James Joyce as a Tenor
By Oliver St. John Gogarty (Abelard Press, 1950)
SHELBOURNE ROAD is about two miles from the center of Dublin. It runs from Ballsbridge, past the Veterinary College and the wall of Beggar’s Bush Barracks, and ends at the busy intersection of the road to Irishtown. At the Ballsbridge end there is a laundry abutting on the River Dodder; at the other end, a pleasant public house. There are houses, all two stories, but on one side only. The other side is blanked by the barracks wall built of the black-gray Dublin limestone that seems always to be crumbling. It is a quiet road. The only traffic consists of the usual milk cart with its “gradual” horse, a laundry “float” or two and, now and then, the Sanitary Corporation’s scavenging cart full of liquid mud.
The long day is silent on Shelbourne Road; the quiet is suitable to a poet or a musician.
In Number 60, the only house in the road with a trellised porch, James Joyce hired a room in 1903, the large room on the first floor. It had two windows looking out on the wall of the barracks and was as broad as the width of the house. He also hired a grand piano from Piggot’s, the musical depot in Grafton Street. Very likely his uncle, who worked as a clerk in an attorney’s office and knew the ropes, had told him that he might count on six or seven weeks before the piano could be seized by Piggot and Sons for his failure to pay installments. And six weeks would give him time to practice for the National Song Festival, the Feis.
Meanwhile, the piano had to be installed. As tips were a consideration, it was decided that Joyce would be out at the time of the delivery. I, who was useful on such occasions, was told to watch from a vantage point and to report when all was clear. We were to meet at the end of the road.
All went well. The piano, legless in transition, was carried sideways through the door. After a considerable interval the men emerged and, gazing about for a while, lit their pipes and then reluctantly drove away empty handed. Joyce had won the first round. Six weeks later he won third place at the singing competition. He might have won first place in his class, but apparently sight reading embarrassed him even as a youth, though he never complained about his eyes to me. I never saw him wearing spectacles. However, he seldom took me into his confidence. He did inform me that he had thrown his prize-winning medal, a bronze one, into the River Liffey. It was useless for barter.
I heard him sing one morning when I called at Shelbourne Road. His voice was clarion clear and though high pitched was not at all strident. His build may have been too slight for a successful tenor. I remember John McCormack, whose career began with a victory at the Feis, telling me that he could not reduce below 224 pounds without a change in the quality of his voice.
Joyce was full of original ideas. He planned to have Dolmetch (sic) make him a lute. Then he planned to visit the coast towns of England during the summer holidays and there sing sea chanties and the old ballads of England. There is a letter written to me in 1904 in which he mentions this idea. It anticipated by forty years the balladists of the present day. One of his songs was:
He sang another about the Green Cuffs, a fifteenth-century regiment of militia:
I think the song actually ran, “The Green Cuffs is comin’ in.” Joyce was very particular about the text. It ended by a mention of a girl who must have been the first vivandière in history:
The newspapers gave Joyce good reviews of his singing at the Feis. He kept the clippings in his pocket until they were reduced to powder. He must have wanted them for advertisements of some sort to help his projected tour because he wrote to the poet, Seumas O’Sullivan, to send him some typewritten copies. He took care to parody O’Sullivan’s recently published poem, Praise. Joyce evidently was too proud to ask without the parody, which enabled him to feel more like a patron than a suppliant. Praise goes like this:
Joyce’s request in the form of a parody went:
His ear for rhythm was infallible. This is a very different thing from an ear for music. According to the French poet, José Maria de Herèdia, “La musique des poètes n’a aucun rapport avec la musique des musiciens.” Joyce was one of the comparatively few poets who were musical in the musician’s sense. Yeats was tone deaf; so by deduction was Byron; so was Burns; but Joyce was gifted with a double ear, exquisite in both faculties. His first volume of poetry, Chamber Music, is one proof. The other is his success as a singer.
Strange, almost incredible as it may seem now to his admirers, Joyce was more intent on becoming a singer than a writer. Although he competed at the Feis long before he conceived Ulysses, he was devoted all his life to music. This is borne out by the story of Joyce’s projection of himself into the person of Denis Sullivan, a prominent Irish-American tenor of the beginning of the century.
