The Dead, 1904
James Joyce’s novella, THE DEAD, is the final and most celebrated story in his 1914 collection, DUBLINERS. It describes a 1904 holiday gathering on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, in the Dublin home of two elderly sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, and their niece, Mary Jane, all three of whom are musicians and music teachers. At the party are students, friends, a celebrated tenor, an ardent nationalist, a lost alcoholic, and the young couple, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy (the sisters’ nephew and his wife). Over the course of an hour or two there are conversations, music, dancing and dining. There are speeches and disagreements – polite and impolite. The tenor sings a lovely traditional lament – The Lass of Aughrim – and when it is all over Gabriel Conroy learns something about his wife that changes everything: his idea of her and of himself, his sense of what it actually means to be alive, and to be dead.
THE DEAD, 1904 is a new, immersive adaptation by Pulitzer Prizewinning Irish poet Paul Muldoon and novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, in which the audience members will themselves attend the Misses Morkan’s annual party, move from room to room with the actors, listen to the music, watch the dances, share food and drink and observe the characters in their interactions. The adaptation received its world premiere from the Irish Repertory Theatre in an eight week run from November 2016-January 2017, at the American Irish Historical Society, an important cultural organization based in a beautiful 1900 mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A Victorian meal inspired by the dinner in Joyce's story was provided by Great Performances catering as an intrinsic part of the adaptation. Audience was limited to 40 people.
An Overview of The Dead
It’s January 6th,1904 -- the Feast of the Epiphany -- and outside “snow is general” all over Ireland. Here in the Morkan house on the river Liffey in Dublin, much about the Misses’ Morkan’s party remains the same as it’s always been - the same guests, the same musical selections, the same menu and the same conversation. Gabriel will again attempt his after dinner speech, and Mary Jane will sing her “party piece”, Thomas Moore’s O YE DEAD. As in years before, the guests will argue and disagree about religion, politics and what it means to be Irish a scant 12 years before the 1916 uprising and only 50 years after the Great Famine. This sense of ritual and repetition is a consistent theme throughout the story, as Joyce asks us to consider what it truly means to be alive and whether those living in turn-of-the-century-Ireland are not, in fact, experiencing a kind of paralysis akin to death.
There are other guests at the party, as well. Silent guests, who represent those absent: gone in the terrible famine a half century earlier, gone in waves of emigration ever since, to England, Australia and above all, America. These absent ones play as large a part of THE DEAD as the quarrelsome guests do. Even at the feast, in other words, the famine -- its memory, its effects -- isn’t far off. All of these recent and pending events have made some at the party identify more closely with their Irish roots and heritage, while they have made others yearn for distance and a continental sophistication deemed lacking in the traditional Irish.
Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of the story, shares a name with the hero of Bret Harte’s 1876 novel Gabriel Conroy, which was itself inspired by the Donner Party and which describes the deaths by starvation of a group of settlers in the California Sierras in 1847-48. That novel begins with some language that might sound familiar to readers of “The Dead”:
Snow. Everywhere. As far as the eye could reach—fifty miles, looking southward from the highest white peak, – filling ravines and gulches, and dropping from the walls of cañons in white shroud-like drifts, fashioning the dividing ridge into the likeness of a monstrous grave, hiding the bases of giant pines, and completely covering young trees and larches, rimming with porcelain the bowl-like edges of still, cold lakes, and undulating in motionless white billows to the edge of the distant horizon.
Harte’s novel is set at precisely the same time as the appalling Irish potato famine. Though relief measures were passed under the Irish Poor Law Extension Act, one provision of the Act – the so-called Gregory Clause, named after Lord Gregory of Coole – exempted from aiding the sick and starving anyone who owned more than a quarter of an acre of land. This clause was widely and willfully misinterpreted, and many suffering tenants who should have qualified for relief were refused.
All of the themes woven into this story-the conflicts inherent in Irish identity, the sense of paralysis and routine, those lost yet strongly present characters and- above all- the snow, a symbol of isolation and death - all are apparent in the final scene, of “The Dead,” which represents the heart of the story. Here, Gabriel has a revelation about Gretta’s past which at once deeply wounds him and yet also allows him to discover his truest self. The revelation is prompted by the lament, “The Lass of Aughrim,” sung by the famous Dublin tenor, Bartell D’Arcy:
If you'll be the lass of Aughrim
As I'll take you to be
Tell me that first token
That passed between you and me
Oh the rain falls on my yellow locks
And the dew soaks my skin
My babe lies cold in my arms
Lord Gregory, let me in
The epiphany that Gabriel experiences in the story’s famous final scene allows him to connect not only with his wife but with the millions of Irish people who, as the 19th century turned into the 20th, were still suffering the horrific after-effects of the famine and the massive emigration that followed it. The lost of the famine,like the shades whom Gabriel invokes in his final soliloquy, are the other guests on this dark winter night in 1904.
