by Myra Chanin
Himself and Nora is a musical theater piece that celebrates the lives and loves of James Joyce and his muse Nora Barnacle, who lived with him in an unmarried state for 27 year before he lost the battle with her need for respectability and made her Mrs. Joyce. Joyce started out as an interesting, readable, touching and publishable writer with Dubliners, The Dead and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1916) then turned salacious in Ulysses, finally published in 1922, followed by the pretty much unreadable Finnegan’s Wake which took him seventeen years to write and will take you forever to read. As the smartest guy in my Advanced English Literature Class, Irish himself with a drunken father, said after getting through the first three—which also turned out to be his last three pages, “Where the River Shannon flows, the River Shannon flows. I am not symbol minded.” Does the writing life, plus not as sexy as Henry Miller quotes from sexually explicit letters Jimmy wrote Nora, seem to you to be the stuff of interesting drama?
The opening scene made them appear to be! A handsome stark set by Paul Take dePoo III. A priest standing over Joyce’s dead body. Nora sitting beside him complaining about why he didn’t wait for her to come back, from wherever she’d gone, to die. Ma and Da on the other side of an open window waiting for Joyce’s spirit to fly to him. The spirited opening song, “Himself and Nora,” made me hopeful enough to release the loins I usually gird whenever I’m faced with a story/play/TVshow about a writer.
After that, the play went downhill for me. I really hesitate to voice just my opinion, but others shared it, including two people, seated in different audience locations, who actually walked out in the middle of the first act, and several that never returned after the intermission. The performers were exceptional as directed by Michael Bush. Matt Bogart as James Joyce and Whitney Bashor as Nora gave Tony-worthy performances. Zachary Prince and Michael McCormack (who both played several roles) proved delightfully versatile. Still no one left the theater looking very happy.
If the performers were faultless, who does that leave?
Jonathan Brielle wrote the book, music and lyrics of this very Las Vegas pastiche, where Brielle has toiled writing shows for the last decade. The plot of Himself and Nora was indecisive. It wasn’t sure where it wanted to go and what it wanted to be. It pitched Ezra Pound into Burlesque-tinged vaudeville scenes. Himself and Nora might have been more dramatic as Himself and God, a power struggle between Joyce and the Church. I did like the idea of the song sung by Nora when a blind, drunk and unfaithful Joyce threatened to desert her. “What would I be without a man? Lucky!” The rest of the lyrics were more banal.
At any rate, I can’t entirely fault a play which inspired me to search the internet for Joyce’s sexy letters to Nora. Mother of Mercy, you’ll find them at James Joyce’s Dirty Letters.
No replies from Nora remain. My favorite Nora quote shows how practical she was. “Why don’t you write books people can read?” she asked James, which convinces me the he may have written to her about between the sheets stuff, but I’m sure her concerns were kitchen-oriented—feeding the children and paying the rent. When they were apart she was always more hard up than hot.
Himself and Nora. Through September 4 at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane, between Sixth Avenue and MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village). www.himselfandnoramusical.com
Photos: Matthew Murphy