At the age of eight Sullivan left County Cork with his parents and emigrated to the United States. Later he toured Europe as a tenor and in due course his tour brought him to Dublin, where he sang in that empty booth which was called the Royal University. It was only a building where students from all parts of the country came for examinations in the subjects for which the Royal University held a charter. Joyce and I were both members of the University, although it had no dormitories and was unused most of the year. During the empty periods it was often rented out as an opera house. To this building in Earlsfort Terrace Denis Sullivan came. He sang in William Tell and attracted considerable notice even in Dublin by his achievement in taking a very high head note in that opera. He was a man of magnificent physique; but like many good singers, he was a bad actor.
While he was performing in Dublin I lost track of Joyce. I never connected Sullivan’s presence with Joyce’s absence. Little did I know that Joyce had found a hero who was not himself—at least, not directly; but as it transpired later, it was in the character of Denis Sullivan that Stephen Hero came into his own and dominated the scene. While Sullivan was being praised, Joyce was vicariously happy. When Sullivan’s star declined, Joyce raged, for he saw in the decline of his idol nothing less than a universal conspiracy of envy and ignorance, not unlike the conspiracy that he imagined was directed against himself. This persecution obsession is curious and should not be lost sight of in any psychological study of Joyce. He thought that Sullivan’s lack of success was an index of the blindness, or rather the deafness of the general public. Joyce attributed Sullivan’s failure to make the Scala in Milan to the apathy of Margaret Burke Sheridan, the most famous cantatrice of her time, who was the Scala’s principal artiste. When we discussed this matter she said to me, “Sullivan was not a man that one could do things for. He expected the Scala people to come to him.” She spoke almost apologetically, as if to justify her conduct against Joyce’s charges. Her need for justification I took to be evidence of Joyce’s persistence in what amounted to an idée fixe, one of his most prominent characteristics. Witness the unremitting labor he put into the writing of Ulysses when there was no hope of the manuscript ever seeing its way into print. He persisted in championing Denis Sullivan although the tenor had already found his level of success. Sullivan acquired a considerable income in the provinces, even if he did not appear in the greatest theatre of all.
Margaret Sheridan is a very generous soul. It was undoubtedly because of her influence that Sullivan was engaged for twelve operas in Covent Garden, London. But as Margaret Sheridan says, “You cannot build an opera on one head note.” Nevertheless, Sullivan was well advertised and the great day of his first appearance in Covent Garden drew near. As luck would have it, or perhaps because of the resources of the management, Their Majesties intimated that they would be graciously pleased to attend. Thus the first night of the opera became a “command performance,” and the theatre was duly packed by the loyal subjects of the King and Queen.
It is very difficult for Americans to realize the importance and significance of a “command performance” in London. Any actor who is held worthy to appear before the King and Queen is “made.” The management must have been in a dither and their sense of judgment upset for Sullivan’s performance. They chose Gli Ugonotti rather than William Tell. Perhaps Joyce was right for once, and there may have been a conspiracy against the American to prevent him from stealing the show with his high note in William Tell. It may be that they calculated that any note penetrating the royal heads would cause too favorable an impression and—with due reverence be it spoken—an undiscriminating or an insufficiently discriminating opinion in favor of an American, and an Irish-American to boot.
I like to think that anyone who appears on the stage before Their Majesties is “made,” for there is a remnant of the magical in this notion. The conductor of the orchestra or the director of the ballet would be persons better qualified to judge the merits of a performer rather than the King or Queen, who conceivably might be asleep; nevertheless, asleep or awake, the King is infallible in music and ballet. To him is attributed the “lucky eyeball” of an ancient Irish king in one of Yeat’s unpublished poems. Denis Sullivan had reached the summit of his success in Europe when he was “commanded” to appear. He would be beheld by the thousands, looking upon the same actor as Their Majesties. And appear he did. There was six feet two of him in that magnificent figure of a man. No matter how many Guards regiments Her Majesty had reviewed, here was the equal of any man in them. He broke into song. Before half the first act was over, Their Majesties graciously rose and left the royal box and Covent Garden. What an outrage and insult both to Ireland and America! Let no one deceive himself with the surmise that Their Majesties were not fully aware of the significance of their action. Wars have been caused by lesser insults. It is the business of Their Majesties to be aware of the importance of their simplest public actions. They are the English nation personified. They walked out on Ireland, America, and James Joyce. Joyce consequently came rushing from Paris. He entered Covent Garden Theatre in the middle of a performance and asked to see the manager. He was abusive and loud-mouthed. Margaret Sheridan was told to calm him; but he would listen to no entreaties. “You call this an opera? It is a W.C. (water closet),” he shouted. I am indebted to Miss Sheridan for this account. If I had been at the meeting, Joyce, I have no doubt, would have employed his favorite oath: “God eternally blast and damn!”
