I'm kind of sad…
My first brush with the James Joyce estate was back in the nineties when Judy Friel, then literary manager at the Abbey, suggested I write something for the Peacock Theatre. I had always wanted to adapt two stories from Dubliners, (Grace and Ivy Day in the Committee Room) into a pair of one act plays to be performed in a single evening.
Judy thought this could be great so she went to the Joyce estate to seek the go-ahead. A few weeks later I was forwarded a letter from Stephen Joyce explaining that his grandfather had been rejected by the Irish people in general -- and the Abbey Theatre in particular (WB Yeats had turned down his play, Exiles, in 1915) so he felt it was inappropriate that we now sought to profit from his name. Although I had been born fifty six years after that Abbey rejection, given the forcefulness of his letter the matter was promptly dropped.
My next brush came in 2003 when the BBC asked me to write a play celebrating the centenary of Bloomsday. I wrote a drama which imagined what Mr Bloom and Mr Dedalus might be like were they of our time and had met in 2004 rather than 1904. Like Ulysses my play spanned a whole day and took its episodic structure from the book. The creative team at the BBC were pleased with the work. However it was blocked by their legal department who knew from experience it was pointless even seeking permission to broadcast it.
My next encounter was in 2006 when I was asked to write the introduction to a new edition of Exiles to coincide with a rare production of the play at London’s National Theatre. I gladly wrote a detailed essay but was dismayed to hear it would have to be sent to Stephen Joyce for approval. Given my past experiences I wasn’t hopeful but to my surprise the piece received his imprimatur (albeit with a few grumbles.)
That edition now sits on my shelf where I glance at it with great pride - because James Joyce is my literary north star and every three years or so I find myself on another serious James Joyce jag. The memory of a detail from a story in Dubliners might hook me, or I might be drawn to the closing pages of Finnegans Wake which never fail to stir something so deep and sad and beautiful. And before I know it I am back inside Ellman’s magisterial biography, back inside Ulysses, marvelling at how the work seems to change and grow and speak to me anew at every age. Where once the Calypso was my favourite episode, it then became Cyclops, now it’s Ithaca.
And the irony is that I’m kind of sad now the strict copyright is ended because, for better or worse, it forced everyone into having a personal, unmediated relationship with his work. If new adaptations, dramatisations, interpretations or sequels lead readers back to the work, well then that can only be a good thing. But I don’t think I’ll be attempting any.
Conor McPherson is a playwright whose works include The Weir, Dublin Carol and The Seafarer. He recently directed his latest play The Veil at the National Theatre in London.