A Field Guide to the Characters of THE DEAD:
Gabriel Conroy: A nervous and unfulfilled university-educated teacher and book reviewer, intellectual and something of a snob. Gabriel looks eastward to Europe for an idea of “culture”. The language and traditions of Ireland do not interest him at all. Long married to Gretta, who hails from Galway, he is his Aunts’ favorite relative, an honored guest at the party, and tasked with delivering the all-important after dinner speech. Gabriel struggles with simple social situations, and feels out of place due to his highbrow literary endeavors. His aunts, Julia and Kate Morkan, turn to him to perform the traditionally male activities of carving the goose and delivering a speech at their annual celebration.
Gabriel and James Joyce share some characteristics, and Joyce may well be presenting us with a picture of what he and his life would have been like had he remained in Dublin. (Note that Gretta's roots are in the west of Ireland, as were Joyce’s wife Nora's.)
Gretta Conroy: A country girl from the west of Ireland, married to Gabriel and the mother of his son and daughter.
Kate and Julia Morkan: Of modest means, Kate and Julia have moved to a less sophisticated area of Dublin known as Ushers Island. Julia was once highly regarded as a solo singer, but has until recently sung in relative obscurity in a choir. Some years previous to writing this story Joyce had begun to study Scandinavian languages, at first in order to write an adulatory letter to Ibsen, so he perhaps chooses their name because morke is 'darkness' in Danish.
Mary Jane Morkan: A music teacher, Kate and Julia’s niece (and Gabriel’s cousin), and the main breadwinner of the household. Joyce wrote this story when he was twenty-four years old; his mother had died three years before, and he pays homage to her memory by giving her name to a character who plays the piano, as did his mother.
Lily: the housemaid and caretaker’s daughter.
Mr. Brown: A houseguest of the Morkan sisters. The only Protestant at the party
In Dublin, "Browne" is a distinctly protestant name and Dubliners, then as now, are careful to distinguish between Catholics and Protestants.
Molly Ivors: A university classmate of Gabriel’s and an Irish Nationalist and feminist
Freddy Mallins: A friend of Gabriel’s, and an alcoholic.
Bartell D’Arcy: A well-known tenor in Irish Opera
Mrs. Mallins: Freddy’s mother, who resides with her married daughter in Scotland and visits Dublin once a year
Miss Daly: A student of Mary Jane
If you would like to dig deeper into the symbolism, themes and historical context of "The Dead," we recommend:
To Ireland, I by Paul Muldoon
(in order of appearance)
Stoney Batter: A quay on the River Liffey, opposite the quay that is called Usher's Island. Joyce alludes to his own family as well as to the family of the real musical sisters who lived in the house on Usher's Island, a house that is still standing. The Usher's Island area was both then, and in recent times, a rather dismal neighborhood
Adam and Eve's: a nickname for the Church of the Immaculate Conception, in southwest-central Dublin
Guttapercha: a rubber-like gum produced from the latex of various southeast Asian trees
Christy Minstrels: a popular nineteenth-century American theatrical troupe featuring white performers made up to look like stereotypical black Characters
Quadrille: a square dance of French origin
An Irish device: a Celtic emblem
A crow to pluck: a bone to pick
West Briton: a sympathizer with the English in Ireland
"Arrayed for the Bridal": a song from I Puritani, an opera by Vincenzo Bellini
The other persuasion: Protestant
The princes in the Tower: the two sons of England's King Edward IV, put to death in the Tower of London by their uncle, most likely, who would become Richard III
Tabinet: a poplin-like fabric made of silk and wool
Curate: a clergyman who assists a vicar or rector
The Gaiety: a theater in south-central Dublin
Three Graces: the three sister goddesses who have control over pleasure, charm, and beauty in human life and in nature
Laid on here like the gas: made permanently available (a reference to the gas lines being laid in Dublin at the time, for lighting)
King Billy's statue: an equestrian statue of King William III, the Protestant conqueror of Ireland
Gasworks: a plant where gas for heating and lighting is prepared
Great with him: close to him, though not sexually intimate
Oughterard: a village north of Galway
Nuns' Island: a district within the city of Galway