventually bring three of his father's children (Stanislaus, Eva, and Eileen) to come live with him in Trieste.

26  Ulysses, p. 216.

27  Ibid, p. 144.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Ben Forkner, « Joycean Drama and the Remaking of Yeats's Irish Theatre in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room" », Journal of the Short Story in English, 34 | 2000, 89-108.

Référence électronique

Ben Forkner, « Joycean Drama and the Remaking of Yeats's Irish Theatre in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room" », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 34 | Spring 2000, mis en ligne le 09 septembre 2008, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL :


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