My experience of The Dead, 1904, Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s immersive theater adaptation of James Joyce’s short story, was unremarkable until an audience member fainted. I had been invited to the show as a last-minute fill-in—tickets run an outrageous $300—and I accepted because it was a snowy evening in New York, reminiscent of that long-ago Dublin night. I was one of 55 attendees gathered in The American Irish Historical Society, a lovely townhouse on Fifth Avenue, as “guests” of the Misses Morkan’s annual dance.
The audience milled about during the first act, drinking bourbon and port while lightly interacting with the actors, who were moving through their pre-scripted motions like characters in a videogame. I first experienced concern when Lily, the housekeeper, said that she was “run off my feet,” a verbalization of the first line of the story. It seemed like we were going to suffer a long evening of expository dialogue. I worried that the play wouldn’t be able to render the crucial moment when the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiences lust for his wife, Gretta, during their post-party walk. However (this might have been the bourbon and the port), I began enjoying myself. The musicians were talented, the dancing was lively, and the surreality was unobtrusive. There was that usual jolt of something beloved shifting solid. Conroy, who I’ve always pictured as young, was a middle-aged man with a mustache. How upsetting that the next time I read the story, I’ll see the depressive actor, Rufus Collins, instead of my forever vanished image of the lead.
Eventually, we proceeded into the dining room and ate a meal in the round. I noted a slight Medieval Times vibe. There were two kinds of meat (no ham!), a thick gravy, a popover, more wine. D’Arcy, the reluctant tenor, spoke with the fatuous Mr. Browne. A bearded Irish man to my right kept offering me figs that I didn’t want and inquiring after my national origins. It was sweltering. I started to get too into the play. I laughed at all of Mr. Browne’s off-color jokes, then thrilled at Conroy’s toast to his aunts and niece. As the dinner wound down, there was a lull, and my dining companion surreptitiously pulled out his phone. D’Arcy scolded him merrily: “What is that device?”
The speech we had just heard anticipates this sort of incident. “A new generation is growing up in our midst,” says Conroy. “…sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity…which belonged to an older day.” In bemoaning those who are soon to leave us, Conroy concludes that “we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.”
Then, an elderly woman collapsed. The actors immediately entered semi-reality. “Does anyone have one of those devices with which we could call 911?” yelled Conroy in a bizarre compromise. “This gentleman does,” replied D’Arcy, pointing to my now mortified friend. Two of the supporting actors and several guests had crowded around the woman, but despite the gravity of the situation, there was an unwillingness among the audience to release the illusion that the actors were still propagating. My peers seemed almost childlike, as if they were holding onto a dream from which they didn’t want to wake. Experiential theater is fragile. The creation of the physical environment allows for shallow role play, yes, but in that capacity to make decisions, we remain thoroughly ourselves.
“Call the doctor,” someone yelled needlessly.
“Call the priest,” shouted the man who offered figs.
As we waited, I spoke with D’Arcy. The grumpy character faded away. He showed off the stitching of his vest, then dropped his convincing brogue and began cycling through several European accents from recent roles. At last, I’d found the ham. One of the aunts, staunchly in character, offered us more wine in something of a rebuke to my ebullient tenor. A tall paramedic with a ponytail looked around, a bit confused.
Another actor approached. I now understood that this was going to be an essay and had my notebook out. He told me that he didn’t much care for the play. I kept saying “on the record!” and he just continued to reveal things—apparently multiple people have fainted in the showings. The food, the drink, the average age, and the heat is a wicked combination. Eventually, the woman revived and the action resumed with D’Arcy singing “The Lass of Aughrim.”
It was time for Gabriel’s much-beloved snowy walk, when “moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.” Instead, the Conroys simply went upstairs to a bedroom. Across the street, a worker at the Met was sweeping the American Wing. The audience (including the miraculously recovered woman who had fainted!) watched the thwarting of Gabriel’s desire when Gretta experiences a ghostly memory, conjured by D’Arcy’s song.
The Dead is about this sort of fragile in-betweenness, how the dead are both the ghosts from our past that we can’t let go of and those who are soon to die. “Poor aunt Julia!” thinks Conroy, “She too would soon be a shade.” My experience that night was of the characters in the play briefly dropping their artifice, then experiencing a renewal, losing one sort of life to gain another, before returning to the legendary characters who the world would not willingly let die. When the actors had resumed acting, it was as if their actual “identity was fading out into a gray impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time rendered and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.” This temporary confusion was so Joycean that it represented “The Dead” better than The Dead, 1904 had.
The story ends with a marvelous line: “his soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Muldoon chose to turn this sequence into a long monologue, and though there was still electricity in the room, the concept didn’t work. Our thoughts can be paused—when we experience one that really hits, it echoes. That allows literature to accomplish the illusion of epiphany. We so badly want to pause over the line: “He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.” We need that extra beat to understand that Conroy never loved his wife. But instead, it passed in a relentless squall of words.
One hundred ten years ago, Joyce wrote: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.” And at the end of my night with his characters, the producers made another odd decision. They were projecting fake, electric snow onto a window, behind which real snow was still falling thick.