Three students from Professor Keri Walsh’s “Texts and Contexts: Modern Irish Literature” course were among the lucky few invited to participate in the dress rehearsal for this year’s production of The Dead, 1904, an immersive theater adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
“The Dead,” the concluding story in Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, is one of the most beloved and resonant works in Irish literature. It is set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Dublin, at the end of the Christmas season. In it a couple—Gabriel and Gretta Conroy—arrive at the home of their aunts for an evening of merriment and melancholy. They dine, dance, hear music, and give toasts. All of those assembled---with the exception of one intoxicated guest named Freddy Malins and one full of political passion named Molly Ivors--try their best to suppress their differences in the name of harmony and “Irish hospitality.” At the immersive production, Computer science majors Zainab Shaikh and Chenelle Simpson, and Environmental Science major Lauren Beglin were seated at the head table alongside the actors. They were served a holiday feast inspired by the one in the story, and they were drawn into the events detailed by Joyce. The performance took place at the American Irish Historical Society on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in a townhouse that evoked the period in which the story is set.
As the evening neared its end, the audience was invited up one flight of stairs to witness the climax of the story: Gabriel and Gretta’s confrontation in which she remembers a lost love of her youth. This scene, staged in a darkened room with only a bed in it, allowed Lauren Beglin to reconsider the opinion she had formed of the story’s protagonist. She commented that, “In my initial reading of 'The Dead,' I did not have a very high opinion of Gabriel, especially in his treatment of Gretta in the final scene of the story. Seeing this scene brought to life, however, completely changed my view of him. Instead of a whiny man who could not bear the idea of his wife having a life before him, the actor's performance recast him as a heartbroken man who loved his wife with all his heart and soul, but would never be able to truly express that to her because of her past, and would never be able to live up to her idea of love. It was a scene that humanized a character I formerly hated and completely changed my experience of 'The Dead.' " Chenelle Simpson found that the production helped her to draw new connections between Irish writers. She realized that the characters of Gabriel and Gretta might be based not only on Joyce’s own life, but also on the experiences of one of his important precursors: “The last scene enabled me to acknowledge the relationship between James Joyce and William Butler Yeats,” said Simpson. “The story reminded me of Maude Gonne who also suffered a loss [that of her child], and how Yeats, like Gabriel, was unable to receive her ideal affection. Yeats, being such an inspiration at this time and being only seventeen years older than Joyce, could possibly have influenced the characterization of Gabriel.” Zainab Shaikh found herself impressed by the feats of acting required in immersive theater: “one of the major lessons I learned was about the art of being in character but also connecting with your audience….How can they keep us feeling comfortable? Do we communicate on the basis that it's 1904 or 2017? They gracefully responded to all of our interactions and wove them into a great production. Their hospitality truly immersed me into Joyce's world, their humor allowed me to loosen up and the intimacy of the vast set (as paradoxical as that sounds) allowed for one on one interactions that seem to be missing from many theatrical shows.”
This year marks the second holiday season in which Dot Dot Productions, in collaboration with The Irish Repertory Theatre and The American Irish Historical Society, will be staging Joyce’s story. "The Dead," 1904 runs from November 18th to January 7th. It is directed by Ciarán O’Reilly and adapted by Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz.
check out more information about the event here.