After the disastrous performance, Sullivan received the customary registered letter canceling the contract for the eleven operas he was to sing and his salary. Margaret Sheridan’s representations influenced the management to give Sullivan his contract fees, but they did not permit him to appear again. Considered from this point in time, it does look as if Joyce was partly right and that there was, at least in this instance, a conspiracy against Sullivan who was more or less Miss Sheridan’s nominee.
In Paris Joyce provided two rows of seats, paying for them out of his own pocket, for those who wished to hear him out and hear for themselves what a great singer the Fates were conspiring against. Joyce saw in Sullivan the victim of a fateful conspiracy. The truth was that Joyce himself was the Fate’s victim. He was treated badly by a Dublin publisher; “suppressor” would be perhaps a more appropriate name for “Maunsell’s manager.” But then Joyce was always treated badly by life, which threatened him with failing sight and darkness prematurely, turned him into a lonely antagonist and alienated from humanity the gigantic powers that he possessed. He got a bad deal from his father; and so it was all the more necessary that he compensate for the defections of his parent. To use the language of the psychiatrist, Joyce saw in Denis Sullivan a “father image,” and he saw himself as the Crowned One (Stephanos), the Hero he would be. He therefore installed Denis Sullivan in his restricted House of Fame along with Dante, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Ibsen, and himself visualized as Sullivan-Joyce.
Joyce was an unlovable and lonely man; but he willed his life. He was an artist deliberately and naturally, and for this he sacrificed everything, even his humanity. But he made a grave mistake in his conception of an artist. He imagined, filled as he was with ingrown French ideas, that an artist was someone detached from humanity—an observer, and an inhuman one at that. This dehumanization plus a lack of decent reticence (a trait of Dublin as well as of mental homes) and a persecution complex roused in him an indignation which enabled him to scrawl—as it were, on the dead walls of the city—the most indecent graffito of decadence ever written: his Ulysses. With it he smeared with farce the grandest story ever written in verse.
He had the wrong idea of an artist when he dressed himself as Arthur Rimbaud and sent post cards with his portrait from Paris to his friends—or rather to his acquaintances, for he would not acknowledge that anyone could be his friend.
He was the self-styled artist. In the great periods of production of imaginative forms there was no such thing as that. Phidias never knew he was an “artist;” neither did Praxiteles. While Leonardo da Vinci thought of himself as a military engineer.
Joyce was an ascetic. This statement may be as hard to accept as the statement that Joyce thought more of himself as a singer than as a writer; nevertheless, it is true. His rare bouts were part of his defiance and his rebellion against life. He never escaped from the prison built around him in Ireland, the mediaeval Church. It had made him an ascetic. I always felt that he was out of place when he dealt with love. There was something affected, tolerant, and artificial about the few love songs that he sang. He must have been influenced in favor of music by seeing it, as he did during his school years, as a part of the religious ritual which influenced him profoundly. There are tones and semi-tones and rhythms all through the prose of Ulysses that are echoes of church music, plain song and chant. These may be discounted. It is more the musique des poètes carried into writing, rather than the music of musicians, that concerns me.
Did he join in the chapel of his school? This is for those interested in his life to discover. Some day I expect to see a commentary of Joyce containing a list of all the mentions of music, song or dance. In his words the dance will come into the commentary because the compiler will have ascertained that Joyce practiced ballet dancing in Paris. I was glad to hear that Joyce did so; it is proof that he had snatched some hours of happiness from a life that treated him none too well, in spite of his fame. “To be happy is the chiefest prize,” the greatest lyric poet of all sang. And I like to think of Joyce when I knew him as a carefree student who had written Chamber Music before his nineteenth year and recited his poems to me in a garden near Glasnevin, or hired a grand piano to practice for the Feis. I think that he derived more happiness from his voice than from his writing.
Like Huysmans, Joyce might have been affected by the tenebrous terror of Church music, had there not been the earlier conditioning. He heard singing in his nursery and nature had endowed him with a musical ear. Thus the very susceptible stage of adolescence was not really a period of gloom for him. But instead of a musician he became a rebel, the first literary anarchist in Europe, and blasted and damned eternally all conventions. Anterior to all the stages of his life which brought him fame, however, was the period when he was Joyce the singer of carols, old ballads and sea chanties. All he wanted was a lute made by Dolmetch (sic) and the proper English audiences.