Last night I went to see Olwen Fouéré’s riverrun, a live performance of a section from Finnegans Wake. This morning I’ve been looking at reviews, of which so far I can only find two – one by Peter Crawley in The Irish Times and the other by Chris McCormack in his blog Musings in Intermissions.
The reviews are quite different from each other, but there are two words that appear in both. One is “academics” and the other is “frustration”.
I’d expected to see the references to “academics”. Chris suggests that Finnegans Wake is the kind of book that “has won the approval of the academics but not the public” in his opening paragraph, while in his first lines Peter says that the novel’s “warp and weft of smearing words, literary allusions, multilingual puns and rushing streams of consciousness are now primarily used to enslave academics.”
Both of those comments are fair but they encapsulate a problem that faces the reception and acceptance of Joyce.
I am not a Joyce scholar but I do teach an undergraduate lecture course on Ulysses every year. It’s something I love doing: it’s very exciting to see students discovering Joyce, overcoming their inevitable fears of Ulysses, and then starting to love the book. But I’m always struck by the fact that so many students are intimidated by Joyce, and sometimes choose not to take the course on that basis. And I’ve heard many people outside the academy express a similar fear, often in the form of resentment.
That fear is based on a belief some have that there must be a “right” way to read Joyce, a conviction that if you have enough knowledge to decode his works you will understand what’s happening, and can then smugly lord it over those who don’t know what’s going on. That belief is misplaced if not entirely unjustified, and it tends to provoke resentment in people: the prospect of reading Ulysses is for many the equivalent to the prospect of going to an exclusive restaurant where you know you’re going to be mocked by a snotty waiter for using the wrong cutlery
It is true that readers can benefit from some expert help before tackling Ulysses – even the ever reliable Bloomsday Book, which summarises the chapters, will help. But I would always suggest to students that you don’t really need any prior knowledge before reading Ulysses because the book will teach you how to read it as you go along. You need to be prepared to abandon your expectations, to be comfortable with the fact that you won’t understand everything, and you need to be prepared to wait. Often people who read the book alone abandon it in the third chapter Proteus, but once we meet Bloom in chapter four readers usually start to feel at home in Ulysses.
That is not to say the book is easy to read because of course it’s not: I re-read it every year for teaching and find new things every time, and I expect to continue doing so well into the future. And while I love many parts of it (I’m slightly obsessed with the Circe episode), others leave me cold. So again one of the exciting things about teaching Ulysses is seeing students forming confidence in being able to say that they prefer some chapters over others, since there is sometimes a belief that you can’t say anything negative about the book.
But the point I’d make is that the best way to read the book is to abandon oneself to it – to wait for it to reveal itself.
Finnegans Wake is of course a different beast, but the same core principle applies: if you go into it expecting it to communicate one central meaning to you, you’re going to find it impenetrable. But if you are prepared to open yourself up to it – ideally in a group of other people with whom you can read and discuss the text – then it can be rewarding. That’s not to say that its meaning can easily be discerned, because it can’t. But you can catch glimpses of possible meanings, especially if you are reading with people who speak languages other than English.
So while the academic industry around Joyce has done much to clarify his work for ordinary readers, it’s probably true to say that we academics may also be guilty of creating the impression that you need a PhD to understand Joyce’s works, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
That leads to the second shared term from the reviews, which is “frustration”. Chris states that “the text [of Finnegans Wake] is completely discontinuous and non-linear … and such is the source of strong frustration in the audience”, while Peter advises his readers that “Your response [to riverrun] will be somewhere between abandon and frustration… depending on your need for the stepping stones of comprehension” (and he states that he himself leaned towards frustration).
I do understand the frustration that people feel when confronted with the Wake because again it’s easy to feel excluded by an elite who have access to the novel’s codes – or as Peter very nicely puts it, there is a feeling that the book is a “goading, multilayered game”.
All of this is just to make two points about riverrun.
The first is that you certainly don’t have to be an academic or Joyce specialist in order to appreciate it. And the second is that the way to avoid frustration is simply to accept that you will understand almost nothing that you hear or see during the performance.
So why go?
Riverrun is a 60 minute performance by Fouéré. She stands in front of a microphone centre-stage for most of the performance, reciting – incanting, really – the final section of the book. Enacting the figure of Anna Livia Plurabele, and knowing the Wake’s fascination with rivers, Fouéré moves with a (literal) fluidity.
We often hear of actors ‘embodying’ the text, but I’ve never seen an embodiment happen as completely as it does here. Fouéré’s performance shows that although we (academics) often treat movement and voice as separate skills to be taught in separate modules, they are not quite so distinctive. I came out of this performance with a better understanding of how the voice is part of the body, not just in the sense that Fouéré uses her full carriage for the creation of sound and tone, but also in the sense that there is a staggeringly coherent unity between movement and voice in her recitation of the text.
I thought I could detect the presence of Yeats in the production, since there are formal links here with Yeats’s plays for dancers (some of which were staged for Blue Raincoat by this production’s co-director Kellie Hughes). And I could sense also how Fouéré’s recent performances with Fabulous Beast have helped in the construction of this piece. I don’t want to suggest that she is moving around the stage in the way that she did in, say, The Rite of Spring (she mostly occupies centre-stage, before the microphone, here), but to propose that the experience here is being created through an interaction between movement and sound.
So one reason to go is that this is like a dance piece in which the music is created by the dancer. If you think of it not just as literature but also as dance, you’re likely to have a more satisfying experience.
As for making sense of it… Often as I watched the performance, I found myself being reminded of dreams. If you’ve ever been woken in the middle of the night and had a conversation that you were sure was coherent – even though you were speaking gibberish – then you might recognise that experience in Fouéré’s recitation. Or, to give a slightly more morbid comparison, if you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who was seriously ill and on morphine, again you might find some traces of that memory in riverrun. There are flashes of meaning, and the audience laughs with relief when they understand puns or anything more than five consecutively meaningful words. But there is a strange underlying logic – just as there is an underlying logic in dreams and hallucinations. I am not saying that viewers will be able to define that logic during or even after the performance, but they can probably acknowledge its existence.
One final reason to go is that this feels like a significant contribution to the iconography of Irish theatre and culture. Fouéré’s ALP is a clear example of woman as emblem, not just for the nation but also for the nighttime and the irrational. Just as Joyce’s words in Finnegans Wake explode outwards to have multiple possible meanings and resonances, so Fouéré’s body is at once ALP and Kathleen Ni Houlihan – not to mention Hester Swayne, Salome, Medea, Pegeen Mike, Lady Macbeth, and many others (and not just because Fouéré has herself played many of these roles). The fact that Fouéré is both speaking and embodying this character feels like a cultural shift – like a reclamation: she’s not just an object to be looked at or to represent something else, but is also the author of meaning.
So I abandoned myself to riverrun, and was very glad to have done so. I am sure that people with an advanced knowledge of the text will find it very rewarding, and it will also reward repeated viewing, I think. But in and of itself, riverrun is unlike anything else I have seen, fusing dance, literature, theatre, vocal performance, sound design, lighting, and the presence of the audience into a strangely novel experience.
There is a trailer for the production on Youtube, which gives some taste of what to expect.